Despite advances with vaccines, the UK still has a long road ahead before travel can restart in earnest. James Chapple assesses the situation.
There’s been much talk of late of a “roadmap” out of the Covid crisis, but how exactly do you plot a course when the route ahead is not just changing, but actively fighting back?
The emergence of a more transmissible Covid variant in December clearly set the UK’s recovery back, particularly with regards to travel – although few would have had “government ad campaign promoting the illegality of holidays” on their 2021 Covid bingo cards.
For his part, prime minister Boris Johnson did last month promise a lockdown exit plan by 22 February starting – at the earliest – from 8 March with the reopening of schools. Not long after the February issue of TTG went to press, plans were announced for the government’s protracted hotel quarantine policy, which came into effect on Monday 15 February.
Abta has had a couple of stabs at a Covid roadmap, the first in June last year, while Aito and the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA) have had a go too in recent weeks.
Abta is seeking tailored support that recognises the unique regulatory challenges travel faces, the extension of financial mechanisms such as furlough and rates relief to avoid a “cliff-edge” scenario and a plan to rebuild consumer confidence.
Aito’s effort calls on government to make it clear that while people can’t currently travel, they can still book, while the SPAA wants to know how Scotland’s “hard-won” air routes will be protected.
All are unequivocal, though, in their support for measures to contain the epidemic and guard against new variants that could undermine the vaccination programme, with the public still strongly supportive of tough border controls.
When YouGov polled 1,700 British adults last month (18-19 January), 92% said they supported pre-departure testing for UK arrivals, 87% hotel quarantine and 64% a ban on all international flights. Kuoni chief Derek Jones flagged the research on Twitter, warning travel professionals not to risk provoking public ire by pushing too hard, too soon for a resumption.
The Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) decision to ban Ryanair’s Jab & Go campaign underlines why travel can’t afford to get carried away with the success of the UK’s vaccination programme, or over-promise on when travel may restart and what that experience might be like.
The budget carrier’s ads, which attracted nearly 2,400 complaints, showed groups of 20- and 30-somethings enjoying their getaways, free of the constraints of social distancing and face coverings.
A voiceover added: “Vaccines are coming, so book your Easter and summer holiday today with Ryanair… so you could jab and go.” In its ruling, the ASA said the ads “misleadingly provided consumers with a reassurance that being vaccinated against Covid-19 was likely to allow them to go on holiday without restrictions”.
There was also a chilling warning for travel: “It’s important all travel companies take particular care, at a time of significant uncertainty about when lockdown restrictions will end, not to mislead or over-exaggerate when it will be possible for people to go on holiday.”
YouGov’s data also points towards a slower restart for travel than was forecast even a month ago; just 12% of respondents said they planned to get away in the next six months – domestically or internationally.
Despite this, UK accommodation providers have reported soaring interest. Cottages.com took more than 8,000 bookings over the weekend of 30-31 January after health secretary Matt Hancock said people could look ahead to “a happy and free great British summer”.
Bookings on Sunday 31 January were up 20% on the firm’s best day ever, recorded last June, with nearly half of all new bookings for July and August. Sykes Holiday Cottages, meanwhile, said UK holiday searches for July and August were up 129% year-on-year in the week of 25-31 January.
This echoes the findings of TTG’s first Travel Agent Tracker surveys of the year. In the two weeks to 22 January, the number of agents reporting bookings for autumn 2021 and winter 2021/22 were up significantly on the previous fortnight, while spring and summer bookings were down 6% and 9% respectively, Summer 2021, nonetheless, remains the most commonly booked travel season.
But while it’s possible to envision the resumption of domestic tourism this summer, and European short-haul holidays, long-haul is an altogether murkier prospect. Indeed, after suspending operations last March, adventure specialist Tucan Travel – an otherwise viable business – concluded earlier this month the challenge ahead was insurmountable.
Chief executive Matt Gannan said it was with a heavy heart the company would be placed into administration, with no prospect of “normal international leisure travel until 2022”.
Government’s inability, or reluctance, to grasp the intricacies of selling and operating travel over the past year must undoubtedly change if Tucan is to be the last to suffer this fate. Ministers must, as a matter of urgency, engage travel, provide the financial and structural support it needs to protect businesses and jobs and guarantee a vibrant future for the UK’s outbound travel industry.