As we start a new year, here’s a quick romp through the highs (yes, there were a few) and the lows of 2021.
In January 2020, we thought nothing of jumping on a plane for a weekend in Rio, by January 2021 we thought ourselves lucky to be able to walk to the park and sit on a bench.
Yes, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced another national lockdown on the 4th, but unlike lockdown 1.0 when no-one was quite sure if foreign holidays were banned, this time the Government made it clear they were very much illegal.
Flights were cancelled, again, holidays had to be re-arranged for the umpteenth time, the peak booking period turned into a trough, and our social media timelines were full of smug influencers posing in Dubai having convinced themselves (and presumably the authorities) that this was ‘essential travel’.
Plucky ski operators who’d remained impressively optimistic that they’d get at least a few skiers out to the slopes were forced to give up on the season and decided again to look ahead to a bumper 2021/22 season. Err…..
Meanwhile, the Competition & Markets Authority gave up hope that lastminute.com would refund passengers for cancelled holidays without the threat of legal action. It also launched an investigation into Teletext Holidays.
Sadly another long-established tour operator, Tucan Travel, shut down, but MSC Cruises remained confident of a cruise bounce back and took delivery of another ship, the MSC Virtuosa.
With still no clue of when the international travel ban would be lifted, several more travel companies threw in the towel, including Disabled Travel, Baxter Hoare Travel, Strand Travel and Silver Sea Holidays.
However, we promised you this review wasn’t all doom and gloom and here we had some good news – Sunny Heart Travel, set up by some of Thomas Cook’s former executives was launched. Yay.
Non-essential international travel was still banned, nevertheless Travel Gossip managed to bring you some joy on the 20th of the month with the launch of its daily news service, Travel Gossip News!
Not such good news, the US put the UK on its ‘no-go’ list, along with 149 other countries with high COVID rates – aaaand the UK is still there today.
A lifeline was thrown to the trade when the Civil Aviation Authority extended the expiry date of Refund Credit Notes to September 2022, making them possibly the biggest and most valuable IOU in history.
Unable to get off this island without A Very Good Excuse, tens of thousands of desperate holidaymakers decided to sail around it instead, stopping to see the delights of Liverpool and Belfast. OK, the ports of call might not be as exotic as Venice or Dubrovnik, but domestic cruises were one of the big success stories of the year. Shame they spawned that awful phrase ‘seacation’, which is only slightly less irritating than ‘seaventure’.
The 7th was a big day for the traffic light emoji when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the launch of red, amber and green travel lists to replace a blanket ban on travel 10 days later on 17 May.
This primary-school style colour coding was designed to make it easy for people to understand where they could travel quarantine-free and which destinations would land them with an obligatory £1,750 10-night grim stay in quarantine hotel on their return. Except 99% of us weren’t sure what the heck ‘amber’ meant and the Government didn’t help when the message from its various Ministers was something like ‘don’t go but you can but you shouldn’t unless you want to in which case you can but don’t but if you do you’ll have to self-isolate when you come back’. Got it?
It didn’t help that only 12 countries were on the original ‘green-means-go’ list, some of which we’d never heard of, most we couldn’t point to on a map and many others were closed to tourists or almost impossible to reach without access to a private jet.
Alexa, where’s Tristan de Cuna?
Mr Shapps also gave us another new travel acronym, the PLF or Passenger Locator Form, which everyone had to fill in before arriving in the UK. They also had to take pre-departure lateral flow tests and PCR tests on arrival.
COVID vaccines became even more important this month, not just to save lives but in order to travel as several holiday hotspots including Croatia, Greece, Gibraltar and Malta announced test-free access to those who’d been double-jabbed.
May was also the month that Mr Shapps managed to p-off travel agents by implying they’d somehow become extinct – prompting ABTA to write a stern letter to the Minister pointing out that despite the Government’s best efforts to kill them off, reports of travel agents’ demise had been exaggerated. Or words to that effect. Later the former housing minister dug his hole even deeper when he referred to them as estate agents. Oh just stop talking Shappsie.
ABTA also told the Government it had two weeks to respond to its request for more financial support for agents or it would think about legal action, which was like a parent giving a naughty child three seconds to behave and counting to two-and-seven-eighths before realising they’re wasting their breath. To date, there has been no specific sector support for travel and Travel Gossip isn’t aware of any legal action by ABTA.
After announcing that it was 100% against COVID Passports that would never ever see the light of day cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, the Government introduced a COVID Vaccination Verification Certificate, in other words, a COVID Passport.
In other news, British Airways’ owners IAG announced it has lost £1bn in just three months. Yep, you read that right. And OTA On the Beach announced it had stopped selling summer 2021 holidays, which probably turned out to be one of the best decisions ever made.
Fed up with what they saw as a lack of effective action by existing trade bodies, agent Jill Waite and Graeme Brett took matters into their own hands and launched the Travel Agents Action Group. Go team TARGET.
