Has the UK just canceled summer?

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(CNN) — Across Europe, beaches are getting ready for their first socially distanced foreign visitors, hotels are airing out rooms and restaurants are laying alfresco tables. With borders now open, the travel industry is trying to salvage as much of the peak tourist season as possible.

Right now, almost everyone’s invited, but despite the alluring prospect of blue Mediterranean seas and bluer skies, one country isn’t coming — and people are getting very angry about it.

For the UK, it seems, summer vacations could still be canceled.

Even as it appears to be emerging from one of the continent’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, the country has decided to suddenly slam its borders shut by imposing a 14-day quarantine that critics say will torpedo the last shreds of hope for its travel industry.

Unless the rules change soon, millions of Britons who’d hoped to ease their post-lockdown blues with an escape to warmer climes will likely have to scrap their plans unless they want to endure enforced isolation on their return or risk a £1,000 fine — about $1,250.

And for the UK’s tourism industry, any prospect of soaking up some much needed foreign tourist dollars is vanishing fast. Britain has many charms, but two weeks’ incarceration inside the same room is not why people visit this sceptered isle.

If that wasn’t enough to stoke frustrations, it seems that far from being stringently enforced, the new regulations will only be lightly policed after they come into effect on June 8, with spot checks that may actually miss the virus carriers they’re designed to keep sequestered.

That stands in contrast to much more stringent measures in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, imposed much earlier in the pandemic.

There are claims that visitors or returnees may be able to make use of a “Dublin dodge,” since arrivals from the Republic of Ireland will be exempt from the quarantine. In theory they could travel from anywhere and transit via the UK’s near neighbor.

‘Blunt economic tool’

Greece is opening its beaches and is welcoming foreign visitors.

Greece is opening its beaches and is welcoming foreign visitors.

Byron Smith/Getty Images

And the rules have come far too late for some, with questions asked about why Britain’s borders remained wide open during the height of its virus outbreak and are only now being restricted as the country eases up on social restrictions.

“There’s no doubt that quarantine should have been imposed at the start of the pandemic, in early March, because that’s when it would have been most effective,” says Paul Charles, founder and CEO of The PC Agency, which represents tourism boards including Ireland, New Zealand and Finland in the UK, as well as major brands and operators.

“If you look at countries that have successfully overcome coronavirus, like New Zealand and Vietnam, they have something in common. They put quarantine in place right at the start. That was WHO advice. But our government never did that. So we can’t understand why they’re doing it now when the cases of Covid-19 are falling and also when there is now a test and trace system in place… they are using a blunt economic tool to try and keep cases low.”

There are some exceptions to the quarantine rules. Truck drivers, Covid-19 frontline healthcare workers and elite athletes coming for bio-secure soccer or cricket matches or F1’s British Grand Prix in late July will all be exempt.

Everyone else will be required to fill out a form prior to arrival, on pain of a £100 fine, providing the government with an address for where they plan to isolate for two weeks.

While the £1,000 fines will be imposed on those who breach the conditions in the UK, only a fifth of travelers are expected to get spot checks. The Metropolitan Police force, which covers London, has said it doesn’t have the time to enforce it.

Some conditions of the quarantine have further fueled questions over its likely effectiveness. Arriving travelers will be able to go to their destination on public transport and leave their accommodation to shop for essentials. In Hong Kong, arrivals are given a prison-style wristband and told not to leave their government-mandated hotel room for two weeks.

‘Right move, wrong time’

Restaurants are opening again in France, where border restrictions to other EU countries have been lifted.

Restaurants are opening again in France, where border restrictions to other EU countries have been lifted.

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

So why now? The UK government says quarantine is being introduced in June precisely because other countries are opening up and it says that means a higher risk of new cases of coronavirus arriving from abroad.

“Travelers from overseas could become a high proportion of the overall number of infections in the UK, and therefore increase the spread of the disease,” the UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, told parliament on Wednesday.

Her announcement drew condemnation both from members of her ruling Conservative Party and the main opposition Labour Party. Lawmaker Liam Fox, a former Conservative trade minister, described it as “unnecessary economic isolation” that would stifle post-virus recovery.

“If such a barrier was required, why was it not introduced earlier in the outbreak?” he added. Fellow Conservative member of parliament Steve Brine called it “the right move at the wrong time.”

It’s a view echoed by George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of tour operator Red Savannah. “By pursuing its quarantine plans without due regard for the economic consequences, the government is choosing to ignore the devastation it will cause to companies, to employment and to the lives of all those whose jobs will be lost,” he says.

“I think it’s too late,” agrees Brian Young, managing director of G Adventures, which offers small group tours around the globe. “The impact on this whole sector knocks customer confidence. It takes time to get things going. If the quarantine goes on beyond the end of June, the summer season will be lost completely. Places like Greece are very dependent on tourism and can’t afford to lose their whole summer.”

Patel defended her government’s measures against questions about why the quarantine wasn’t brought in earlier to prevent the tens of thousands of people who continued to enter the country when Covid-19 infections were soaring.

“Some have suggested that public health measures should have been introduced when the virus was at its peak. However, at that time the scientific advice was clear that such measures would have made little difference when domestic transmission was widespread,” she told parliament.

The government’s argument for implementing quarantine now has been met with disbelief from the wider travel industry.

Some 300 companies, including luxury brands Black Tomato and Kuoni, as well as major players such as Travelbag and Netflights, have endorsed a letter sent to Patel demanding quarantine be scrapped before it’s implemented, saying it will devastate a sector already reeling from the outbreak.

A new survey of 124 UK travel and hospitality business owners and CEOs found that 60% expect to make staff redundant when the measures come into force. A total of 94% believe summer bookings will disappear if the quarantine is enforced. Meanwhile, 99% believe the policy will damage the economy. Tourism accounts for around four million jobs in the UK, 11% of the total workforce.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has said that his country will advise against nonessential travel to the UK for as long as quarantine measures are in place.

‘Madness’

People arriving in the UK will be allowed to travel to their place of quarantine by public transport.

People arriving in the UK will be allowed to travel to their place of quarantine by public transport.

TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Mirjam Peternek-McCartney, CEO of travel communications firm Lemongrass Marketing, puts things in stark terms. “Tour operators are suffering, carriers are suffering, hoteliers are suffering and UK cities that welcome international tourists, such as London and Oxford, will see many businesses which rely wholly on tourism go bust,” she warns.

Robin Sheppard, founder and chairman of Bespoke Hotels Group, the UK’s largest independent hotel group, says he’s baffled by the timing.

“Had it come in around March 23 I would have understood it, but to introduce it now, so imprecisely, seems very foolish,” he said. “I don’t disagree with the original sentiment, it’s just the wrong time. To have not listened to the public reaction to this and adjusted the plan is just madness.”

In another letter addressed to Patel and the UK’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab sent on June 1, Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of The Advantage Travel Partnership, expressed concern that the government was viewing opposition to quarantine as simply being a concern of luxury operators.

Refuting this, and citing smaller companies’ fear of going out of business, she demanded an end to the quarantine plans. She also asked for changes to the current UK Foreign Office travel advice, which warns against all but essential travel, and the establishment of so-called air bridges.

A bridge too far?

The latter have become a hot topic, pushing the idea that routes to countries with low infection rates could be established, bypassing the need for quarantine. Some 94% of UK travel companies are said to favor the plan.

Portugal’s foreign minister has already said it will be happy to welcome UK tourists from late June under such plans, with Spain and Italy also said to be keen to extend a welcome to Brits desperate to get abroad this year, boosting their vital tourism sectors in the process.

“The government needs to talk down the word ‘quarantine’ and talk up air bridges and test and trace, which are the right things to do from a health point of view but also the right thing to help the economy recover,” says Paul Charles. “The very talk of quarantine measures is damaging bookings. Over the last three weeks they’ve collapsed. The industry is suffering from no sales in April, no sales in May and now the prospect of none in June. People are worried about being stuck on their return.”

In her statement to parliament, Patel said the option for air bridges was being actively explored and the quarantine measures would be reviewed after three weeks.

Sean Moriarty, CEO of the Quinta do Lago resort in Portugal’s Algarve region said that establishing such corridors of free movement would help, but may not be enough.

“Even with air bridges in place, we are aware that travelers are understandably going to be more cautious about going on holiday,” he said. “However, we are already witnessing a huge increase in bookings and inquiries for extended villa holidays at Quinta do Lago from July through to October, where guests will be working from home and using spare rooms for offices or studies.”

Will UK travelers be welcome?

CNN’s Atika Shubert reports on plans underway in Spain to ease foreign travel restrictions in an effort to welcome back tourists, despite concerns over Covid-19.

A question also remains as to whether destinations with unfettered travel links to the UK would be happy to welcome its citizens as visitors. The country’s death rate from Covid-19 is the second highest in the world after the United States, with a death toll of close to 40,000. Infection rates remain at around 1,500 new cases a day. Why would countries in Europe that have succeeded in suppressing the disease want to risk accepting UK visitors?

“There’s no doubt that some of our clients are cautious about welcoming British visitors too quickly,” says Paul Charles. “A measured approach is important. As the technology improves, case numbers decline and more confidence returns, many will realize that British visitors will be traveling from July. The key is to put the confidence back.”

That confidence does seem to be there, but the quarantine means businesses can’t see a way to appeal to UK visitors.

“We’ve been in touch with our local hosts all over the world frequently throughout this pandemic to get their thoughts and insights on the situation in their local communities,” says Sam Bruce, co-founder of Much Better Adventures, which teams up with guides and hotels to offer outdoor adventures in countries including Morocco, Costa Rica and Romania. “They understand the principle behind [quarantine], but are naturally very concerned about the damage to business and their local economies. Most remain keen to get back up to speed as quickly as possible and welcome adventurers back from the UK.

“Many of our destinations with much lower infection rates are preparing to open their borders, with well defined plans to manage the risk including strong testing capacity on arrival, yet will still be unable to attract UK customers back due to the quarantine they face on their return to the UK.”

Robin Sheppard reflects Bruce’s view, saying he doesn’t believe companies overseas are concerned about Brits traveling. “I don’t think they see us as a pariah or some kind of blight on the world,” he says. However, he adds that he doesn’t believe many from the UK will jet off this summer. “An awful lots of Brits have already resigned themselves to not having an international holiday this year,” he says.

Despite that, tourism boards are already offering inducements to try and entice Brits to book now for later in the summer, in a bid to drum up business.

“Even if we can’t immediately go everywhere, plenty of places are explicitly keen to welcome us back and some places — for example Sicily — are offering discounts and freebies to draw tourists back,” says Ant Clarke-Cowell, associate brand director at Holiday Extras. “Others, like Cyprus, are offering to cover the healthcare costs of any visitors who fall ill there.”

For Brian Young from G Adventures, the measures being put in place at UK airports, including temperature checks, and safeguarding by airlines who demand passengers wear face coverings, should assuage concerns from the suppliers he works with around the world.

“The necessary measures are being put in place to ensure customer welfare,” he says. “It’s time to start opening up and getting things moving.”

Whether Young gets his wish and whether UK travelers will be taking to the skies later this summer, however, remains to be seen.