Why you still can’t have a European holiday this summer. Or can you?

Across Europe, beaches are open and airliners are ready for take-off. It’s tempting...

Wish you were here? While  countries across Europe are beginning to reopen their tourist markets, Irish people still have no idea if they are coming or going. Photograph: Getty Images

Wish you were here? While countries across Europe are beginning to reopen their tourist markets, Irish people still have no idea if they are coming or going. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Irish holidaymakers who had hoped to see even an outline of their summer plans emerging from the fog of confusion created by the Covid-19 pandemic will be disappointed this weekend. If anything, there is more confusion now than at any point since the Covid-19 crisis began.

While other countries across Europe are beginning to reopen their tourist markets to international visitors, albeit in a slow and piecemeal fashion, Irish people still have no idea if they are coming or going – literally – as the country moves into the second phase of the lockdown exit from the start of next week.

Travel restrictions imposed in order to stem the spread of the virus mean that people will be unable to travel more than 20km from their homes until July 20th (today it is still 5km), while an official advisory against non-essential travel to any country apart from Britain remains in force with no sign of it being lifted.

Quarantine rules mean that even if people do chance it and make a break for a border against the advice of Government, they will be forced to self-isolate for a full two weeks upon their return and face stiff penalties should they be found in breach of the rules.

Alongside the confusion about what might or might not happen this summer, many people are becoming increasingly fearful they will have be forced to take a massive financial hit rather than a holiday in the months ahead.

Many millions of euros could be lost by many thousands of Irish families if holiday flights booked in the months before the crisis take off while official advice against non-essential overseas travel remains in place.

“Ghost flights will be a big problem,” says Pat Dawson of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA). “If airlines are allowed to fly while the Government is saying people should not leave the country, then that is what could happen in July.”

He points out that if a flight has not been cancelled but passengers cannot travel then the money will be lost. “The reality is that up to 80 per cent of the seats on most of the flights to popular destinations over the summer months are already sold, so the airlines will make money if the flight is in the air even if no one is on it.”

Helen Browne is one passenger currently fearing the worst. She has Aer Lingus flights to Amsterdam for herself and her family booked for July 31st, and when she contacted the airline seeking a refund or even a voucher she was refused on the basis that the flight would be taking off.

“We are way over 20km from the airport, and it is not an essential travel but they told me I could only get taxes and charges back less administration costs.”

Catherine Butler and her family are due to fly with Ryanair to Portugal on July 1st having spent €1,400 on the tickets before the pandemic was declared. The flight is still scheduled to depart. “I have been on to Ryanair requesting a refund or a credit note. My main issue is that we cannot travel further than 20km from our home in Waterford so can’t be expected to take these flights. Ryanair are saying I can change the flights at my expenses but can only change up to March of next year. I really feel it’s very unfair.”

Tripled

According to the director of the European Consumer Centre (ECC) in Ireland, Dr Cyril Sullivan, the volume of queries to its helplines has tripled in recent weeks when compared with the same period last year. Many of the queries are about upcoming travel concerns.

The ECC points out that the Commission for Aviation Regulation had “already clarified that if the air carrier has not cancelled the flight, there is no entitlement to re-routing or a refund under the [EU regulations].”

The only advice it can give people who find themselves in a travel limbo is to sit tight and effectively play chicken with the airlines. “As flights are being constantly cancelled due to Covid-19, [passengers] might consider deferring any decision on their part to cancel the flight and wait for such a decision on the airline’s part.”

Dawson is convinced airlines will start flying sooner rather than later. “The fact is Ryanair and Aer Lingus are certainly going to fly next month even though nobody will have the appetite to get on those planes. And if they don’t get on the planes then they will be treated as a no-show and their money is going to be gone. If the Government is allowing planes to fly then they should pay the money to the people who are going to lose out.

“There is no joined-up thinking. How can one element of Government say don’t travel while another accommodates airlines? We want airlines to be flying but we also want people to be safe and to be protected.”

Dawson warns that anyone who travels to another country against official advice is “invalidating their travel insurance, and no one should ever travel without that. I mean, we can talk about the benefits of the European Health Insurance Card (which allows Irish people to be treated in any hospital in the EU as if they were a citizen of that country) and that’s fine and dandy until you get sick and have to be hospitalised or repatriated.

Dawson’s calls for clarity – or even a roadmap for a coherent resumption of overseas travel – appeared to go unheeded at the highest level on Wednesday as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney addressed the Dáil.

The Minister warned that Irish people should not be planning to travel abroad any time soon despite advertisements for flights to Spain, Italy and elsewhere. “Those who go abroad, when they come back, will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days,” he insisted.

He pointed out that between January and April, Ireland had changed its travel advice 1,400 times. Describing the figure as “extraordinary”, he said that “normally in a whole year you wouldn’t get that number. I think it’s a reminder of how quickly things were changing.”

The Minister stressed that the advice for the public to avoid all non-essential travel overseas remained in place and “this advice will remain under constant review as the situation evolves over the coming months”.

However, he said, “under the five-stage opening-up period there will be an opportunity to take well-earned breaks and holidays, we hope, in late June [sic] and in August, or before then if it is safe to speed up the pace of the opening-up period”.

Cold water

Speaking at an Oireachtas hearing earlier this week, the secretary-general of the Department of Health, Jim Breslin, also poured cold water on holidays in the weeks ahead. He said all non-essential travel, including booking holidays, both at home and abroad, was ill-advised.

He told the committee that the danger of infection had not passed and people engaging in non-essential travel were taking a risk of spreading the virus. “The position at the moment is there should be no non-essential travel overseas; that’ll be kept under review.”

Then there is the quarantine. Aer Lingus chief executive Sean Doyle has called on the Government to remove restrictions on people travelling into the country by the end of June so it can restore some of its short-haul services.

“There is a decent degree of demand that we would see coming through if there was clarity around quarantine and travel policies,” Doyle told The Irish Times this week.

He said Aer Lingus would initially look to provide services to cities in Germany and the Netherlands and to Portugal and Spain, if Irish quarantine rules are removed and if the advisory on non-essential travel was lifted.

Airplanes grounded at Dublin Airport in March. Photograph: Kenneth O’Halloran
Airplanes grounded at Dublin Airport in March. Photograph: Kenneth O’Halloran
All they want to know is when can they fly, and nobody’s worried about the Irish or the UK quarantine

“We have a number of European services that we would look to operate in July and August,” he said. “The policies around travel advisories and quarantine are pretty important to us finalising what the travel programme might look like.”

In calling for an end to the quarantine and a lifting of the department’s travel advisories, he echoed the considerably more bellicose Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary, who had previously launched a blistering attack on the Government and its advisers.

“When Leo Varadkar says, oh we’ll review the lifting of the quarantine but in months not weeks, you’re talking rubbish,” O’Leary said last week. “The French have lifted quarantine, the Spanish have lifted quarantine, the Portuguese have lifted quarantine, the Italians have lifted quarantine. What science is the Taoiseach reading?”

He went on to say that the chief medical officer Tony Holohan and Minister for Health Simon Harris would be crushed under a “stampede” of Irish families rushing to go on foreign holidays this summer. “They are booking in their thousands already over the last 10 days. All they want to know is when can they fly, and nobody’s worried about the Irish or the UK quarantine.”

O’Leary was also critical of the policies of the National Public Health Emergency Team under Dr Holohan and of the lack of media scrutiny. “When did he suddenly become infallible? He’s not the bloody pope. And he keeps parroting on about the science this and the science that. “

Unsurprised

Asked about O’Leary’s criticism, Dr Holohan stopped short of saying “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”, but said he was unsurprised given the Ryanair boss’s role.

“We do hope to be in a situation when the disease conditions both here and in other countries are such that we’ll be able to resume airline travel, but we don’t think it’s in the near term,” the chief medical officer said.

On Thursday things shifted slightly. “I hope that as the world returns to a new normality, we will see international air travel resume, in the first instance through air bridges with countries that have suppressed the virus to a similar extent as ours,” Leo Varadkar told the Dail.

“This, however, is some weeks away and it’s far too soon for anyone to book their holidays yet but summer is not yet lost.”

Industry sources have suggested that by promising to ramp up of flights from the start of next month, Ryanair maybe be trying to force governments here and in the UK to lift the quarantine rules faster than planned. Eyebrows have also been raised about O’Leary’s claim that thousands of Irish families have been racing to book summer flights with the airline.

“Most flights out of this country in July and August are taken by families with children of schoolgoing age because those are the ones you pay through the nose for. Many of them would have booked their seats well before the pandemic, so talk of a huge volume of new bookings for a dramatically curtailed service makes no sense,” one source says.

Another question many people have posed is how they can travel out of the country if they are not allowed to travel more than 5km today – a distance which will be widened to 20km from Monday.

Pat Dawson has asked that question too. He says he rang a Garda station in Dublin and inquired about a customer living in Cork who wanted to travel to Dublin Airport. He says he was told that if the customer produced a valid boarding pass or booking then they would be allowed to travel onwards.

And what of all the Irish people who had booked holidays overseas but then reconsidered as the crisis took hold and – following Government advice – booked holidays at home? Many would have done so on the basis that they were told by the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, the Taoiseach and countless others in authority that overseas trips would be off the menu this summer.

Where will they stand if things change dramatically in the weeks ahead and Europe’s holiday hotspots declare themselves open and flights take off? Paying for one holiday is hard enough. Paying for two – one of which you can’t go on – is a whole lot worse.

If the travel industry in its many forms has any sense, it will bend over backwards to look after these people with vouchers and 2021 rebookings rather than seeking to make short-term gains at the expense of long-term relationships.

Spanish police officers check on passengers upon their arrival from Paris on May 16th at the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suarez airport in Barajas. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images
Spanish police officers check on passengers upon their arrival from Paris on May 16th at the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suarez airport in Barajas. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Country by country: Who is doing what?

Spain
In the most popular destination for Irish tourists (with more than two million trips taken from here to there each year), there is suddenly an air of cautious optimism. The tourism authorities are hopeful the country may open to tourists before July 1st, although it remains in a state of emergency which was extended on Wednesday to June 21st.

On Monday it reopened nearly all of its beaches – apart from those near Barcelona – as part of its government’s efforts to revive its devastated tourist industry. Anybody entering the country still has to self-isolate but, by June 21st, regions will be able to manage their own easing of restrictions.

This is likely to include the Canary and Balearic islands as well as Andalusia. The islands plan on receiving international tourists before the end of June, unless they suffer an outbreak or increase in the spread of Covid-19.

The Spanish minister for transport, José Luis Ábalos, said on Wednesday that the country was working on agreeing safe routes with other countries in a similar situation to Spain regarding control of Covid-19. It is to roll out hygiene and prevention measures for the aviation sector, and a €2.5 billion stimulus package of soft loans for the tourism sector has been unveiled.

Greece
Irish holidaymakers will not be barred from travelling to Greece once the country reopens to tourists later this month, despite reports late last week suggesting that would be the case. The country has long been among the most popular destinations for Irish tourists, and it is planning to allow tourists from most European countries to visit within days.

From June 15th, tourists will be allowed to fly into Athens and Thessaloniki airports but may be subject to random coronavirus tests, while hotels must observe restrictions on capacity and stringent hygiene rules. Beaches are reopening, as are restaurants, and ferries to the islands have resumed.

Italy
The country, which was hit hard and early by Covid-19, opened to all foreign visitors from last Wednesday, although many hotels in places including Rome and Milan remain shuttered.

The Colosseum and the Vatican museums reopened at the start of the month, while the Venetian gondoliers also returned to their canals on June 1st. The Uffizi Galleries in Florence opened on Wednesday while the Tower of Pisa is also accepting reduced visitor numbers. There are new rules in place including temperature checks at some sites and the mandatory wearing of face masks.

France
Earlier this week hotels, campsites and gîtes across France were given the green light to reopen when the 100km limit on domestic travel was lifted. The country is split into green and orange zones, based on regional differences in coronavirus levels with, everywhere outside of Île-de-France surrounding Paris now green. The French prime minister Édouard Philippe has announced plans to reopen its borders to European countries from June 15th. Until recently it was feared only domestic tourism would be possible this summer.

Portugal
As of Saturday the beaches on the Algarve have reopened to all-comers while most hotels and restaurants are also open but working at a reduced capacity. Hotels that meet set hygiene standards are getting a “Clean & Safe” status, and on beaches, people must stay 1.5 metres apart. Parasols will have to be placed at least three metres apart. The authorities there have also developed an app, which uses red, yellow and green to alert people about crowds on beaches.