The impact of the global pandemic on the travel and tourism industry was quick and devastating.Almost overnight, the industry seemed to grind to a halt.For those of us who had trips planned, this might have manifested as a string of emails notifying that flights, accommodation and hire car bookings had been cancelled.For many, this may also have marked the start of protracted customer service battles, trying to recover costs from airlines and tour operators.Beyond the impact on those who had trips booked, we also cannot ignore the impact on those who make the tourism industry work.The impact here is universal: From travel agents, to guides, to hoteliers to cleaners and, let’s not forget the massive supply chain of secondary suppliers who feed into this sector too (ourselves included).
The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that in 2019 the tourism industry contributed $8.9 trillion dollars to the global economy, which works out at over 10% of global GDP and accounts for one in ten jobs worldwide.It’s easy to skim over these figures without realising their true enormity, but take a moment to consider just how much money $8.9 trillion actually is, or how many people 10% of the Earth’s workforce represents and you’ll see the scales is truly dizzying!These figures are averaged out globally, but, of course, in some areas of the world where tourism is a key economic activity (for example, the Caribbean islands, Greece, Spain etc.), the percentage contribution to national GDP and employment will be even higher still, so any impact to the tourism industry will be disproportionately felt in these places.
That this industry has effectively ground to a halt over the past year is, in our opinion, profoundly sad and something that up until very recently would simply have been unthinkable.Of course, tourism is not on its own here, and many industries have been hit badly during the pandemic, but we think in some ways, the plight of the tourism sector – how it was ‘floored’ so quickly and ruthlessly – is unique.
Here in the UK, the official advice from the outset of the pandemic has been cloudy at best, with many snippets of contradictory advice and confusing guidelines, however one key piece of messaging has been perfectly clear from the start: ‘Stay At Home.’It’s logical enough: The best way to stop a virus which, until recently, had no vaccine, is to stop it from spreading.So, non-essential travel is, at time of press, off the cards for the time being and, at times over the past year even illegal.This doesn’t just mean international travel and holidays were off the cards, but for many months, travelling anywhere that you couldn’t reach on foot was discouraged.In other European countries, this was taken a step further, with citizens given a radius from their homes in which they were expected to contain their movements during lockdown.For many people, the spirit of the messaging was clear enough: even when we were not prevented legally from travelling long distances, may of us felt an obligation to minimise time spent outside, time when we might be infected or perhaps unwittingly infecting others.Morally, it was the right thing to do.
But the problem with anything that involves morality is that it seems to lend itself well to judgement, scaremongering and virtue signalling.Sadly, these are all activities that have an in-built disdain for hard facts and reality.
Since practically the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen an outpouring of content ranging from social media posts to articles in major newspapers which feed into this trap of virtue signalling the pandemic at the expense of facts.Whilst it’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of these pieces are not intended maliciously, they still have an insidious effect on our mindset – just like the outpouring of toxic positivity that accompanied the first lockdown did (we can all remember social posts along the lines of ‘I’ll use this time to learn a new language, take up a new hobby, learn an instrument AND sort out my side-hustle!’).
ID: A landscape image. In the foreground is an alpine mountain in shadow with a mast at the top of the peak. The sky is setting sun – and there are shades of purple and pink in a slightly overcast sky.
So, we find ourselves in a tricky situation.It’s absolutely true that many people miss travel for a wide range of reasons: Maybe you’ve become used to a regular holiday; Maybe you find travel important for your physical and mental wellness; Maybe, like us, you depend on travel to make your living! We want to travel… and in many cases, and within some limitations, we may still be allowed to but… but… we are made to feel guilty, perhaps like this is the wrong or immoral thing to do because of the information we consume.However, if you look objectively at the situation, then there is plenty of evidence to suggest that COVID safe travel can be a reality.
Whilst there’s no doubt the pandemic has been a tragedy, it has also given some of humanity’s better traits – ingenuity, invention and compassion – a real opportunity to shine.In record time, scientists developed containment policies, tests, treatments and vaccines – all of which are, I think, testament to what’s good about humanity.Of course, in many countries, much of this good work was undermined by political inaction, and it cannot be denied that far too many more people have died than should have and people’s livelihoods around the world have suffered more than they should have too.We don’t want to turn this article into an exercise in politically motivated finger-pointing, but put simply, we believe that whilst the pandemic could certainly have been far, far worse, in many ways it could also have been far less tragic too.
It’s fair to say that we have transitioned from an initial period of ‘fire-fighting’ the virus into a period where we are now managing it.In most countries we have access to reliable testing – we can get a Lateral Flow rapid test, with results available within thirty minutes for free in a drop-in centre a short walk from our front door.More precise PCR testing (requiring a nasal swab) is also readily available – in the UK both for free via a nation-wide network of NHS test centres or paid-for via numerous private clinics. Globally, the rollout of various vaccines is well underway.At the time of writing (early March 2021), we’re seeing more and more of our younger friends internationally – some even as young as their 30s – receiving invites for vaccination.Even for those who do not receive a vaccination invite any time soon, this is still good news: Whilst studies here are still not fully conclusive, an increased number of vaccinated individuals should reduce the overall infection rate.
The travel industry has not stood still throughout this.Mindful of the crippling impact the pandemic has had on so many people, proposals for COVID safe travel have been suggested and, in some cases adopted.We saw this starting to come into effect in Summer 2020 when Europe-wide travel corridors began to open.What’s more, during the WTM travel trade show, held online in November 2020, we listened in on many interesting presentations from various destinations and tourism boards where they spoke in detail about how they were working with experts to help make travel safe again in 2021.
ID: A landscape image. In the foreground is a view above an alpine mountain pass. It is very snowy and the whole image feels like a cold snowy day. The road is black and snakes through the foreground of the image in-between pine trees. Into the background, cloud inversions start to take over snow capped mountain peaks. In the sky, the setting sun creates a strip of pink/yellow light with clouds dispersing to pale grey in the foreground.
Whilst the exact implementation can vary from country to country, there are essentially two key strategies that underpin COVID safe travel:
The first requires travellers to take a PCR COVID test within a defined time window (usually between 48 and 72 hours) before travel.A negative result is accompanied by a ‘Fit to Travel’ certificate which is required by both the airline to allow you onto a flight and by border control to allow you into your destination country. Since the pandemic hit, a whole industry has sprung up to service the need for private testing.There’s no way to sugar-coat it: these private tests are expensive and can add considerably to the cost of a trip.The fact that they need to be carried out very close to departure is also, undoubtedly a stressing factor.With some destinations, this test is all that’s required, but others will require visitors to undertake a mandatory period of quarantine on arrival (requiring a hotel to be booked).A negative result on a second PCR test after a certain amount of time will release the traveller from quarantine.Whilst this process does make travel technically possible, the combination of costs, potential time in quarantine on arrive and time in quarantine at home when you return is certainly off-putting.We would use this system to travel, but only on a trip that we deemed very important!
The second approach to COVID safe travel is much newer and, as of writing, has not yet entered mainstream use.This is vaccine passporting.This is pretty simple: you receive a certificate once vaccinated and this allows you to travel.There may still be some other requirements involved, but it’s likely that lengthy quarantine periods can be eliminated with this method.In many ways, this isn’t too different to the requirement for vaccination against specific tropical diseases when travelling to certain countries, though one key difference is that the COVID vaccination certificate will also be required to avoid quarantine when returning home.The obvious downside of this is that some people – especially younger age groups who are precisely the people many destination typically market to – may not receive their vaccination for a long time, thus ruling them out of the scheme.It’s been argued that it is unfair to create a separate set of rules for unvaccinated people.However, you could just as reasonably argue that it’s unfair to prevent those who have been vaccinated from travelling!
The solutions here are imperfect for sure, and whilst COVID still exists – there will be no such thing as 100% COVID safe travel.However, we would argue that all travel involves an element of calculated risk – whether that’s travelling to a tropical destination where there is an increased risk of contracting, say, the Zika virus via a mosquito bite (let’s remember, there is currently no vaccine for Zika), or travelling to destinations where there’s an increased risk of earthquakes, wildfires, avalanche, encountering bears etc.We’ve travelled to destinations where all of these things and more are potential risks and yet we’ve deemed them acceptable.We don’t consider ourselves to be ‘extreme tourists’ with these decisions in the same way that some people choose to travel through active war zones, but rather just pragmatic about the realities of travel.We’re not for a moment saying that you should not take the threat of COVID seriously and, of course, it should factor into any travel planning you decide to undertake, but at the same time, we think it’s important to realise that COVID safe travel is already possible and will only become easier as more and more people are vaccinated.It’s essential that any decisions you make here are objective and not clouded by the dubious virtue signalling that unfortunately has become all too familiar a fixture of this last year.
We have faith in science and we also believe, from talking to friends and colleagues in various parts of the tourism industry, that destinations are well-aware that they cannot reopen too soon.Put simply, if they get it wrong, they could dent visitor confidence thus causing damage to their reputation that could last a generation.In short, we believe that as travel becomes readily available again, it will happen because it is safe and we’ll take our information here from scientific and credible industry sources rather than click-bait articles.We believe that travel is a special experience – we’ve chosen to re-align our lives around it after all.There is a real risk that some of the vibrant destinations and experiences we’ve previously been used to could simply fade away if the tourism industry continues to suffer.We hope that through careful planning, marketing and reliance on facts that this can be avoided and that we can soon enjoy travel again in a responsible and above all else, safe way.
ID: A landscape image. The image is shot into a sunset, so everything is in shadow and no real detail can be seen except for a sandy mound in the foreground where textures and grooves in the sand are being picked out by the light. On top of the foreground sand are some desert plants. In the background are mountains which seem to relief into each other. The sky is a colour of gold. The whole image is cast with a golden light.