BA announced a trial of a ‘gamechanger’ 25-second COVID spit test. Anyone know what happened to that?
And from the ashes of CMV, a new cruise line – Ambassador – was launched.
While we were still grappling to control the pandemic, along came its little sister ‘pingdemic’. Basically if you’d been anywhere near anyone who later tested positive for COVID you got an alert on your phone ordering you to self-isolate – cue thousands of passengers phones going red hot within hours of them stepping off a flight.
Fortunately Government minister Michael Gove didn’t have to self-isolate when he was pinged after a flight from Portugal because he was taking part in a special scheme, which seemed to apply only to Government officials.
Later in the month, thousands of holidaymakers who weren’t on any sort of special scheme scrambled to get home from Portugal to avoid mandatory quarantine after the Government announced it was switching the country from green to amber with just five days’ notice – which marked the start of many such speedy manoeuvres by Mr Shapps and his colleagues during summer 2021.
Jet2 decided to push back to start of its summer programme to 1 July following this further shrinkage of the green list.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola ‘Killjoy’ Sturgeon became the pantomime baddie when she temporarily banned domestic cruises, which had only just begun, leaving 800 passengers on the first sailing – MSC Virtuosa’s round Britain romp – to spend an extra night in Liverpool instead of heading to Greenock. All we can say is good job the bar was well-stocked.
Travel associations organised an away-day for the travel industry on the 23rd, otherwise known as the Travel Day of Action. It was a chance (for those who managed to get a ticket) to meet outside the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments, wave some placards, and highlight to the Government and the media just how much the industry had suffered during the pandemic, in the hope that they’d finally stump up some financial support.
MSC announced the launch a luxury cruise line, Explora, in 2023. Bold move, during a pandemic.
Belfast Airport’s biggest airline Stobart Air collapsed after the sale to a 26-year-old ‘tech entrepreneur’ fell through when he was unable to raise the £2 initial purchase price – plus the millions to cover the airline’s liabilities. Its failure sadly led to the loss of almost 500 jobs.
Grant Shapps continued to randomly tweet important changes to the red, amber and green lists rather than holding press briefings, presumably to avoid answering questions from pesky journalists. Often tweets were at tea-time, dinner time or even past our bedtime, leaving agents to scramble around out of hours to find all the crucial bits of information Mr Shapps couldn’t squeeze into 280 characters.
We also saw the unfathomable rise of the Twitter ‘travel experts’ who apparently used very cloudy crystal balls to predicts with 100% certainty and 0% accuracy which countries would be red, amber and green in the next updates.
Just as the UK was looking to relax its travel restrictions, and the Foreign Office finally removed its advice not to travel to most amber countries, Spain and its islands reintroduced PCR tests for British holidaymakers. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
And after waiting months for Britain to put it on the green travel list, Malta shot itself in the foot by first insisting that all arrivals had an NHS letter to prove their vaccination status, and then, bizarrely, refusing to accept those who’d received doses of the AstraZeneca jab made in India – before later performing more U-turns than Boris Johnson. Evening Prime Minister.
Back in good ‘ole Blighty we all looked forward to ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July when we’d been led to believe that the traffic light system would be switched off and we’d be able to travel freely. Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, the red, amber and green travel lists remained, but at least fully-vaccinated travellers returning from amber countries could avoid the mandatory 10-day quarantine that had previously applied and they no longer had to do a Day 8 test on return, which was a relief given that many of the tests failed to arrive and no-one appeared to be monitoring the results anyway.
Jet2 finally relaunched holidays to amber countries on 19 July.
July also saw an end to England’s ban on international cruises, at long last.
Almost 1,000 Shearings staff who lost their jobs when the coach operator went bust won a legal battle to receive a total of around £4m compensation.
August started with a ban on large cruise ships from Venice lagoon – and another letter from travel bodies, including ABTA, under the Save Future Travel Coalition, urging the Chancellor and Business Secretary to please for goodness sake help travel.
Rishi must’ve been listening, as the very next day he wrote to the PM saying the UK’s travel restrictions were ‘out of step with our international competitors’. Sadly, Boris Johnson didn’t appear to hear him.
As if the UK’s 10-day hotel quarantine wasn’t expensive enough, the Government hiked the price by £500 to £2,285 for the first adult but, by the look of ‘guests’ Twitter posts, the food didn’t improve.
Analysis by PA news agency revealed there had been 50 changes to rules on international travel from the UK since the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, no wonder we felt dizzy.
As the summer season got underway, UK hotspots were packed, leading Head of Visit Cornwall Malcom Bell to ask holidaymakers to stay away unless they’d pre-booked and produced a negative test. In other words, Brits weren’t welcome even in their own country.
And hopes that Turkey would be moved off the red list were dashed in the latest traffic light update. Seven countries were moved to the green list but only two – Finland and Azores – were open without restrictions.
