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Government travel restrictions are ‘another knock to UK reputation’

Government policies are continuing to hamper the travel trade’s ability to recover from the pandemic – while the sector is still dealing with post-Brexit problems.

That was the message from a panel of travel and tourism bosses during Abta’s Travel Matters online conference on Tuesday.

Luke Petherbridge, Abta’s director of public affairs, said the industry had come together during the pandemic, in the form of the Save Future Travel Coalition, but it still needs the government to engage with them.

One key problem is the fact that issues fall under different government departments and he called for the inter-ministerial council to address these challenges.

“There are too many silos and not enough appreciation of what other departments are doing,” he said.

He also hoped the inter-ministerial council could tackle post-Brexit issues such as the movement of workers across Europe

“The pandemic has diverted attention from mobility and employment,” he told the online event, saying 20,000 workers used to travel to Europe from the UK to work in tourism.

“There is a risk of damage to our reputation if we cannot travel,” he said, adding that the government talks about its ambitions for ‘global Britain’.

Mike Tibbert, vice-president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), agreed that the government’s handling of international travel had hit the UK’s standing overseas.

He pointed to the coverage of issues such as five-hour queues at airports and mixing with passengers from red list countries.

“Brexit has damaged our reputation for being an open, welcoming and tolerant destination. This [travel policies] has meant another knock to our reputation,” he said.

He also called for clarity about vaccination certificates and mutual recognition to ensure reciprocal agreements across borders.

Joss Croft, UKinbound chief executive, agreed that the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates was needed to open up travel – but warned there is a short window of opportunity to restart inbound tourism.

He said the recent UK Tourism Recovery Plan was like the curate’s egg with “a lot of good stuff but a lack of detail about actions on the inbound side”.

Croft said competitor destinations are opening up their borders while the UK is losing £70 million a day in exports – and tourism is the fifth largest export industry in UK.

Dr Joanne Stuart, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance, highlighted the particular issues in Northern Ireland, which is still in the single European market.

Its tourism sector faces problems with different requirements either side of the border for documents such as passports, as well as a skills shortage because of immigration issues.

During an earlier session, Isabel Hardman, assistant editor of the Spectator, highlighted how the government was still failing in its handling of many aspects of the pandemic, “causing huge grief” for the travel sector.

Commenting on the text message that former advisor Dominic Cummings received from Boris Johnson, describing health secretary Matt Hancock as “totally hopeless”, she said: “There is some truth in that phrase, not only for Matt Hancock but the government more widely.”

She highlighted the lack of transparency and confusion over policies such as the travel traffic light system, saying there have been “hasty decisions” – and MPs do not understand the travel industry properly.

“We have been in this [pandemic] for a long time now and the government has not formed good habits,” she said.

“There is a lack of consultation and certainty on all sorts of things that affect travel.

“I don’t think there is an excuse any more.”

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