After enduring months of lockdown, travel restrictions and unseasonably bad weather, people in the UK were finally given permission to head overseas for a vacation this week. It prompted an online rush to find flights, hotel rooms and sunshine.
But many would-be travelers faced a very significant problem: They didn’t know exactly where they were allowed to go.
As the first people began checking in to their flights at the country’s main airports, not even members of UK government seemed to be exactly sure of the situation.
At the heart of the confusion is a supposedly simple “traffic light” system that ranks destinations according to Covid-19 risk. Those designated red are no-go. Amber countries are sort of no-go. Green countries are OK, but only if they’re open.
Add to that an extremely costly regime of testing, reams of paperwork and quarantine rules that differ depending on the category – plus a passport control system that has come under fire for riskily mixing red and green country arrivals.
Travelers and those in the travel industry are resigned to more weeks of uncertainty as they try to make sense of the new rules.
It’s all “very confusing,” says Reigo Eljas, trading director of travel booking website LastMinute.com.
To travel or not to travel, that is the UK question
Under the traffic light system, 12 countries and territories are currently open to Brits without the need to quarantine on return. Of these, the only traditional mass tourism destinations where vaccinated or tested UK residents can easily visit are Portugal, Iceland, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands.
Australia, New Zealand and Singapore make the UK’s green list, but they aren’t welcoming British residents currently. Meanwhile, Israel; Brunei; the Falkland Islands; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha aren’t exactly vacation hotspots right now.
Most of Europe’s top destinations, including France, Greece, Italy and Spain, currently sit on the amber list. In theory, Brits can go there so long as they’re prepared to quarantine on their return.
On May 17, as the travel restrictions were lifted, UK Environment Secretary George Eustice told the BBC that people were now free to travel to amber countries “either to visit family or indeed to visit friends.”
But hours later, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed the brakes on. An amber country, said Johnson, was “not somewhere where you should be going on holiday, let me be very clear about that.” He added that people should only travel to an amber destination for “some pressing family or urgent business reason.”
Government officials, including Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, have added further confusion by urging British residents to consider avoiding even green destinations because of growing fears about the risk from the Covid variant first identified in India. It is advice recently echoed by the World Health Organization.
While the government has promised to regularly review the traffic light list, there are no certainties. And with the school summer holidays just weeks away, some travelers are either confused by, willing to gamble on or simply prepared to ignore the prime minister’s exhortations.
Eljas of LastMinute.com says that while Portugal remains the No. 1 choice for UK customers right now, the company is also seeing bookings for amber destinations.
“The people that are making them [are] making a conscious decision, saying, ‘OK, I want to go on holiday in Spain, I’m happy to quarantine on the way back and then pay for the testing,’” he says. “So as long as they’re following the rules, we do not see an issue, as such.”
As of May 17, it’s not illegal to travel to amber countries, which is why travel companies are selling vacations to these destinations and why customers hoping to cancel their amber vacation may struggle to do so.
“I think the government made it clear that once they removed the sort of the legally restrictive measures, it is no longer illegal to go on holiday,” says Eljas. “So if the government wanted to restrict people going on holiday on the amber list destinations, then they should have made it very clear that it remains illegal, essentially.”
Sara Roberts, from Kent in the southeast of England, is among those rolling the dice on an amber destination, albeit a few months down the line, with a vacation to Spain booked for her family this September. She hopes the country will be green listed by then.
Roberts also hopes testing requirements – which currently see travelers having to fork out potentially hundreds of dollars per person, even for green destinations – may have loosened or at least become cheaper.
“If Covid tests remained costly, it would make the cost of [the] holiday for five of us untenable,” Roberts tells CNN Travel, noting those charges would be more expensive than the overall cost of their accommodation.
“We are hoping costs [and] restrictions will lessen,” Roberts adds.
Even if Spain does get green listed, Roberts accepts there’s a further gamble, in that the country could revert to amber while they’re away. The government says it’ll put at-risk countries on a “watch list” but similar status changes in 2020 caught many UK travelers to Spain and Greece by surprise.
Roberts and her husband are retired, so quarantine would be doable, but their adult daughters both work for the NHS and wouldn’t be able to work from home.
Reuniting with family
Expectant mother Sabine Tyldesley is from Germany and has lived in the UK for almost a decade. She’s not seen her mother since before the beginning of the UK’s first lockdown and plans to visit her in Germany in August, even if the country retains its current amber status.
“I will have a very small window during the pregnancy during which it will still be safe for me to fly,” Tyldseley tells CNN Travel. “It would be nice to be able to see her before there is a whole new family member for her to meet.”