As travel began to pick up, agents warned operators they’d lose bookings if they kept them hanging on the phone. It was taking suppliers hours or even days to respond to changes, with one agent left waiting THREE weeks before a £10,000 quote was amended.
With the end of furlough just around the corner, agents continued to lobby for Government support. One operator, Sam Collins, warned he’d even have to make his girlfriend redundant from Ethos Travel – but even this news failed to move our heartless leader.
On the Beach started selling holidays again.
Love was in the air on Virgin flight VS131, when a passenger lucky enough to navigate all the red tape involved in going on holiday during a pandemic popped the question to his unsuspecting girlfriend, who thought she was going on a business trip to Los Angeles but was actually heading to her honeymoon in Barbados. Some readers expressed amazement that the bride-to-be hadn’t seen the departure signs.
InteleTravel UK Director Tricia Handley-Hughes told the ITT Conference she expected the bulk of its members to remain part-time agents as ‘travel has never been a high-earning career for a travel agent’. You’re not selling it, Trish.
Five thousand people were evacuated on the Canary Island of La Palma after a volcano erupted.
TUI took advantage of the homeworking trend and started promoting ‘workation’ packages that combine work-friendly hotel rooms and the facilities of an all-inclusive resort.
Asia river-cruise operator Pandaw ceased trading (briefly) as did Northumberland-based specialist Tangent Expeditions and Latin America specialist Revealed Travel.
The Competition & Markets Authority blamed ‘lack of clarity in the law’ for closing its investigation into British Airways and Ryanair, which both refused to give customers cash refunds for flights they were unable to take due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
The CMA did say, however, that it was taking Truly Holidays, the owner of Teletext Holidays and Alpharooms.com to court, after accusing it of ‘not doing enough’ to refund customers. Teletext, which we fondly remember of the company that sold us £99 packages on the telly, later ceased trading.
The Government drastically cut the red list, but as usual its timing was terrible and the move was too late to save half-term for some.
However, in a major boost for overseas travel, it ditched pre-departure tests AND swapped Day 2 PCRs for cheaper lateral flows, though few were as cheap as the ones advertised on the Govenment’s RECOMMENDED list of providers, some of whom didn’t have any tests at all.
Just when you thought Ryanair couldn’t get any cheekier, passengers who’d successfully claimed credit card refunds for flights they couldn’t take during lockdown complained that the airline had demanded they paid back the money before they boarded new flights. Yes, that’s right, they actually rebooked with an airline that had refused to refund them.
The COVID pass on the NHS app went down due to ‘high traffic’ (of course) causing some passengers to miss flights.
Delegates were left peeling their eyebrows off the ceiling during an on-stage interview at the ABTA Travel Convention when journalist Rachel Johnson (who is also Boris Johnson’s sister) asked Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Woods ex-wife ‘how do you keep a husband happy’? Answers on a postcard please.
Things were well and truly looking up at the start of November.
The red list and hotel quarantine were ditched, at last, on the 1st and the US finally welcomed the Brits back with open arms on the 8th, as long as they were fully vacc’d and in full possession of a negative COVID test.
Confidence was returning to the market, bookings were picking up, we were revving up for the January peaks. Things were looking oh so good …and then, boom, O-mi-cron arrived.
The red list, mandatory hotel quarantine and expensive PCR Day 2s tests were re-introduced faster than you could say: “Is this new variant really a threat and, by the way, what good are travel restrictions anyway?”
What’s more, all arrivals were forced to self-isolate until the result of their Day 2 tests, which, given the hit-and-miss nature of the testing system in the UK led to fears people would spend days in quarantine.
Other countries also reacted swiftly, reintroducing testing and, in the case of Switzerland, mandatory quarantine for Brits. Austria and Germany went back into full on lockdown mode.
Bookings began to dry up, cancellations started trickling in and airlines started cancelling flights again. Hmm…what’s that French phrase?
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, Health Secretary Sajid Javid drove the knife a little bit deeper and reintroduced pre-departure tests. And we all know, there’s nothing like the threat of testing positive abroad and being denied re-entry to your own country to put people off travelling.
Better news came on 15 December with the removal of all 11 countries from the red list and news that testing will be reviewed in the first week of January but before we could crack open the Champagne first France and then Germany decided to ban British holidaymakers – and one by one countries tightened their entry restrictions. Will anyone give us a break?
On 22 December, Austria became one of the first countries to impose a quarantine for British arrivals who weren’t boosted, possibly signalling a new trend.
Hays Travel, a once profitable company, announced it had lost more than £34m in 18 months.
As the threat of yet another lockdown loomed on the horizon, the Chancellor gave the hospitality industry a Christmas gift of £1bn while the travel industry didn’t even get a wooden spoon, prompting a war cry from the travel industry’s own Daenerys Targaryen, Advantage CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said, for the industry to come together and raise enough money for a serious lobbying effort.
And so we look forward to the New Year.
Happy 2022 everyone!