Covid-19 ruins holiday plans as the UK tightens its borders

Business down 60% on the same week in 2019, say Irish travel agent

Covid signage in Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2: Under European Commission proposals, unvaccinated people will get an exemption from travel restrictions if they have a negative Covid test. Photograph: Brian Lawless/ PA Wire

Covid signage in Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2: Under European Commission proposals, unvaccinated people will get an exemption from travel restrictions if they have a negative Covid test. Photograph: Brian Lawless/ PA Wire

 

Anyone who needs a reminder about the speed with which Covid-19 can ruin plans both nationally and personally should look no further than across the Irish Sea this weekend.

For weeks, the UK has been boasting that its vaccine rollout would clear the way for foreign holidays. Today all bets are off as Britain tightens its borders due to alarming new data about the transmissibility of the Delta variant.

It gets worse. Portugal will be taken off the UK’s green list of countries on Tuesday so people returning from holidays there will have to self-isolate for 10 days upon return.

The British transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said rising Covid test positivity rates in Portugal as well as further Covid mutations were behind the move. “We just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine-defeating mutation, and we don’t want to take the risk as we come up to June 21st and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock,” he said.

Both the travel industry and the travelling public have been left reeling. EasyJet’s chief executive, Johan Lundgren, said the decision “essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world” while John Holland-Kaye of Heathrow Airport said government ministers had “spent last month hailing the restart of international travel only to close it down three weeks later, all but guaranteeing another lost summer for the travel sector”.

Irish holidaymakers

The news from across the water is being watched with nervousness by travel agents in Ireland as well as would-be travellers who have only just started to believe a break away might be possible this summer.

“Business is down 60 per cent on the same week in 2019,” said Tanya Airey of Sunway Travel. Despite the dire numbers there is relief in her voice and she is practically laughing as she relays figures that in normal times, she admits, would have her close to tears.

“It means we will have a bit of a summer now,” she said. “I am not sure I would have been able to say that two months ago. People are definitely starting to book for July and August now and that only started on the Friday.”

The Friday she is talking about was seven days ago when Taoiseach Micheál Martin caught many in the travel industry by surprise with the announcement that, all going well, non-essential travel into and out of Ireland would resume on July 19th.

“We are finally taking steps towards enjoying normal times,” he said as he confirmed the Government planned to implement the EU-wide digital green certificate scheme in the middle of July.

The much-talked about cert will allow the fully vaccinated or those who have recovered from Covid-19 or those with a negative PCR test to travel throughout the EU without restrictions.

According to Ms Airey, who sits in the executive chair of the travel company that has been sending Irish people to sun destinations since the mid-1960s, the mood shift was immediate with people suddenly looking for holidays overseas.

Bookings

The top destinations are the most familiar ones. She said the Algarve topped the list followed by the Costa del Sol, Lanzarote, Malta and Salou. There has also been considerable interest in Turkey for the autumn months.

“We have been getting around 40 per cent of the bookings we would get in a normal year but if that sounds bad, it is great by comparison with what we have been doing since the start of this crisis,” she said.

“We have been down more than 90 per cent over the course of the pandemic and now we are down only 60 per cent. I say ‘only 60 per cent’ even though I know that if you had told me before all this – that we would lose that much business in the summer of 2021 – I would have told you we would have no choice but to close the doors.”

Ms Airey has also noted some changes to the bookings that were coming in. There are more groups of adults booking trips away together than she would see in a normal summer and people appear to be more than willing to pay more.

“The price being paid per person is higher now than it was even though airfares are lower than normal. People are booking more expensive holidays, they want to get more bang for their buck and want to spend a bit more on the more luxury option,” she said.

Covid tests

Under European Commission proposals, unvaccinated people will get an exemption from travel restrictions if they have a negative Covid test. Countries will be able to choose which conditions it imposes and, at present, Ireland is favouring negative PCR tests over antigen tests, a decision that could prove costly for travellers. A test at home and abroad will add at least €150 per person on to the cost of a holiday.

What might prove even more costly will be a positive test that could derail a family holiday days before departure or perhaps, even worse, see them stuck overseas for at least two weeks as they wait for a family member to recover from the illness.

“It looks like families have been discriminated against,” said Paul Hackett of online travel agency Click & Go.

He has noticed a pick-up in bookings over recent days. “It has not been stratospheric but at least we are getting bookings every single day and it has been a long time since that was the case. We are still way off normal and are getting about 25 per cent of the bookings we would have been taking in but it is still better than where we were.”

He said bookings for July and August were primarily coming in from adults who were confident vaccines would allow them to travel without difficulty. “They are going to the Canaries, Spain and Greece. There is good connectivity to Greece and, as a destination, it tends to be primarily adults who go there.”

Irish people who do manage to get off the island for a sun break should expect unfamiliar scenes in familiar hotspots.

“It is a disaster, every day a disaster,” said Juanjo Aguirre from the marble-tiled lobby of his hotel in Belamadena on the Costa del Sol. “Since the start of the crisis we have been either closed or lucky to have 10 per cent of our rooms occupied. It was the same everywhere.

“If you were to see the Costa del Sol now, you wouldn’t recognise it. The bars and the restaurants are closed and there is no one around. I walk from my home to my hotel every day and I might pass only three or four people. In the past I would pass hundreds every single day of the year. I see it daily and I still can’t believe it.”

He has seen some interest from Ireland for the autumn. “We have nice occupancy in September and October but we have nobody from Ireland for July or August yet.”

He is hopeful discounted rooms might encourage more people to make a move. “There will be good value to be found on the Costa del Sol this year for sure,” he said. “In a normal August the cost of a room in my hotel might be €130 a night. This August I don’t think I will be able to charge much more than €80 and it is the same in hotels all over the place. The industry has been totally destroyed and it will take us years to recover.”