The situation is fluid. We know that a large part of Europe – effectively most of the Europe that travel agents and tour operators deal with in the UK – is now open for business.
The difficulty lies with the Home Office’s decision on 8 June to impose quarantine measures on all countries outside the Common Travel Area. The UK was introducing travel restrictions just as the rest of Europe was easing theirs. How these are being lifted is still unclear.
The restrictions in Europe were a product of national governments exercising their right to close their borders. The easing of them is a mixture of commercial necessity (Italy, Spain, Portugal and France know they need tourism) and international pressure.
The European Commission is passionate in seeing the recreation of Schengen as a borderless entity. For the Union to be valid, intra-European movement had to be re-established. The easing of the lockdown means that commuters can move between countries, and the tourism industry are given a “domestic” market of more than 400 million people.
In the UK, the rules were introduced to “reduce the risk of cases crossing our border”. This was backed by the slogan: “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives”. No other evidence to support the measure was provided.
How far this was an attempt by the Home Office to put its fingerprints on the Covid-19 story will emerge with the inevitable public enquiry. The central proposition was audacious: these controls (which rendered everything foreign toxic) would only be lifted for countries with a lower infection rate than the UK.
We would only not quarantine arrivals from countries who ought to be quarantining visitors from the UK. It added new spin to the reputational damage the UK has suffered. We have not had a good Covid-19. This signalled that it was not likely to change.
For those trying to sell the UK as a destination, it placed a lock on what was already a desperate situation. Last month we canvassed our members on the chance of a recovery: 25% felt that it would take place in the last quarter of this year. After all, much of the record bookings that were taken prior to March were for the peak period September-October; these bookings were still intact, they are now starting to drop.
Some good may come of this. Opportunities will present themselves to the fastest, most enterprising entrepreneurs. The more gormless assertions concerning “over tourism” will be revealed as can’t. Tourism’s importance as the lifeblood of the civic economy will be revealed.
Tour operators will have a vital role: intermediaries add most value when sales are hard. And sales will be very hard indeed. But, above all, tour operators sell their ability to plan.
All plans are on hold. They await the decision of the Home Office. We are running a consumer service in a command economy. All we can do is react to each rumour, spin and leak. It is not a good fluid.
Tom Jenkins is chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA)