The government has been accused of failing to learn the lessons of last year’s travel corridor fiasco by removing Portugal from its green list at short notice and adding seven countries to the red list.
Agents say the changes, which come into effect on Tuesday June 8, are reminiscent of last summer and strengthen the industry’s case for sector-specific support.
The decision was widely trailed on Thursday and confirmed this evening, with Sri Lanka and Egypt among the seven countries moved to the red list.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “We are stuck in what can only be described as a travel déjà vu.
“We have been clear from the outset that countries falling off the list at short notice creates anxiety, confusion, dents consumer confidence and throws up huge operational challenges for travel agents and the industry.
“When Boris Johnson announced the UK’s roadmap to recovery, he stated that the approach would be ‘cautious but irreversible’. Clearly, the same approach has not been taken for international travel despite the work of the Global Travel Taskforce and its engagement with industry stakeholders.
“While the European Travel Commission launches its powerful marketing campaign Open Up to Europe supporting tourism in the region, we are left dealing with a government who seems to have forgotten its travel industry exists.
“As an industry we have collectively asked for a clear line of communication from government including transparency over the data; we are still not receiving timely, relevant information to support businesses on the brink of survival.
“Given the success of the vaccine rollout not just in the UK but in other nations, and ensuring that we follow scientific advice, it’s imperative that we start to unlock ambitiously and safely alongside the PM’s domestic roadmap.
“We need times and dates so businesses can make plans and start to inform customers of the safe choices available to them. We urge government to support our industry instead of demonising international travel with unnecessary barriers, complexities and costs. We need to reunite families kept apart and facilitate businesses to meet international clients.”
Barrhead Travel president Jacqueline Dobson said the announcement “further compounds the damage that has already been inflicted on the travel industry”.
“It’s disappointing for the industry and it will be a hammer blow to the thousands of travellers who haven’t seen family or loved ones for months on end and those holidaymakers who are already abroad,” she said.
“At the drop of a hat the government has determined that these changes are required without meaningful consultation with the industry and without due consideration for the consequences. We have long been at the stage where a genuine, tangible route map out of this crisis is required. Sadly, it appears that this is not forthcoming and instead we hurtle from one disastrous announcement to another.
“We know that public health has to come first but the travel industry needs to see a clear roadmap to recovery or risk further permanent damage. Across the world, international travel is beginning to safely restart and, without imminent timelines in place for the UK, we risk falling well behind our global counterparts.”
Dobson said the industry was expecting “at the very least, the promised green watchlist tier” which she said would have “made for a softer transition and helped to keep confidence afloat for travel”.
She added: “As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will ensure our customers are provided with the assistance they require. However, engagement with the industry on this point is of paramount importance. It is simply unsustainable to continue lurching from one contradictory announcement to the other without meaningful consultation with the industry beforehand.”
Travel trade union the TSSA lambasted the government for failing to support travel agencies as Portugal comes off the green list, and reiterated its previous calls for bespoke sector support.
Travel industry needs ‘bespoke support’
General secretary Manuel Cortes said: “We were all hoping to see more holiday destinations moving into the green list and none more so than the high street travel agencies who have suffered the hardest 16 months in living memory thanks to this Covid-19 pandemic.”
Accusing the government of failing to learn the lessons of last year’s travel corridor fiasco, Cortes added: “This is the last thing our struggling high street travel agencies needed. Summer 2020 was a nightmare of holidays cancelled at the last minute, the ‘safe’ list changing daily and sometimes hourly.”
“The government needs to sit up and pay attention. Travel agencies cannot go on booking and cancelling holidays without support. If the industry is to survive then the government needs to step in and offer travel agents bespoke support as it has done with other industries such as hospitality and rail. Otherwise there’s a very real risk we will not have a travel industry left when this pandemic is done.”
Cortes said the government has “bungled” the decision, leaving “chaos” for “holidaymakers who went abroad in good faith” but who now could face a 10-day quarantine.
Andy Tomlinson, managing director of Sutton Travel, described the news as “absolutely devastating” for the industry and called for increased support for the travel sector as he suggested the move was part of a government strategy to keep money in the UK.
He said: “So much for being led by the science. It’s clear that the government wants every holiday pound being spent in the UK this summer, to recover some money to pay for furlough, grants, PPE and other costs associated with the pandemic.
“I understand that, but don’t completely take the mickey out of the travel, aviation, cruise and overseas tourism sectors, and the hundreds of thousands who work in this field.
“Just admit what your game plan is and start offering some extra targeted financial support for a sector which has been on its absolute knees for 15 months.
“This was the plan all along: put one popular destination (Portugal) on the green list for a few weeks, then remove it straight away; screw up everyone’s best-made plans and make everyone think it’s too risky to book an overseas holiday anywhere this summer.”
Amanda Matthews, owner of Designer Travel, tweeted to transport secretary Grant Shapps saying: “Please tell me how many people who have flown in from green and amber countries have gone on to test positive on their return? With all of the rigorous testing in place my guess it’s zero! That’s why it’s not headline. I can’t express how disappointed I am.”
Phil Nuttall, managing director of The Travel Village, said: “It’s a total and utter mess. I fully appreciate concerns over variants but surely we have to trust the vaccinations.
“The government has told us that double jabs are the way out of this.”
He added: “The traffic light system was never going to work. A simple red and green list with the caveat that ‘no jab = no travel’ is the way forward this summer, and would at least meant we all know where we stand.
“You can’t please everyone, but at the moment they aren’t pleasing anyone.”
Nuttall also suggested the government increases capacity for ex-UK cruises, which he argued do not run the risk of variants being introduced from overseas.
“That’s a win-win for everyone,” he said. “If they are taking with one hand, they must give with the other.”
Kate Harris, of Inspired Travel, expressed her frustration when she said she had recently booked a family of six to Portugal and “nearly made £450”.
“Not to be,” she said. “Now I’ll pay bank charges to refund [and have] no income to pay [my] bounce-back loan.
“I’m a director, so no financial help.”
She urged the government: “Try and make a decision and stick to it.”
Jason Oshiokpekhai, managing director of travel agency group Global Travel Collection UK, said the lack of green list additions “represents a grave set of consequences for the industry”, and called for a globally co-ordinated and recognised system for international travel.
“It is absolutely vital that we prepare a collaborative approach to allow passengers to seamlessly transition between destinations above the safety threshold. Government requirements (such as certificates, tracking measures, forms) must be agreed at an international level where all processes and policies are aligned and coherent for the travel advisor and as well as the traveller.”
Oshiokpekhai said this could be a digital solution, led primarily by the countries further ahead in terms of their vaccine rollouts.
Martin Ferguson, vice-president of public affairs at business travel agency American Express Global Business Travel, said “the entire travel industry, across business and leisure, rightly feels exasperated”.
He added: “The government has a tough job, but the entire travel supply chain needs better clarity and more action.
“We expect international travel and trade will be on the G7 agenda next week. The UK government must use its presidency to lead international collaboration on globally-accepted digital travel certification standards that will enable the safe reopening of vital international trade routes.”