10 reasons I’m finally optimistic about travel
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If cancelling your travel plans because of the pandemic made you depressed, imagine working in the travel industry.
The last 18 months have been a rollercoaster for British travellers. Lurching in and out of lockdowns, travel corridors, overpriced PCR tests, traffic lights, laws on travelling for non-essential purposes, expensive and disappointing staycations.
Remember when Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas last year? That was my personal rock bottom.
I joined TPG early in 2019 to help launch the U.K. site. It was a wonderful first 12 months as we concocted more and more creative ways to bring you unique travel content and help you to maximise your travel. TPG sent me around the world, from Pakistan to Moldova to Kuwait and plenty of trips across the pond to TPG HQ.
Then in March 2020, everything fell apart and my life became very different.
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It’s been my job during the pandemic to monitor travel news, help British travellers navigate the complex maze of travel restrictions, entry conditions and quarantine requirements. I can tell you most of the news over the last 18 months has been overwhelmingly negative and depressing. Another airline on the brink of collapse, another destination restricting entry, the new COVID-19 delta variant.
Some days it has been difficult to muster the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. A day off for me would be best enjoyed turning my phone off so I wasn’t bombarded with more negative news.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still working in the travel industry. My heart goes out to the thousands of airline staff who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
But all of a sudden, in the last month I’m finally feeling very different. Excitement, optimism and energy. While the “Great British Summer” we were promised this year didn’t quite live up to my expectations, mainly due to the truly dreary weather. The U.K. experienced for much of this summer, life as an avid traveller, living in the U.K. and working in the travel industry now feels really, really good.
The U.K. government may have made plenty of errors in their handling of the pandemic, but as I watch my friends, family and colleagues in the likes of the United States, Singapore and Australia still suffering under lockdowns and other restrictions, I am genuinely grateful to be living in the U.K.
Here are the reasons I’m finally optimistic about the future of travel as a British resident.
The U.K. vaccination programme went very well
In the depths of the last winter lockdown, vaccines were promised to be our way out of the pandemic, and the way to reclaim our freedom including being able to travel.
The largest vaccination programme in British history was always going to be a monumental exercise in logistics, trust and efficiency.
But it went to plan. Brits took up the invitation and got vaccinated. As I write this, 85% of Brits aged 16 and over are now fully vaccinated. That figure is the envy of many countries around the world. All adults in the United Kingdom have now been offered the vaccine.
Rather than individual states bickering with each other about who should be vaccinated and when as we saw in the United States and Australia, Brits quite literally rolled up their sleeves, banded together and got the job done.
A successful vaccination programme helps the travel industry because its another step towards a post-pandemic world.
There are fewer anti-vaxxers
The United Kingdom did not see the large scale public protests against vaccinations that some other Western countries experienced. Around five million British adults are not fully vaccinated, whether that is because they are unable to for medical reasons, or choose not to. While this figure isn’t ideal, it pales in comparison with the anti-vax movement in other countries.
The United States currently has an estimated 80 million citizens who are not vaccinated and do not plan to be. That is a staggeringly higher number than our five million, even accounting for the higher population of the U.S. That means there are fewer unvaccinated people to consider keeping travel restrictions in place for.
Freedom Day actually happened
When U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced back in February that all restrictions would be lifted in June I was very sceptical. Virtually no country in the world was promising any kind of permanent normality anytime soon. Freedom Day depended on meeting a number of requirements, including high vaccination rates, low new infections and low hospitalisations.
While the initial Freedom Day was delayed to July, it did happen. Nightclubs reopened, social distancing ended and large scale public events immediately restarted. Massive indoor venues like the O2 Arena in London now host tens of thousands of people indoors each night.
Freedom Day happened, it hasn’t been reversed, and the country has not fallen apart.
While Brits have been legally allowed to travel internationally since May of this year, reaching Freedom Day meant travel around the U.K. became much more normal. You didn’t need to feel guilty about wanting to travel – it was now encouraged.
The coming winter will of course be another story as people move indoors and cases will almost certainly rise as they did last winter. Nobody knows if that will cause a large enough pressure on the NHS to require fresh restrictions. I can certainly live with staying at home for a few months if it means the rest of the year is normal life like it is right now. We know a lot more about COVID-19 than we did last winter and very few people were vaccinated last winter.
The vaccines are working
There have been hundreds of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom over the summer as the country opened up. I’m not denying that. But they were largely amongst young people who jumped at the chance to socialise with each other once Freedom Day finally arrived. Cramming hundreds of unvaccinated young adults into a nightclub to celebrate being locked up all winter was always likely to see a rise in cases.
But more importantly, hospitalisations and deaths have remained relatively low since Freedom Day when compared with last winter when daily life was still far less restricted. Last summer they were also low as people spent more time outdoors, though indoor mixing was significantly more restricted last summer than this summer.
A study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) published last month found the COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United Kingdom are effective against variants, including the delta variant.
A new travel ban could be introduced if the vaccines were failing, but so far, they have been tested in the real world by millions of Brits and they are working just as they were designed to.
