When the UK Prime Minister addressed the nation on December 20, the news was bad enough: Christmas was canceled.
Boris Johnson plunged the country into harsh new restrictions, blaming a new variant of the disease that had been spreading in London and the southeast of England since September.
But suddenly, things got even worse.
Country after country closed their borders to flights from the UK, in a bid to keep the new variant confined to “plague island,” as The New York Times dubbed it.
With ferry routes across the Channel blocked, trucks carrying goods to the continent backed up for miles along the motorways. Eventually, a local airport in Kent was turned into a parking lot for 4,000 trucks. Nothing could get into the UK, either. It was, said the wags, a taster of what a no-deal Brexit would be like.
That no-deal was averted – the government signed an agreement with the EU on December 24. But the crisis is not yet over.
UK travelers are still banned from much of the world – including EU countries – because of the homegrown variant.
While there was a Brexit deal, red tape has already led to a “major crisis” of food shortages in Northern Ireland, and photos of empty supermarket shelves in England.
And although the UK was the first country in the world to start a vaccine rollout, its good news was marred by a report on January 13 that the death tally from Covid-19 had passed 100,000 (although the government’s tally stood at the lower figure of 85,000). Two days later, the government announced that it was axing their last remaining “travel corridors.”
The UK, as its queen once said, appears to have had an “annus horribilis”. But how will that affect it as a travel destination?
Inbound travel is a lucrative business for the UK – pre-Covid, Visit Britain forecast that 2020 would see 32.3 million visitors pumping £24.7 billion ($33.6 billion) into the economy.
In the end, 2020 saw a 76% decline in visitors and an 80% drop.
The tourist board is forecasting 16.9 million visits and £9 billion ($12.2 billion) spending for 2021: a mere 41% and 32% of the 2019 figures respectively. But that is, of course, if people come. After all, who’d want to vacation on “plague island”?
Americans on the way… but not the way back
Americans do, says Melissa DaSilva, US president of Trafalgar Tours, which specializes in group travel in Europe, the UK and Ireland.
“Americans are very interested in the culture and history. A lot of people either have English or Scottish heritage and want to return to learn about that, and it’s a great place for first-time travelers to dip their toe in because of the shared language,” she says.
“We Americans very much feel a connection to England and London in particular.”
However, she warns that Trafalgar will likely be cutting amount of time its tours spend in the UK, due to Brexit border complications.
“A lot of our multi-country trips including England used to fly round-trip to London, and now we’re looking to see if from a traveler’s perspective that will be the most convenient.”
Trafalgar trips that include the UK have, in the past, seen travelers fly from the US to London, travel round the UK, take a ferry to France, then wind around Europe, before crossing back to London to fly home.
But with queues forecast at the ports, they’re recalculating whether it’d be better to do an open-jaw route, flying into the UK and back from Europe.
“We normally start or end in London, and that first or last day is taking the ferry across the Channel. But we’ve seen the news, the lorries backed up – if we don’t need to do that, we won’t.
“Do they really need to do a second border crossing to get back in to fly out, or is it better to leave [for the US] from Paris? We may not return to the UK for the flight back, if there’s no experience [for the tourists] on the other side.”
DaSilva said that potential Brexit complications were on the radar of travelers’ concerns last year, but, with a no-deal averted and the pandemic taking center stage, it’s no longer an issue for her guests. In fact, three of the top five most searched trips on their website involve Great Britain.
“Early on in the pandemic, people were searching for places that had more open green spaces, like New Zealand and Ireland,” she says. “But as news of the vaccine came out and people became more confident about trips for this year, England popped back up to the top.”
And there’s one big bonus for those traveling to the UK this year — the tanking pound.
Sterling crashed in June 2016 when the referendum result was announced, and has yet to claw its way back to pre-Brexit levels against the euro and the dollar. In March 2020, at the start of another round of negotiations, it fell to a 30-year low against the dollar.
Since then, it has regained value slightly, but still remains low.
The drop not only means that visitors will get more bang for their buck in the UK, but that standard annual price increases won’t register as much for those coming from abroad.
For 2021, Trafalgar is adding a “wellbeing director” to every trip, to ensure that venues and guests are complying with Covid-19 protocols. But while this means an uptick in prices for most trips, because of the exchange rate, “guests going to the UK are not going to be seeing any significant increase in price,” says DaSilva.
“It’s not much, but on a $2,000-$4,000 trip, 5% can make a huge difference – and it’ll be more expensive in Europe,” she says.
Those Brexit woes
Your pound stretching further sounds like excellent news, but what are the other repercussions from Brexit that travelers to the UK will be facing?
For Tom Jenkins, CEO of the ETOA, a trade association arranging travel to Europe, changes to border policy and trade, plus the fallout from the pandemic, means that vacations might end up looking a little different. In his eyes, there are three main issues: reputation, the recovery of the service economy after Brexit and the pandemic, and issues at the border with Europe.
Americans may still love the UK, but Jenkins says that not all nationalities are so keen these days. “The UK made a great play that it was an international and welcoming destination over the 2012 Olympics, but that message was withdrawn with Brexit. The posturing of the government – especially the threat to put gunboats in the Channel – didn’t play well with a lot of origin markets,” he says.
And the service economy – crucial to London’s tourism sector – may look a little different post-Covid and post-Brexit.
“People go to London to experience the London that Londoners enjoy. [When the UK comes out of lockdown] that may not be there in the same way it was two years ago,” he says. “There may be differences with the import of goods and transmission of services that means London isn’t as prosperous as it was.”
Like DaSilva, he’s also worried about the border. Tourism is mostly out of bounds at the moment, but tales of lorries being held up at the border and fish rotting as it waits to cross the Channel aren’t making those in the travel industry too hopeful.
“It looks like there may be difficulties,” he says. “We don’t know how complicated yet, but any non-EU resident going from the UK to the EU is going to be treated as a third-country citizen.
“Their passport will be thoroughly checked, they’ll be asked the purpose and length of their journey, how they’ll sustain themselves on their trip, and how they propose to leave. Then they’ll have their passport stamped.
“That’s a problem for UK residents going to Europe, but if American, Chinese or Japanese people are coming to the UK and then going onwards to the continent [on a plane full of Brits], they’ll be caught up in the same mess.
“Suddenly, using the UK as gateway to Europe becomes enormously less attractive. Travelers will have to think about whether it’s sensible to come to the UK as part of a European destination. They may wish to look at the UK as a single destination, but that isn’t nearly as attractive as the UK being part of a European vacation.”
The French government did not respond to a request asking whether border staff will give British passport holders a full grilling. Eurostar, which runs trains from London to Paris, confirmed that passport checks will be done before departure, but could not say whether extra questions have been introduced since Brexit.
And yet, Jenkins isn’t despairing; in fact, he says there’s “lots of business on the books” – including trips that were rescheduled from 2020. “We don’t know what the [post-Covid] market will look like, but I think August onwards will see volumes of people moving,” he says.
“The UK won’t be ignored, but it’s unlikely to recover as strongly as Europe.
“There will be problems with staffing if business comes back. There will be problems with people leaving the UK and going into Europe. There may be problems with both supply and the service economy.
“I don’t think it’ll become an international pariah because of Covid. But it might become one because of the complications associated with Brexit.”
Eating habits will ‘have to change’
Globy Ouseph, general manager at the five-star InterContinental London The O2, agrees that there will be changes to his business. His behemoth 450-room hotel boasts the UK’s largest conference facilities, and he says that instead of planning events and ordering food a week in advance, they’re moving to three weeks ahead because of the border issues.
