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Will it get international tourism moving? – the Traffic Light System for travel

Author: Peter Johnson-Treherne, Group Finance Director, Heritage Great Britain

Published: 28 May 2021

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Peter Johnson-Treherne explores the impact of the Traffic Light System on international tourism.

What is the system?

The new system introduces a green, amber and red list status of countries, which is established by a variety of factors, such as the coronavirus case rate, quality of testing, number of vaccines administered and prevalence of virus mutations.

Countries with low cases and deaths, high vaccination rates and low numbers of ‘variants of concern’ have been given the green light for travel including for leisure.

Amber countries are deemed relatively risky for travel, and so the restrictions are tighter. Travel to these countries is legally permitted but Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advises against all but essential travel to them.

Red countries will come with the most stringent restrictions, most important of which is the mandatory hotel quarantine. You can only enter the UK from a red list country if you are a British or Irish National or have residence rights.

What do you have to do?

Red: Passengers will have to pay for a 10 day stay in a managed quarantine hotel (at their own cost, of £1,750 per person), as well as a predeparture test and two PCR tests on return to the UK (day 2 and day 8)

Amber: Travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days (at home or other location), as well as taking a predeparture test and two PCR tests on return to the UK (day 2 and day 8)

Green: Passengers will not need to quarantine on return*, but must take a predeparture test (PCR or antigen), as well as a PCR test on return to the UK (day 2)

A passenger locator form is required to be completed for all arrivals. The system is now the same for each of the 4 UK nations.

When are the list reviewed?

The lists and restrictions will be reviewed every three weeks – although the government has said they will have “watch lists” for those at risk of moving e.g., from Green to Amber. Some countries may be added to the Red List with very little notice should their circumstances change.

But various issues may still discourage international tourism

Whilst broadly welcomed by the travel industry, a number of issues remain:

  • Confusion over status of Amber countries – many airlines are still operating flights to these countries (and even adding flights) even though the government is advising against leisure travel to them. On May 17, UK Environment Secretary George Eustice told the BBC that people were now free to travel to amber countries "either to visit family or indeed to visit friends."

But hours later, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said an amber country, was "not somewhere where you should be going on holiday, let me be very clear about that." He added that people should only travel to an amber destination for "some pressing family or urgent business reason."

Government officials, including Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, have added further confusion by urging British residents to consider avoiding even green destinations because of growing fears about the risk from the Covid variant first identified in India.

  • Testing requirements – although these have reduced to on average £60 per test (postal) and £85 (in clinic), this price remains prohibitive for some families. Furthermore, the timing of these tests, complexity of offerings and uncertainty about results arriving in time (particularly postal ones) has meant a significant proportion of potential travellers have decided to not take the risk or expense.
  • Vaccination status – whilst the NHS app now does show vaccination status in a certified way; this does not allow UK testing or quarantine to be avoided. Some countries have said they will waive their testing requirements for vaccinated travellers from the UK. An expansion of this stance would generate an uplift in demand.
  • Mixing of people at airports from different countries (green/amber/red) – this has led to media stories about the part played in spreading the virus at airports. Heathrow have now confirmed that from June that they will physically segregate those individuals travelling from red countries. Other airports may have to follow suit.
  • Requirements of destination country - whilst the traffic light system adopted by the UK government has been set out, destination countries have so far varied their requirements. Portugal (green) requires a PCR within 72 hours of arrival, whereas Spain (amber) requires no test or vaccination. Again, this simply adds to the confusion.
  • Positive results or changes in status – travellers will need to carefully consider their financial resources and/or insurance cover when travelling this year as should conditions change e.g., positive test result, green to amber status, then a large bill could result.

Whilst there has been an increase in bookings, the ongoing issues and general uncertainty around international travel means that the industry continues to struggle.

The impact goes beyond the airlines too, with Visit Britain this week forecasting that inbound tourism spend will be £6.2bn, compared to £28.4bn in 2019. Domestic tourism has been forecast to generate far more (£51.4bn in 2021) but this is less than 60% of the £91.6bn of value in 2019.

The challenge to our sector continues in 2021.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW