How safe will it be to travel overseas in 2021?

by | Jan 13, 2021

January is a popular time for most industries to predict what the future landscape will look like and so my first blog in 2021 will also focus on the year ahead, specifically how safe it will be to travel ex-UK. COVID-19 is understandably continuing to dominate the discussion and once again, travel businesses are facing significant disruption. Companies will be dealing with another raft of cancellations, refunds and amendments and even when the roll out of the vaccine in the UK allows for more freedom of movement domestically and a subsequent relaxation of travelling restrictions for overseas trips, we’re likely to be assessing the impact of the pandemic on travel and travel safety for the remainder of the year.

Keeping travellers safe

COVID mitigation and enhanced hygiene protocols are likely to be in place for the foreseeable future at all points on the journey – airport, transportation, accommodation, activities and excursions etc. It’s highly likely that suppliers are going to need to be able to demonstrate that they are doing all they reasonably can to make every aspect of holidays and business trips as safe as possible to reassure travellers, tour operators and companies that taking the journey is as low risk as possible. We can probably expect face coverings to be the new normal, particularly when inside, reduced contact interactions at many more stages of the journey that would usually involve human interaction and we also need to be prepared for most countries wanting proof of a negative COVID test (or vaccine, eventually) to grant entry. Some may also require proof of insurance which covers COVID and evidence of pre-approved accommodation.

We’re currently experiencing extremely tough and restrictive measures to limit travel in and out of the UK due to COVID, understandably so. But we haven’t been as severe as other countries, who, it transpires, have faired better when analyzing the number of cases and associated deaths. Why it has taken until now to impose mandatory pre-departure testing on travellers returning to the UK is baffling, given that the UK Government was advised as far back as May 2020 by the industry that this was a necessary step, with lobbying continuing ever since. Other areas that will need to change before we can talk about meaningful recoveries in traveller numbers are the re-opening of International borders to UK residents, amendments to the FCDO travel advice, quarantine and test to release rules lifted or relaxed and more widespread testing of passengers. Organisations such as The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) are supporting testing prior to departure as part of a wider, long-term project on ‘safe & seamless’ traveller journeys, central to which is the collaboration between Government and the private sector. A consistent International approach to pre-departure testing would also enable Governments to amend restrictions simultaneously and in partnership, allowing safe travel corridors to be opened up.

What needs to happen next

It goes without saying that public health is the first priority and widespread overseas travel should not begin again in earnest until it is deemed safe to do so, but a balance needs to be found for those who are willing to accept the risks associated with travelling. The fortunate few who had the capability to escape the UK prior to this most recent lockdown have done, seeking refuge in the likes of the Caribbean, Maldives and Dubai until the Spring. However, even the most ardent among us who are desperate to travel again will need to wait patiently until one or more of the aforementioned restrictions are reviewed. There are mixed sentiments about how long a recovery will take, with some leisure tour operators reporting overseas bookings for Spring/Easter 2021, whereas others are seeing longer lead times, with summer and Q4 2021 being the busiest periods. Advance bookings for even further ahead are also picking up pace, meaning more and more tour operators are releasing their 2022 programmes early. Consumers are clearly focussing on trips further afield in the hope that restrictions have been lifted and it is therefore safer to make the journey.

What is clear is that there is strong pent-up demand, with many leisure travellers wanting to get something in the diary look forward later in the year or to jet off again as soon as is possible and business travellers are eager to reconnect with clients and suppliers. Reports of ‘revenge travel’ holidays are evident, where consumers are throwing caution to the wind and combining multiple bucket-list experiences and destinations into longer, more adventurous trips – combining several missed trips into one. The desire for privacy, seclusion and off-the-beaten-track accommodation is also on the increase, presumably as these are deemed safer than being with the masses. Private villas and smaller, boutique properties will be in high demand for those able to holiday at these levels and it is expected that travelling to visit friends and relatives will be on the rise after trips in 2020 were cancelled due to the pandemic. Already, without being told what is and isn’t safe, trends are appearing in consumer choices around future travel plans.

In time, COVID safety measures will be merged within the topic of Prevention of the Spread of Infection, to include other diseases and viruses, but for the time being, how reassured travellers are about their journey and the cleanliness of their accommodation with be a factor in their choice of destination. Travellers should also assess how their chosen country’s health system is coping with the pandemic and/or generally, to ensure that if they fall ill they will receive good local medical treatment and care. One piece of good news is the introduction of the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), which will give travellers the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in the European Union (EU).

As an industry, we must do all we can to ensure supply chains have the necessary control measures in place to keep travellers safe, whilst challenging the Government’s decisions on restricting overseas travel when effective alternative measures are available. Anyone looking to venture overseas in 2021 should book their holidays with a reputable travel agent or tour operator and their business travel through a corporate travel management company, thus ensuring that safety auditing and a duty of care is in place; if you arrange holidays by combining multiple single elements to create you own package, you will not benefit from the due diligence these companies will undertake on your behalf, or the flexibility they have managed to arrange with suppliers on your behalf.

Sanderson Phillips continue to audit hotels on behalf of their tour operator clients to assess if adequate COVID control measures are in place. In partnership with Global Secure Accreditation, they also have a third-party verified COVID-19 Certificate of International Good Practice, which accommodation providers can use to benchmark themselves against. More information can be found here.