“Normally a week is enough but I think we’ll struggle come April if we don’t order two or three weeks ahead – our suppliers have already warned us to be careful if we’re doing events for over 1,000 people. Our chefs are working on new menus that will complement [dynamic food shortages] and we are separating ingredients by country – seeing which the UK can trade with easily,” he says. But he warns that “eating habits will have to change with Brexit – we used to get most food from Europe, but now it’ll be from all over the world. The same goes for shopping habits.”
Many predicted a hollowing out of the hotelier sector post-Brexit – in 2019, 75% of London wait staff were EU nationals, and there was concern that many would return home.
About 20% of the Intercontinental’s staff left the UK before Brexit, says Ouseph; but while in normal times that would be a crisis, he thinks that Covid-induced job losses will mean hotels can fill these positions for now – at least, the customer-facing ones. Instead, it’s the less visible, but crucial roles, where they’ll struggle.
“Even before Brexit we were short of housekeeping and kitchen staff – we were always chasing the best talent – and Brexit will make it only more difficult,” he says.
“I think we’ll be OK up until next August because so many people have lost their jobs in London, but long-term it’ll be a big challenge.”
For his customer-facing staff, he plans to use a revolving pool of university graduates eager to train in London – he’s long staffed his hotel with new recruits so has fewer concerns on that front.
But he warns that, “as a hotel owner, I’d be worried about the net year, but as a GM I’m looking forward to it. It’s exciting times – nobody is completely prepared for what’s going to hit, and there’s a sense of optimism everywhere.
“Logistics will be challenging but staff are more energized, and I think people will appreciate it more.”
In fact, despite the challenges, people are booking – his reservations for the new financial year, starting April, are only 20% down on the 2019-20 year for weekdays, and just 10% down on weekends – which he attributes to the rescheduling of so many shows at the O2 (London’s biggest indoor venue).
A once-in-a-lifetime visit
Not everyone thinks Brexit will make a big difference to the inbound UK travel industry.
“If we’d spoken a year ago, the topic of debate would have been Brexit and its impact on European markets,” says Paul Maine, CEO of Tour Partner Group, which runs inbound travel to the UK and Ireland, plus the Nordics and Baltics.
“The view was that the UK was becoming a little more insular, travel would be harder, and there was concern about questions on arrival. But in the last nine months, it has been massively overtaken by concerns around coronavirus.”
And, he says, although Europe picked up swiftly on the UK variant before Christmas, the country’s first-in-the-world rollout of the vaccine might just be its saving grace.
“We had a bit of a challenge across Europe last year because of Brexit and because of how we were perceived to be managing Covid-19 from a government standpoint. But now in the last month or so we’ve got kudos back [with the vaccine].
“The UK continues to be an attractive destination – and the falling pound will drive demand.”
That the UK is allowing EU citizens to enter with ID cards, rather than passports, until October 2021, is a real fillip for the travel industry, he says. And as for the other issues, he doesn’t believe that the border issues have been as bad as predicted, and says that in one sense, the pandemic travel bans are actually helping future travel: “One of the benefits of a slower start to the year is that we’ve got time to iron out some of those challenges.”
Maine – who hasn’t run tours since October – says that he thinks the vaccine “will get us out of it – it’s a matter of when, not if.” And he predicts that “when” could be as early as Easter.
And for those who do make it to the UK, he reckons there will be major benefits.
“If you want to see the UK, there isn’t a better year than this. Domestic tourists don’t go to the same destinations international tourists do, and in the second half of the year I think UK tourists will start to travel internationally.
“There’ll be less pressure, and you’ll be able to see the country in a way that didn’t exist before. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Indeed, earlier this month, CNN Travel named the UK one of its prime 21 places to go for 2021.
Like Maine, Tom Jenkins thinks it all hinges on the vaccine response.
“Rolling out the vaccine is the acid test of being a coherent holiday destination, and the UK looks like it’s doing a reasonably good job in comparison to everyone else.”
It seems the future rests in Johnson’s hands.