The vagueness of the rules means Tyldesley isn’t exactly sure if wanting to see her mother before she gives birth is a valid reason for traveling to an amber country. It’s not an emergency or an urgent situation, but it’s an emotionally loaded one.
Tyldesley says the uncertainty, and the fact it’s up to her to make that call, is stressful. She’d almost prefer, she says, being officially outlawed from going.
“I mean, of course I’d be incredibly disappointed if suddenly somebody said to me I would not be able to travel to any of the amber list countries, obviously Germany included, but at least they’d be some certainty there.”
Not yet fully vaccinated, Tyldesley is also conscious of the health risks that come with travel.
“Obviously, I don’t want to put anyone else at risk, I want to do what’s right,” she says. “And I want to follow the rules, and if testing is required as part of that, then that’s really important.”
View from Europe
For travel industry workers in amber destinations that rely heavily on UK tourists, the situation is equally tricky. Many were banking on early summer arrivals to help make up for losses during last summer’s Covid-hit peak season.
“I used to have many, many guests from the UK,” says Veronica Grechi, who runs a boutique BnB called Velona’s Jungle, situated in Florence in amber-listed Italy.
Grechi recalls reading about the vaccination rollout beginning in the UK in December 2020 and feeling hopeful for the year ahead.
“When they’re vaccinated, they’ll come immediately,” she says she thought at the time.
While Grechi wishes Italy was on the UK’s green list, particularly as travel there from other countries is now permitted, she says she understands why it’s not, and why governments across the world have implemented travel restrictions.
So far this season, she’s relied on visitors from elsewhere in Italy, alongside the occasional traveler from Germany and even the United States. With the EU recently announcing plans to open up to vaccinated tourists, she’s hoping for more visitors soon and is still holding out hope that the Brits will return before long.
‘The moral question’
Tom Power, the managing director of travel company Pura Aventura, which specializes in holidays to Spain, Portugal and Latin America, recently returned from a work trip to Costa Rica, an amber country.
Power says the involved steps he went through to get there and back reinforced that amber travel doesn’t really lend itself to a vacation.
“Coming out of an amber country, knowing the process of the paperwork, the testing regime, the isolation when back, all that stuff – it’s not designed for holidays,” he says, calling the experience “a royal pain.”
As the managing director of a travel company, Power says he wishes international travel was more doable, but he says he’d rather travel restrictions remain in place for the short term and ensure the world recovers more smoothly from the pandemic long term.
“It’s not just about the practicalities and the cost of the testing, it’s the moral question,” he says.
Plus, Power thinks the worries and uncertainties surrounding international travel right now take away from the enjoyment of a vacation.
“Just in terms of psychology, a large percentage of enjoyment of travel comes pre- and post-trip, and if the pre bits are spent worrying, and the post is spent in quarantine, the holiday kind of ceases to be a holiday,” he says.
For some this week, the promise of sea, sand and sunshine was enough of a lure to run the gauntlet of bureaucratic confusion.
As soon as the UK announced its green list of approved destinations earlier this month, Londoner Victoria Goulder scoured the web for vacation options, eventually settling on a package holiday to Portugal’s Algarve.
On May 18, the day after restrictions were lifted, Goulder, her husband and their 2-year-old son checked in for their Ryanair flight from London’s Stansted Airport, Covid documentation in hand, ready to unwind.
“We were just desperate to go,” Goulder tells CNN Travel.
Goulder and her family traveled to London City Airport for pre-departure testing a couple days before their trip, paying £99 ($140) per test.
In line with Portuguese requirements, their 2-year-old son needed a test, too. They’ll also need to pay for tests in Portugal before returning home, although their toddler will be exempt under UK testing rules.
Goulder was happy to shoulder the cost in exchange for a vacation. Her main fear about traveling to a green list destination was unintentionally skipping a step of the process.
“It’s very stressful in terms of us being scared to miss out something, some forms or some testing,” she says.
Goulder adds that she’s also not concerned about rules changing and needing to quarantine because she and her husband work from home and would be able to isolate if need be. In fact, that’s part of the reason she felt comfortable traveling now.
“At the moment, it’s still a little bit difficult [to travel],” she says. “I would wait if we had a different situation in terms of work and lifestyle.”
In Portugal, Victoria Goulder says she and fellow visitors from the UK have been keenly welcomed by locals. She says they seem excited to see tourists return.
The impact of fewer visitors is evident, she adds.
“You walk the main streets of Algarve, and you see all these owners of the restaurants standing there, trying to get you in, everything is empty. Everyone is trying just to survive here and it’s extremely sad, but I really hope everything’s going to pick up.”