2020 was a bad year for wannabe globetrotters. As stay at home orders were issued across the globe, and ‘lockdown’ entered the lexicon, we all had to get used to the fact we weren’t going anywhere any time fast. That gap year backpacking through South America, or even just the family holiday to Spain, would need to be put on ice. Even as life has edged back towards normality, and restrictions on our social lives have eased, foreign travel has remained a complicated subject. On one hand, the vaccine rollout has been a huge success in many countries, meaning holidays abroad are no longer an absolute no-no. On the other hand, anyone wishing to travel in 2021 has had to navigate a confusing jumble of rules and restrictions.
In the UK, countries were placed on the ‘green’, ‘amber’ and ‘red’ lists, with the colours indicating the degree of restrictions on travel. The government came under flak for regularly changing the rules, not to mention moving countries from one list to another with very little notice.
Notably, travellers in green-list Portugal faced a frantic scramble to the airport when they heard it was moving to the amber list. The rule change meant they would face an unexpected ten-day quarantine on their return, plus the cost of two PCR tests. For many people biding their time back home, this became something of a cautionary tale and a real impediment to booking a foreign holiday.
“The pandemic has had a devastating impact on international travel,” says Sean Tipton, spokesperson for ABTA – The Travel Association. “At one stage, the British government said it was actually illegal for people to take a foreign holiday. Business was down by over 90% in 2020. And this year, even though we have been able to go on holiday since July, we’re running probably at about 25% of a normal year.”
People have been concerned, he says, about countries moving from the amber or green list on to the red list, which requires returning travellers to fork out upwards of £2,000 for a ‘quarantine hotel’. The costs of PCR tests, which can run into the hundreds, have also been prohibitive for many people.
The upshot is that the travel industry has had an extraordinarily tough couple of years. Many companies have gone bust, with others staying afloat thanks only to the furlough scheme and mass redundancies.
“In the UK, travel agents and tour operators haven’t had a penny of targeted assistance,” laments Tipton. “I think we’re going to see quite a few more travel companies going out of business before things get back to normal, because you can’t have two years of very little revenue and that have no impact at all.”
Other countries have had their own, similarly labyrinthine, system of restrictions, with many EU countries implementing their own country colour codes. American citizens have found it easier to visit Europe than the other way round, while Australia and New Zealand have achieved low rates of Covid-19 by effectively closing their borders.
According to a report by the Travel Analytics branch of UBS, each country has an average of 350 travel restrictions in place (relating to medical, mobility, nationality, and visa changes) with China, at 981, in first place.