Temporary traffic lights are the bane of anyone trying to drive to their holiday destination, but traffic lights of a different kind were supposed to save summer 2020 for anyone selling holidays abroad.
For agents and operators trying to salvage some late summer sales, the government’s red/amber/green system highlighting ‘safe’ destinations has turned into a bit of a car crash.
Countries will be rated on infection rates, their test and trace system and reliability of official data. The traffic light system means travellers will be free to visit destinations deemed safe without quarantining on their return; a partial U-turn to the government’s initial quarantine plan that required all entrants to the UK (and therefore all returning holidaymakers) to isolate for 14 days. This ran for three weeks until 29 June, stifling any return to normal travel.
With an eye on newspaper headlines, an announcement that passengers from certain, unspecified destinations would not be required to quarantine was made at 10.30pm on 26 June; meaning the news slipped easily onto the front pages of Saturday’s papers, but without firm detail.
This detail was expected on Monday (29 June), but tweeting that evening, transport secretary Grant Shapps said only that he would announce a full list of countries from which arriving passengers would be exempted from self-isolation “later this week”. He also confirmed the FCO was reviewing its travel advice. It wasn’t quite the floodgate opening the industry had hoped for.
Tony Mann, owner of Idle Travel, expressed his frustration: “From what was a positive message last week it’s turned into a fiasco, because we still have no clarity. Bookings have slowed down. People were asking for prices in August over the weekend, but saying they would wait until Monday. Monday then didn’t happen.”
Mann criticised the government’s approach: “They’re drip-feeding information, but our industry has to plan; they can’t just leave us hanging on. They could have given us some countries they’d made a deal with; it’s so frustrating. Here in Yorkshire, agents were emailing each other to see if anyone had heard anything.”
Mann said he had started selling departures for late July and August in the past few weeks. “We’re honest with clients, I explain that FCO advice is against us and insurance currently invalid. Then we tell them what happens if they don’t go.
He added: “Owning a travel agency is like being on a roller coaster, but this is loop the loop.”
He is not alone: “We were all poised for Monday, then it was Wednesday,” said a Kuoni spokesperson. “We’re selling Europe, but most new bookings are for 2021. We are being cautious about selling 2020 anyway; at one point we were not quoting.”
The general air of confusion has dampened hopes of a July sales flurry.
“The expectation was that we were going to get some clear decision over the weekend. We got a lot of back peddling,” said David Skillicorn, Prestige Holidays’ commercial director. Prestige is still not booking holidays before August. “We thought that was realistic, I think it’ll be proved true.”
Another operator, which did not wish to be named, took the same approach: “At the moment we’re not selling Europe; we’re waiting to hear what the government is going to say. We are getting plenty of enquiries, they started over the weekend.” Another reason for a sales embargo, it added, was that levels of service in upmarket hotels could not be guaranteed at present.
Potential issues in-resort for the industry as a whole still have to be ironed out. Tui has confirmed it will offer all-inclusive holidays, which usually rely on buffet catering, but said only that self-service restaurant set-ups will be replaced with table service “in some cases”.
“Each of our properties will have a slightly different set-up because the regulations vary between destinations,” said a spokesperson.
The insurance question
Meanwhile, a huge grey area and potential spanner in the works is travel insurance. If an outbreak in, for example, Spain, makes the lights turn red, then the policies of clients who are already there become invalid, according to one major provider.
A spokesperson for tifgroup, which supplies many travel insurance brands, said: “At the moment, we are not aware of any policies that would cover that eventuality.
“The grey area is around cancellation and curtailment. If you’re in Spain and it becomes red and you had to stay in a hotel or come home early, there are no policies we are aware of that offer that kind of cover.”
He explained that as Covid was, in insurance terms, “a known event”, the industry was unwilling to provide such cover. “Nobody is touching it.”
It’s yet another issue that needs to be clarified.
Holiday types a factor
Some holiday types and destinations are bound to do better than others when travel resumes.
Florida is one that will struggle, because even if Trump’s travel ban is lifted and Florida’s rising Covid deaths abate, Orlando airport and nearby Sanford, which receives charter flights, are not approved by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to receive UK passengers.
Perhaps optimistically, Virgin Atlantic has a provisional date of 24 August for Orlando flights to resume.
In contrast, the villa sector is one that should do well. Simon Rowland, owner of Villa Retreats said interest had dropped off after the weekend, which saw “quite a lot” of social media enquiries, but he remained optimistic the market would improve.
He said bookings were being taken for the Algarve, despite it being on the UK government’s red list.
“We’ve started to see bookings and a low regard for the isolation issue wherever that is – people are taking the view that they can work from home on their return.”
Rowland said there was an issue with deferred bookings for 2021: “It’s causing trouble for next year, because properties are being taken, so we’re asking regular clients (of a particular property) to reserve.”
A white label option was being offered to agents. “We’ve had great interest,” he said.
Approving gateways to foreign countries depends on other nations agreeing to us travelling there and with Leicester in lockdown again, the doors could slam.
Greece doesn’t want us; at least until 15 July. Its government scuppered a quick return for UK visitors by extending the ban on UK flights, blaming our high level of Covid cases. This is entirely valid given the UK has recorded more than 300,000 cases and 44,000 deaths compared with Greece’s 3,376 cases and 191 deaths.
“We’re not surprised, it’s important for the UK to improve and drastically reduce the Covid-19 cases,” said Planet Holidays’ commercial and aviation director Harry Kyrillou, who said he had been “working towards the middle of July from a few months back” as the UK had been due to be in the second wave of nations readmitted unless its record improved.
He remains “cautiously optimistic”, despite the added problem of airline consolidation.
“Cancelling of certain dates on certain routes will give us and agents the added challenge of moving clients to different dates, or worst case scenario, forcing us to refund. At the end of the day, the client may not be as flexible as the flights now dictate,” he said.
It’s an issue that came to the fore as air corridors were being established. “We all knew airlines were going to be spilling aircraft out; consolidation is starting,” added Skillicorn. Changes to flights times, days and even airports, may trigger more refund demands. “This is not helping – and that’s before we even ask if the hotel is open.”
However, judging by the scenes on beaches at Bournemouth and Brighton, the longer picture looks optimistic. “If huge numbers of people will endure that, they’ll have no hesitation in going to Majorca, which won’t be anything like as crowded, “ Skillicorn added.
Hopefully, once all the issues are sorted, the queue behind those temporary traffic lights for foreign holidays will be a big one.