The transport secretary’s announcement of traffic light categories for overseas travel has prompted a mixed response from travel agents.
Dame Irene Hays, chair of Hays Travel – the UK’s largest independent travel agent – said the announcement was a “positive move forward”.
“This is another small step towards people being able to go on holiday, when and where it’s safe to do so,” she said.
“Our shops all over the UK have been at their busiest since the pandemic began this week, helping our customers to book a holiday for this summer or next.
“With this clear guidance now and reviews in three weeks – and Covid tests priced from £20 – thousands of families are going to be able to enjoy a holiday this summer.”
However, Gary Lewis, chief executive of The Travel Network Group consortium of agents, said: “Whilst we understand the need to keep the UK safe from new and emerging variants, the latest steps to restart travel bring little comfort to those who work in the travel industry.
“We welcome the three-week review to continually update the green list and we hope the government will quickly provide the green watchlist, giving us real data on what constitutes a country moving between the categories.
“Only then will customers have the confidence to start booking in anticipation of countries moving from amber to green.
“It is clear this cautious approach underlines the specific sector support our industry needs to navigate the next six months, where the travel industry remains in effect locked down.”
He reiterated his call for more financial support for the travel sector and wanted the government to focus on cutting the cost of testing and ensuring that the electronic certification enables far quicker waiting times through airports and ports.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive at the Advantage Travel Partnership consortium, said: “We had hoped for a more extensive ‘green list’ that would allow the industry to gradually and safely reopen ahead of the summer period.
“While there are 12 countries on this list, we have to remember that some of these destinations that have been classified as green won’t allow British travellers in or require hotel quarantine on arrival, or there are no direct flight routes which means transiting through a red or amber country.
“However, with the addition of Portugal including Madeira to the UK government’s ‘green list’, this gives us some positive news ahead of the summer period but is not as big a step as we were hoping for.”
She added: “Grant Shapps clearly has a skewed vision of how consumers are going to plan their holidays this year, and in fact he may have underestimated the critical role that a trusted travel agent will now play in this new travel landscape, and there are new considerations for travel agents and their customers to think about.
“Whether this is adequate insurance cover, affordable and reliable testing, adhering to different destination’s entry requirements and ensuring customers have financial protection – a flexible, trusted travel agent will be able to guide their customers through this new world of travel.
“We hope that there is more consistency and transparency this year when it comes to destinations remaining on the list to prevent the yo-yo effect we saw last year and the operational fallout that this caused for the industry.”
The Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA) welcomed the announcement of the green countries for England “as long as Scotland follows suit”.
Joanne Dooey, president of the SPAA, said: “The final meeting of the Scottish government Aviation Working Group was a constructive one, with positive news that the chief medical officers in Scotland were in agreement that that all four nations should move forward together.
“We now fervently hope that Scotland’s first minister will follow suit next week, giving the green light to travel, for all reasons, to the countries unveiled by Grant Shapps, and that the Scottish restart will be concurrent with that across the rest of the UK.”
She echoed the TTNG concerns about the cost of testing, saying: “Our position remains that the cost of testing – particularly the requirement for a PCR test for each traveller on return to the UK – is too high and that affordable testing in the form of antigen and lateral flow is needed.
“However, travel agents, who have had nothing to sell and no one to sell to for over a year now, will be in a position to advise and guide their clients to where and how they can travel.
“We anticipate that those travelling to visit family, for business purposes or for a long-awaited holiday will welcome today’s news and will have confidence to book trips.
“However, it’s important that travellers understand that the green light countries may have their own specific requirements for travellers in addition to the UK’s testing requirements.”
Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, said the agency chain was “very disappointed” that the green list has many more destinations that are impractical to visit than those that could be visited restriction-free.
And she echoed the call from the SPAA for clarity about Scotland’s position.
“Without Scotland’s commitment to come into line with the UK government approach, the Scottish travel industry risks further setbacks,” she said.
“With airports such as Manchester and Newcastle both within striking distance for Scottish holidaymakers, many will likely take the decision to cross the border to travel, leaving our airports and global connectivity exposed to further damage.
“Customers will be disheartened there are not more destinations available to travel to – particularly those who have plans to reunite with family or loved ones. There is a significant pend-up demand for travel of all types and there will be real disappointment from many today.
“With so many complexities and changing guidance, it is important to book with a reputable travel agent who can not only provide financial protection and flexible booking but who can guide you through the new travel experience.
“Our stores are now open throughout the UK and we’re really looking forward to helping customers with their travel plans.”
Steve Witt, co-founder of homeworking agency group Not Just Travel, said ‘Green Friday’ has proved to be a ‘green light’.
“Our phones have lit up and there is a frenzy of activity. Our consultants are all over social media, updating customers and taking enquiries,” he said.
“They plan to work late into the night and throughout the weekend to assist customers find the best deals.
“We would love to see more countries on the green list, but there are a number of great destinations on there. Portugal is a firm favourite and Iceland, often seen as just a winter destination, is a gem of a place throughout the year.
“Bookings to the green list countries are forecast to break sales records over the next 48 hours and weeks ahead.”
Despite the widespread disappointment of many in the trade, John Bevan, chief executive of dnata Travel Group – parent of Travel Republic, Travelbag, Netflights, Sunmaster and trade-only tour operator, Gold Medal – welcomed the cautious approach of the government.
“It’s sensible to aim to limit the volume of travellers so we can monitor the prevalence of incoming variants, and also to set out to avoid a return of what we experienced last year when destinations were opened and then closed again at short notice,” he said.
“We hope that now these destinations are open, they stay that way – and more can be added at the next review.
“We’ve seen searches and enquiries for these destinations rise dramatically in the last few days as rumours of what would be classified as ‘green’ circulated.”
Jason Oshiokpekhai, managing director of homeworking group Global Travel Collection UK, said: “The government continues to bypass the business travel industry as a unique and valuable stream of travel.
“We have been completely disregarded as a sector. Business travellers span a wide range of industries and economies.
“It is imperative that the business travel sector is considered for quarantine exemption with proof of a negative test or vaccine protection.
“It is critical that key business travel routes between the UK and US are accessible to resume vital projects that benefit businesses, industries, jobs and the economy in the UK.”