These are desperate times for the travel industry, a sector that supports 2.5 millions livelihoods in the UK, and countless more abroad. Having endured a miserable year, hopes were high that 2021, helped by the rollout of the vaccine, would see a return to something approaching normality. Instead, thanks to strict new testing rules, the scrapping of the travel corridors list, and the introduction of quarantine hotels for arrivals from 33 “red list” countries, Britons have never been more fenced in.
“We were promised that this vaccine would be the route back to normal,” says Alice Gully, co-owner of Aardvark Safaris, which, in an ordinary year, sends travellers to more than a dozen African destinations. “They said that once the vulnerable were protected we could open everything up, but now it feels like they are just penalising us even more. At least last year people could get away – to Europe, and some people even managed trips to Africa – but now there’s nothing.”
Gully’s frustrations are understandable – she has battled for a year to keep her company afloat, leaking cash while convincing an impressive 96 per cent of her customers to postpone their trips, rather than cancel – and many in the travel industry share them. Indeed, this week has seen more than 500 companies sign up to the new Save Our Summer campaign, urging the Government to lift travel restrictions by the end of May, and telling the public to ignore ministers and book their breaks now.
“Travel has been completely demonised,” she says. “To go on holiday to most places now you have to be tested four times – once before you depart, once to return, and then twice more when you’re back in the UK – and now they are making people quarantine in a hotel room for 10 days – even if every test is negative. Even if you’ve been vaccinated! It’s crazy.”
The shackles might be eased in the coming months, of course, but Gully isn’t particularly optimistic, especially when it comes to long-haul travel.
“Who knows? Certainly there won’t be any holidays before April, and I’m hesitant to make predictions about the summer. I’m just hoping that the Government finds sufficient evidence that the vaccine offers protection against these variants they are so scared of, or that travel corridors will start to open up again. Places leading the way on vaccinations, like the Seychelles, might be among the first options.”
The Seychelles recently said it would welcome all travellers who have had both doses of an approved vaccine, and that once its own population has been vaccinated – which may only take a couple of months – anyone can visit. Gully thinks the policy, which is likely to be copied by other countries, is “logical”, and urged the UK to produce vaccine certificates so inoculated Britons can take advantage.
Seychelles plans to vaccinate 70% of its adults by mid-March 2021, and will open its borders to all visitors with a negative PCR test. Currently on the UK government's red list, let's hope we see some sense from our bureaucrats by then (Photos @NorthIslandSEZ pic.twitter.com/qqEOoUYU1Q
— Aardvark Safaris (@aardvarksafaris) February 17, 2021
As for travel to Africa, she fears we might be waiting for some time.
“It feels like Africa has been penalised the whole way through this crisis,” she says. “It was shunned when the travel corridors were being handed out, and now the whole of sub-Saharan Africa has been put on the red list despite very low case rates.
“It feels like there’s definitely an element of discrimination. I know African countries aren’t testing as many people as the UK, but their death rates are really low and all the people I’ve spoken to who have travelled to the region have said they feel more secure arriving in an African airport than they do at Heathrow.”
She adds that countries like Rwanda “had hand sanitiser stations on the street before they’d even seen a single case”, and that most African countries were embracing testing for travellers long before the UK. The South African variant is a concern, of course, but Gully points out that the vaccines being rolled out are believed to prevent serious illness among those who contract it, and says that cases in the country have tailed off in recent weeks anyhow. “There are plenty of mutations here in the UK, so perhaps African countries should be more worried about us visiting,” she adds.
Gully’s company offers trips to much of southern Africa, from classic safari destinations such as Kenya and Botswana to more off-beat options like Ethiopia and Mozambique, giving her a clear picture of the impact that a lack of tourists is having on the continent.
“South Africa has a decent domestic travel market, which helps, while Botswana has good guide support programmes, but places like Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia are really struggling.
“It’s devastating. There are few good companies out there doing what they can to pay and feed their staff, but people are in survival mode. Poverty is on the rise, and as people look for other ways to feed their families, it has a knock-out effect on the animals and ecosystem. That might mean a rise in subsistence poaching, or growing crops in protected areas.
“I get really wound up about how the travel is being treated when you consider the amount of good it does, both for you and the people on the ground. If Boris could come on one of our safaris, and see how much tourism funds in these communities, from education and sport to wildlife conservation, he’d realise that it’s not just a holiday.”
Her other suggestions for the PM and his colleagues include more financial support for holidays businesses, the hiring of an adviser with working knowledge of the tourism industry – and an end to its overcautious approach when it comes to travel.
“Once we get to the end of March, and the vulnerable are vaccinated, we need to let people make their own decisions about travel – enough of the nanny state. Yes, viruses mutate, but with testing we can minimise the risk, and these draconian jail terms and quarantine hotels just aren’t sustainable. We are going to have to live with it, so we need to get the economy moving. It’s the difference between living and existing, you work hard to go on holiday, see your friends, you can’t just all sit at home all day eating and watching TV – that’s not life.”