The global travel industry has changed, perhaps irrevocably, since the Corona-virus pandemic took hold in April 2020. Airlines have had make to huge adaptations to the massive reduction in demand, especially from the business travel sector. New routes and schedules have been devised to try work around the ever changing border closures and re-openings, as governments attempt to control the spread of the virus. In such a connected world tourism was one of the first industries to suffer as a result of the pandemic and it is still struggling badly 8 months into the crisis. Tens of thousands of flights have had to be cancelled or re-scheduled, only to be cancelled again. The demand for seats either isn’t there or governments have shut their borders to all but essential travel.
These restrictions have naturally had a knock on affect to the tourism industry at the ground level. Hotels, transfer operators, restaurants and bars particularly in tourist hot-spots have seen a sharp drop in demand with some hotels in seasonal destinations across Europe and the Caribbean simply closing their doors for the rest of the year. Some unfortunately will never re-open. Hotel employees, restaurant staff and shop workers in these tourist areas have all been affected, most acutely when a government furlough or support scheme does not exist.
Being furloughed myself for all of October 2020 I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Italy for a week. With the dynamic nature of the virus’ impact, and the government’s changing guidance, the planning and undertaking this trip did not prove simple. I initially booked to go to Poland however a week before I was due to depart this destination was taken off the UK Foreign Office ‘s (FCO) list of ‘exempt’ countries. This meant although my flight was still likely to depart and I would be allowed in by Polish authorities, I would be travelling against FCO advice therefore invalidating ALL travel insurance claims, not just those related to Covid. Consequently I made the decision to re-arrange my trip to Italy which at that time (October 8th 2020) was on the UK travel corridor list. So long as I arrived in Italy before any adverse changes in its ‘corridor’ status my travel insurance would be valid throughout the entirety of my trip.
In the days building up to my departure there were rumours on Twitter and other transient media suggesting that Italy would follow Germany’s suit and quarantine any travellers arriving from the UK, due to our high infection rates. Other rumours persisted there would be mandatory testing on arrival. I was due to fly Manchester to Pisa, and the idea that a small airport like Pisa could suddenly roll out testing on arrival even for a few flights a day seemed fanciful. Still these rumours meant the usual excitement and anticipation before going on holiday was dissipated somewhat. I flew with Ryanair, one of the few airlines to have kept flights running to a fairly high level throughout the pandemic. They kept me helpfully informed on the latest rules around entering Italy and links to the various forms to fill in, which I dutifully did.
On the day I travelled Manchester Airport was, as expected, the quietest I have ever seen it, which without worrying about the bigger picture was actually quite pleasant. Everyone was wearing face-masks and there was hand sanitisers in abundance. On the flight Ryanair have chosen not to socially space the seating however as the flight was approximately 60% full so it was easy do this anyway. Other than the mandatory face coverings and having to ask to go to the toilet, to avoid congregation, it was a normal flight. Upon landing in Pisa there was not even a temperature check never-mind a full Covid test. However I must mention about a colleague of mine who attempted to fly to Italy 3 days after me who was denied boarding as she did not have a negative Covid test certificate at check-in for her flight to Milan. It seems that I got in before testing became compulsory for UK citizens. In Italy a nationwide decree had just been made the day before I flew to make face-masks mandatory everywhere except bars and restaurants. This I must say was being observed by almost everyone I saw, both young and old. A sign that people in Italy are still taking the virus very seriously.
My first stop was Cinque Terre, a UNESCO heritage area of 5 picture postcard villages perched precipitously on the cliff edges of North West Italy, between Genoa and Pisa. I was able to book the number 1 rated hotel in Cinque Terre the day before I got there, normally this would be booked months in advance but according to the owners they were at only 25% occupancy. A wonderful family run hotel in Monterosso I would highly recommend the Hotel Villa Steno. The owners were extremely welcoming and helpful with lots of tips on how to explore the local area. They were naturally worried about the future of the business they had built up over the last 20 years, as I’m sure the rest of the area of Cinque Terre is, being that it relies so much on international tourism.
I also visited Florence and Rome, using Italy’s high speed rail network to get around. Again both hotels were at less than 30% occupancy, and on a number of days I was the only one at breakfast. However one of the positives of travelling at such a time mean that many of the typically overrun tourist areas were blissfully quiet in comparison. There were no queues to get in the main tourist sites in Florence and Rome, no-one photo-bombing your perfect composite of Michelangelo’s statue of David and no waiting times in restaurants or bars. Normally a queue jump ticket is recommended at these sites for a few Euros extra, but while tourist numbers are so low, just go on the day and you will get straight in.
After a week in Italy the FCO’s advice changed, This meant that if you were there past the upcoming Sunday there would be a mandatory quarantine of 14 days back home in England. Wanting to avoid this I simply changed my flight on the Ryanair App to come back on the Friday evening instead. A requirement for coming back to the UK from any destination is to complete the Passenger Locator Form found on the the governments gov.uk site. This long-winded form is to help with the track and trace apparently, yet it wasn’t checked at the UK Border upon my return. I could have just as easily not filled it in! If the UK government and border authorities haven’t got their act together by now it is beyond worrying.
There are lots of concerns for people travelling at the moment. From the pre-departure worries of whether you have to quarantine or whether you will need a Covid-negative test for entry through to the simple concern of catching the illness while you are on the plane or at your destination. Until things settle down, which won’t be for another 12 months at least, these concerns will continue. For the intrepid and travel hardy these hassles are worth it for a quieter experience and a much needed break. For many it is simply not the worth the bother. Until there is free universal 30-minute testing for all destinations at the point of departure the tourism industry and those who rely on it will continue to suffer.
Top tips for ‘Pandemic’ Travel:
1) Book as a package that allows cancellation or full refund should your destination go into lockdown or quarantine, this ensures all your elements of travel are protected. If a package booking is not possible try book each element with a late refundable option and low amendment fees.
2) Make sure your travel insurance covers you for Covid related claims both before and during your trip. If you choose to travel against UK Foreign Office advice make sure you take out an extension that allows this too. Battleface Insurance were offering this last month, as always check the Terms and Conditions for its suitability.
3) Don’t assume you will get socially spaced seating on the plane, there is a chance the flight could be full as the shortage of ‘corridor’ destinations means some routes have a high demand.
4) Don’t forget to fill in the UK re-entry form within 48 hours of your journey home, even if they might not check it!