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'On its knees' travel sector demands UK government plan for summer holidays

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Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·4 min read
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Heathrow airport. Photo: zz/KGC-254/STAR MAX/IPx 2021
Heathrow airport. Photo: zz/KGC-254/STAR MAX/IPx 2021

Travel industry chiefs are warning more business closures and job losses are inevitable if the UK government waits until every UK resident has been vaccinated to ease travel restrictions.

Leaders are calling for a plan to enable summer holidays in prime minister Boris Johnson's speech on easing lockdown restrictions next week. It comes as the UK government's mandatory hotel quarantine policy for arrivals from dozens of countries comes into force from Monday.

Trade body Seasonal Business in Travel (SBiT) warned the sector is "on its knees" financially, and also called for more tailored financial support until conditions improve. Ski holiday companies would normally make around 15% of their total winter income this week during half-term, with around 500,000 people typically heading away on such trips.

The Save Future Travel Coalition, a group of 12 trade bodies including SBiT and travel agents' lobby group ABTA, called for vaccine certificates and passenger testing to help reopen international travel safely.

It also comes as more than 100 companies in another group called Save Our Summer (SOS) also called for a target date when holidays will be allowed to give consumers confidence in bookings. The group's members have promised refunds or changes of date if bookings become impossible due to continued or new restrictions.

READ MORE: Hotel stocks rise as some UK arrivals forced to pay for quarantine

Government ministers provided conflicting advice last week on whether the public should book holidays, as well as conflicting statements on potential use of vaccine passports.

“Senior government ministers have done a good job of torpedoing recovery in the travel sector and threatening jobs across travel and tourism," said Paul Charles, a co-founder of SOS and chief executive of the PC Agency, according to Travel Weekly.

“UK citizens should ignore their conflicting advice and book summer trips with confidence."

Watch: UK hotel quarantine rules explained

Mark Tanzer, Abta chief executive, said: “In a week’s time the prime minister is due to update the nation on a route out of lockdown. That must include a way forward for the travel industry to ensure that people are able to take an overseas holiday this summer.

“We completely understand the need for the government to bring in temporary restrictions, like the additional measures around quarantine being brought in today, but we also need a route out of this crisis and some tailored financial support to help businesses get through what will be very difficult months ahead for the sector.

“Travel is vital for the economy. It has been a powerhouse of economic growth and employment."

Charles Owen, director of SBiT, said: “The UK may be in its third lockdown but, for SBiT members, this is still their first lockdown which started 11 months ago.

“With this winter season all but cancelled, virtually no new bookings and the outlook uncertain this is an industry on its knees financially."

READ MORE: European stocks surge on hopes of economic recovery

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown

Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday the UK's new quarantine rules, forcing new arrivals from certain countries to self-isolate in hotels, appeared to be working "smoothly."

He also said the UK government was "working with countries around the world" which had proposed only allowing in vaccinated passengers. “We want Brits to be able to travel to those countries and therefore enable Brits to be able to demonstrate their vaccine status, so that sort of vaccine certification is something we are talking to our international counterparts about."

But he said there were no plans for use of vaccine passports within the UK.

Meanwhile Office for National Statistics (ONS) data published on Monday underlined the crisis facing the travel industry, showing:

  • Turnover for the travel and tourism sector stood at 51.5% of 2019 levels in November, and at 20.8% of previous year's trade for accommodation companies and travel agents.

  • Hotel room occupancy slid from September to November as government restrictions were tightened again, sinking to just 21% in worst-affected London.

  • International air passenger traffic in and out of the UK in November dropped to 9% of February levels.

Hotel occupancy rates. Chart: ONS
Hotel occupancy rates. Chart: ONS