The article below was written by Pauline Guénot, a member of WA’s Investor Services practice.
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that on 3 June there was “nothing in the data” to suggest a delay to the 21 June reopening target will be necessary, hopes of holidays abroad are still stymied by both testing and quarantine requirements, potentially jeopardising the recovery of the travel industry.
The UK is currently operating a three-tier “traffic light” system for international arrivals, which is reviewed every three weeks. Arrivals from countries in the red list require a 10-day hotel quarantine, while those from countries on the amber list are required to quarantine at home for 10 days and book tests for the second and eighth days. Arrivals from the green list – which presently includes only 12 territories – need not quarantine but are still required to take a test on the second day post-arrival.
Key barriers facing travellers
Ongoing restrictions to international travel will exacerbate the economic damage which the pandemic has done to the travel and aviation industry. According to the ONS, it has been the worst affected by the pandemic, with a fall to its lowest turnover rate in May 2020, at just 26% of February levels, compared with 73.6% in all other industries. The Minister responsible for tourism, Nigel Huddleston, has claimed that the government’s response to the travel industry crisis has been “immense” but, as yet, there is little sign of a sustained upswing in the industry’s fortunes, as the additional hassle Covid protocols entail continuing to deter travellers.
Firstly, the testing system has drawn criticism for its cost – up to £378 for the two tests for one individual. The government has been called upon to cap it to £50 by the Institute of Travel and Tourism, and to scrap the VAT on tests as a means of promoting the travel and aviation industry’s recovery. But the issues of testing go beyond cost. Private laboratories are already overwhelmed and travellers face delays in getting their results, demanding more flexibility around arrivals and departures. This problem is likely to be magnified if the green list is expanded in the coming months. Travel insurance has thus become a hot topic, and some travel companies might also offer packages including testing to ease travellers’ minds, like TUI which has partnered with Chronomics to offer the service from £20.
Industry experts have warned that summer holidays be thrown into further chaos by hours-long queues in airports created by onerous health checks at borders both upon arrival and departure. In response to lengthy waiting times, Heathrow Airport has pledge to lay on more staff and upgrade its passport e-gates, but such improvements will not be available until autumn 2021 at the earliest.
One of the key problems with the three tier “traffic light” system is that it cannot provide the certainty necessary to book holidays abroad very far in advance. The classification is guided by the analysis of factors including the country’s rate of infection, the prevalence of variants of concern, and the access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing. As a result, countries can move rapidly between the lists, in both directions; Portugal had only been added to the green list for a few weeks before being removed. The Nepal variant spreading in Europe is also currently making the headlines, threatening the green list’s expansion.
Towards a global understanding around Covid-19 certificates?
Before booking a trip to a country on the green list, British travellers must consider the entry requirements of their destinations, as well as the requirements for their arrival back in the UK.
The European Union has implemented a digital certificates system; travellers demonstrating vaccination, a recent negative PCR test or immunity from past infections are exempt from travel restrictions within the EU. If they succeed in reaching an agreement with the UK, British tourists could enjoy European trips as the continent’s restrictions are due to be lifted by the end of the month. Nevertheless, individual EU member states can still set their own rules when facing a deteriorating health situation or a new variant. For example, France and Austria recently tightened restrictions to prevent the Delta variant detected in India from spreading: a negative PCR test or a proof of vaccination is no longer sufficient to cross these borders. Over the summer, however, countries relying on tourism might not be so strict. Greece, Cyprus and Portugal are already open to British tourists, with Spain due to follow.
When it comes to crossing the Atlantic, the G7 summit taking place in London this month might answer that question. Boris Johnson will attempt to negotiate a quarantine-free air corridor with the US aiming at exempting vaccinated Americans from self-isolating upon arrival in the UK, in the hope of a reciprocal agreement for British citizens flying to the US. If he is successful, the current restrictions would be lifted in early July, allowing both British and American citizens to travel. However, the US administration has proven to be reluctant to lift the travel ban, arguing that prioritizing countries with a successful vaccination programme would send the wrong message to developing countries benefitting from the Covax scheme.
Holidaymakers must therefore remember that for travel to be possible, a reciprocal agreement between countries has to be reached. While Australia is on the UK’s green list, for example, limitations in place by the Australian government still prevents British nationals from landing on their territory. Furthermore, travel regulations are highlighting broader political motivations: the United Kingdom had to consider different variables, not least its hoped-for bilateral trade agreement, before placing India on the red list.
A digital and sustainable model of tourism ahead?
Electronic Covid passports along the lines of those currently operating in the EU might be the first illustration of a more digital model of tourism. As a result of Brexit, summer 2021 will be the last time that EU citizens will be able to travel to the UK with their identity cards (rather than their passports). Priti Patel confirmed that the new requirements would take effect from October onwards.
She also plans to introduce an Electronic Travel Authorization system, similar to the ESTA in the US. Also being considered by the EU, the ETA would see all visitors without a visa or immigration status charged a fee, and would be in place from 2025. As yet, the government has not given an indication of how much the system will cost each visitor.
A longer-term impact?
Ongoing restrictions and changeable regulatory requirements may mean that the travel industry does not recover to anything like 2019 levels of activity much before 2023, so pressures on the traditional approaches to mass-market tourism will remain even when the immediate trauma of the pandemic recedes. This may compound longer term trends of heightened environmental awareness about both the impact of air travel, and the impact of large numbers of visitors in potentially sensitive ecological areas.
Business travel will inevitably change as well, with virtual conferences becoming much more commonplace and, where necessary, longer trips blending work and leisure activities seen as the norm. Investors will want to pay close attention to such developments in order to stay ahead of what promises to be a rapidly evolving picture.