We’ve lived with the delta variant
The delta variant raged through India earlier this year and is currently doing the same in Australia where half the country is now under some of the strictest lockdowns in the world after successfully managing the pandemic for much of 2020.
The delta variant is nothing new in the United Kingdom. The delay in adding India to the red list back in April 2021 meant the delta variant arrived in the United Kingdom well before summer and roared through the community months ago.
I’m not fearful of the delta variant as some of my friends and family in other countries are because it’s already here and has been for months.
Testing requirements have finally been reduced
The complex and costly testing system for international travel has been another thorn in the side of the beleaguered travel industry all summer. While you could jump on a plane with your vaccination certificate test-free to many destinations for a long-overdue holiday, returning to the United Kingdom was another story.
I heard so many horror stories of private testing providers charging £200+ for a last-minute PCR test, and test results not even arriving in time for travel, rendering them useless.
While increased competition brought down prices over the summer, a family of four could still expect to pay at least £300 for tests to return from a green country and double that if they were unvaccinated and only wanted to quarantine for five days from an amber country.
This system is finally changing. There is no longer any pre-departure test requirement to return to the U.K. and later this month the Day 2 test can be a cheaper lateral flow test rather than a PCR test. The cheaper and easier it is to travel, the more people will travel and the faster the travel industry will recover.
No more traffic light system
Another frustration has been the cat and mouse traffic light system. Every three weeks the dice is rolled and your favourite destination could become either much easier or much harder to visit. If you’re already abroad you might need to cut your holiday short and race home to avoid quarantine, especially if you can’t work from home and don’t fancy the idea of using up leave to sit home watching television.
While we tried to predict which countries would move up and down the traffic light list based on scientific data like new infection and vaccination rates, these predictions often did not come true because the decisions were seemingly not based on scientific evidence.
How are you supposed to plan travel around this?
Fortunately, like the pre-departure tests requirement, the traffic light system has ended. It’s been replaced with a simple ‘do not travel’ list with hotel quarantine required. You can now travel to more than 100 destinations across the world without the hassle of quarantine and changing restrictions on your return.
The red list is almost gone
The scrapping of the traffic light system meant a new single ‘do not travel list’ (which was the same as the old red list), with all other destinations being okay to travel to. There were still some 54 destinations on the ‘do not travel’ list on 4 October with stern government advice to avoid all but essential travel which would usually invalidate any travel insurance.
In another piece of good news, the do not travel red list has been slashed from 54 countries down to just seven from 11 October. For the 47 countries moving off the list which includes popular long-haul destinations such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Thailand it is now significantly easier to visit from the United Kingdom.
Vaccinations are opening doors
I’m off to Greece next week and my vaccination certificate with a simple health form is all I need for entry. No tests, no quarantine. I visited there earlier in the summer this year once I was fully vaccinated and it was a very easy and welcoming arrival process. They want British tourists to visit, soak up the sun on their beautiful beaches and enjoy their delicious cuisine.
From early November, vaccinated Brits can enter the United States for the first time in 18 months. Thailand is looking to welcome the same. Singapore rolls out the welcome mat for Brits next week. Long-haul travel is finally realistic after virtually coming to a standstill for most people during the pandemic.
Boris Johnson promised us the vaccines would be our ticket to normality and right now they are.
Life in the UK is now very normal
If you’re travelling around the United Kingdom, other than some people wearing masks on public transport and in supermarkets you might struggle to realise that the pandemic still exists. Rightly or wrongly, many Brits have ditched their masks in public spaces and they get on with their normal life. You can go to a music festival or concert, crowd into a pub with your mates to watch the football, enjoy a long lunch indoors at your favourite restaurant and stay out until the sun comes up if you wish.
Life in London especially is very normal now. Want to jump on a train and head away for a weekend in the countryside? It’s easy. No more restrictions on numbers, or having to eat outside in cold weather, pre-book, app check-ins or businesses being unable to open. Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits say.
If you are travelling abroad you might think the airport and aircraft are more restricted than just about anywhere else in the United Kingdom right now. Given that many Brits no longer wear masks on other forms of public transport, it would not surprise me to see mask usage slowly decline in airports and on domestic flights in the U.K. soon as it’s about the only place you’ll be strictly required to wear a mask and maintain social distance.
The outlook for British travellers is finally looking up and I’m finally happy and optimistic. It’s been a very difficult period for the travel industry – each traffic light announcement has felt like one step forward and two steps backwards.
Nothing is certain in this pandemic and things could go backwards. Cases could go up this winter, a new variant could be discovered, and many countries will take years to fully vaccinate all their citizens. Some destinations will be off-limits to tourists well into next year.
But a flood of good news recently, an excellent vaccination programme and a whole lot of new travel options finally have me smiling and not dwelling on all the negatives like I have been. The pandemic may never completely be over but the United Kingdom’s travel industry is now in a strong position, especially if we can make it through this winter without another travel ban.
See you onboard.
Featured image by Manfred Gottschalk / Gettys
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