Brits head South for summer break as UK ends months-long ban on leisure travel
For almost a year, Josh Scullion has been chasing the sunshine.
The 32-year-old bank worker from Teesside, England, originally booked a package holiday to Mexico in July 2020 with his fiancee Kellie and their newborn daughter.
That trip was cancelled by tour operator TUI AG due to a coronavirus flare-up at the destination. A rescheduled Christmas break in the Canary Islands with extended family was nixed by UK lockdowns prompted by a fast-spreading mutation of the disease.
In February, Scullion gambled on a new plan. His flight scheduled for Thursday to Portugal’s coastal Algarve region turned out to be perfectly timed for the lifting of the UK’s months-long ban on leisure travel. Barring an unforeseen twist, his family will be among the first Brits to break free for warmer climes after being penned up all winter.
“It was definitely worth the added stress,” Scullion said. “We have to learn to try to get back to normal. Once I’ve done this once, I’ll have the confidence to travel again.”
After a year of false starts, rogue virus strains and vaccine drama, Brits are finally able to travel again, if only to a handful of “green list” destinations that won’t require quarantine on return. It won’t be easy, and the restart may yet be reversed -- especially if the government can’t contain a fresh outbreak of cases involving a virus strain that’s wreaked havoc in India.
But the UK’s success in bringing down infection rates, combined with progress that’s led European sun-spots like Portugal and Italy to also ease border rules, has brought hope to an industry that’s suffered repeated setbacks in the past 15 months.
“I see a step approach in which airlines feed routes into relatively safe countries,” said Peter Morris, chief economist at flight tracker Cirium. The UK’s wet weather is “a very strong push factor” for demand and some routes might fill up quite rapidly.
Tarnishing prospects for a great getaway are a limited lineup of just 12 green-listed countries and territories, strict entry requirements even for many of those, and a stipulation that all returning passengers must take costly coronavirus tests.
Portugal, the only major holiday zone on the list, will be the main focus for Brits, with EasyJet Plc and Ryanair Holdings Plc alone adding more than 300,000 seats there since the UK’s May 7 announcement.
More than 15 UK airports -- including Manchester, where Scullion has booked -- are braced for a rush of passengers to hubs in Lisbon, Porto and Faro in the southern Algarve region, as well as the sub-tropical Portuguese island of Madeira.
“We’ve been desperate to get away,” said Luke Saunders, who along with four friends is flying EasyJet to Albufeira on the Algarve’s Atlantic coast on June 5. “We waited for the green list to make the decision.”
Saunders, 25, will depart from London Gatwick, which is planning to handle 6,000 passengers on Monday and 40,000 for the entire week. While business has almost tripled from last week, it’s less than 5% of normal traffic.
London Heathrow is expecting 13,000 departing passengers on Monday. That’s a 63% bump from a week earlier but still leaves Europe’s busiest airport pre-pandemic down almost 90% from normal traffic levels.
There won’t be much change to some green-listed countries like Australia or New Zealand, because entry to those countries is barred for most people, said Heathrow spokesman Weston Macklem. Return without quarantine is also permitted to Gibraltar, Iceland, Israel and Singapore.
There’s also been progress for a broader reopening of travel in the region. Italy on Friday said it would allow arrivals from the European Union, the U.K. and Israel without quarantine if they’ve had a negative Covid-19 test. But travelers from Britain are likely to be left out of the fun until Italy joins its green list.
Carriers will have most of the responsibility to check border forms on outgoing passengers and help customers navigate a maze of rules, risks and procedures. They’ve enhanced cleaning measures, sent countless emails to update travelers, worked out discount deals with test providers and rolled out a plethora of apps that promise to make their journeys easier.
At Gatwick, extra staff will be added to help ensure social-distancing, while seating is being made available for those unable to stand for long periods. The airport says it’s confident it can handle arrivals from a handful of amber-listed countries without reworking its processes.
Some Border Force kiosks at Heathrow must be left empty for social distancing, according to Lucy Moreton from the Immigration Services Union. The agency has already warned of long lines.
Heathrow’s Macklem said the airport is in talks with the government about opening one of its mothballed terminals to separate people flying in from red-listed countries and minimize the risk of spreading the virus.
The incremental pace gives the carriers, airports and agencies time to work out snags before volumes mushroom. Even then, new challenges like the India mutation could yet thwart the comeback so needed by the struggling tourism industry.
On Friday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the government could put the brakes on its relaxation of lockdown rules, covering everything from travel to restaurants and cinemas. Germany on Friday reinstated the UK as a coronavirus risk area, less than one month after taking it off the list.
There’s likely to be much more travel demand later in summer, as consumers grow more confident and vaccination rates pick up, said Cirium’s Morris. In the short-term, many people may opt to wait and see how it goes for others before committing to a booking.
“It’s not that the government has announced that 12 places are OK, it’s that next week there might be six, might be 14,” Morris said. “Consumers react to that kind of uncertainty by saying, I’ll just hold off.”