The prospect of a transatlantic travel bubble between the U.S. and the UK has many travel industry leaders hopeful the summer season can be salvaged. But how a travel corridor may work and what proof of vaccinations will be required are details that have yet to be hammered out.
The prospect of a UK-U.S. travel corridor opening this summer just in time for the peak travel season has fueled even more optimism from travel leaders eager to avoid a second lost summer.
No firm plans have been revealed for a restriction-free travel corridor between the two countries, but U.S. airline executives say talks with the UK government have been productive. A corridor could open as early as June or July.
When that happens, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said “I think you’re going to have a hard time finding a hotel room in the UK, because there’s going to be so many people wanting to go.”
Separately, European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen said Sunday that the European Union would allow U.S. travelers who have been vaccinated with an approved shot to enter the EU unconditionally, although she did not offer a timeline for when that may occur.
United reported that searches for flights to Europe rose 19 percent in the last week as travelers reacted to the UK and European news.
The UK has banned most international travel until May 17 in an attempt to contain Covid-19 while the country progresses with its vaccine effort. For when travel is once again permitted, the government has proposed a “traffic light” system, which would rank countries as “green, amber, or red” based on how they have controlled the disease and how widespread vaccinations are. At an online airline industry conference last week, European airline CEOs were positive about the plan, saying that it would provide greater clarity and make it easier to plan schedules.
Green, amber and red categories will be used to classify, respectively, which destinations will be exempt from any quarantines on arrival in the UK and which will face the strictest 10-day government-managed quarantine hotel stays, among other requirements. For now, whether the U.S. will receive the “green light” from the UK remains to be seen.
According to Visit Britain, the first iteration of the traffic light lists will be shared at the beginning of May, when the UK government is also expected to confirm if international travel can re-start on May 17.
“We are hoping the US will be on the green list,” said Julia Gordin, senior communications manager at Visit Britain’s U.S. office, adding that there was no sign of this yet but the news could come over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, the world’s biggest corporate travel agency is hopeful of a U.S.-UK corridor soon emerging, in advance of a wider European opening.
“The UK and U.S. have an opportunity to show real global leadership by opening up a safe and seamless corridor as soon as is feasible. It will be the big international engine room for the first few months,” said Andrew Crawley, American Express Global Business Travel’s chief commercial officer.
“It would be good for both economies and would be profitable for the many transatlantic airlines. The volumes would be manageable and it would not be such a shock to the system as opening up large chunks of Europe. The US-UK routes could be a testbed for new processes around digital health certificates, which has not yet been trialled at scale. This could provide a template for the overall restart of travel internationally.”
In the UK, however, most businesses are still encouraging staff to work from home.
Both the U.S. and the UK have vaulted ahead of most European and Asian countries in vaccinating their populations. As of Monday, the UK has vaccinated more than 33 million residents, while the U.S. has vaccinated about 140 million. The UK government has said it will fully vaccinate all adults by the end of July, the BBC reports. And in the U.S. two-thirds of residents over 65 — among the most vulnerable to Covid-19 — have been fully vaccinated, and 54 percent of adults over 18 have received at least one dose, Centers for Disease Control and Protection data show.
It is still unclear what percentage of a population needs to be fully vaccinated before a country achieves herd immunity, but the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimates that 70 percent of the U.S. population will need to be fully vaccinated before the country reaches herd immunity for Covid-19.
Two travel managers working at companies that pre-Covid oversaw frequent travel to the U.S. welcomed the news – but noted it would take time before it filtered through to their organizations.
“We won’t be traveling internationally until after we return to our offices, likely no earlier than September,” said one manager working at an entertainment company.
“Company wide, we are under a ‘essential travel only’ policy so corridor or not, at the moment it doesn’t really make a lot of difference to us,” said another, working at a pharmaceutical technology company. “I don’t imagine anything will change until the world has herd immunity.”
One Amsterdam-based travel manager, working at a multinational retail company, also said he felt it was too soon to announce anything like this for Europe.
“There’s only a handful of countries that already have a corridor agreement established,” said Daniel Tallos.
“Getting a vaccine doesn’t mean you won’t fall ill at the destination,” he added. “In terms of liability, and potential risks, our security teams are still anxious about having no access to a healthcare system.
The potential of a UK-U.S. travel corridor is a sweet melody to hotel operators in some of the largest cities in both countries, as these properties rely on a greater share of business coming from international travelers.
As much as a quarter of the pre-pandemic business at SH Hotels & Resorts’ New York City venues like the Baccarat Hotel and 1 Hotel Central Park came from international travelers. Paris-based Accor, which has a bulk of its portfolio across Europe and the UK, fared the worst of major hotel companies last year with a $2.4 billion annual loss.
Accor’s revenue per room — the hotel industry’s key performance metric — at its London hotels was down a little more than 91 percent in the first quarter due to ongoing travel restrictions. The easing of those travel restrictions and a potential flood of travelers from the U.S. bodes well for the struggling company.
Even global brands with less of a concentrated exposure to the UK and European hotel markets heralded the news of potential eased restrictions with vaccinated Amerricans.
“In a typical year more Americans travel to our hotels in Europe than any other source market. The news that Europe could welcome vaccinated U.S. travelers provides a considerable boost for the industry and could kickstart a meaningful economic recovery,” Simon Vincent, Hilton’s executive vice president and president of the company’s Europe, the Middle East, and Africa division, said in a statement to Skift. “Coupled with accelerating vaccination programs around the world, the threat of a lost summer for tourism in Europe is waning.”
Leaders at IHG Hotels & Resorts, based in the UK but with a majority of its portfolio in the U.S., have worked with government officials and other industry leaders to encourage what they describe as “the development of a risk-based, data-driven roadmap for reopening travel for low-risk countries” as early as this summer.
“We agree that one of the first corridors to reopen should be between the U.S. and U.K. due to high vaccination rates, testing capacity and well-established mitigation and prevention measures across both countries,” a company spokesperson told Skift. “Opening this corridor soon based on scientific data would be a major step forward for the return of both business and leisure travel, and the economic recovery of both nations.”
The challenge in the U.S. now is not vaccine availability, but vaccine hesitancy, and the Biden administration is shifting its focus from mass vaccinations to convincing skeptics to get the shot. Companies are wrestling whether to require proof of vaccination for employees to return to offices and to travel. Sporting venues, nightclubs, and amusement parks are requiring proof of vaccination before admitting patrons.
At the federal level, the Biden administration has said it will not create a vaccine passport — at least now. Several states, like New York with its Excelsior Pass — have their own proof-of-vaccine apps. Other than those efforts, the only standard proof of vaccinations in the U.S. is a paper card issued by the provider that administers the shots.
In a recent focus group of Republican voters, several said they would not get the vaccine but also would not hesitate to get counterfeit vaccination cards to go to any event or venue that requires proof of vaccination.
This lack of standardization — and willingness to counterfeit — will prove a challenge to opening a UK-U.S. travel corridor unless a common system can be agreed upon. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has proposed a health passport that some airlines, like Panama’s Copa, have adopted. Other airlines, like Ryanair, have built proof of vaccines into their own apps. But Ryanair CEO Eddie Wilson admitted last week that these programs only work on the honor system.
— Corporate Travel Editor Matthew Parsons, Global Tourism Reporter Lebawit Girma, and Hospitality Reporter Cameron Sperance contributed to this report.
[UPDATE]: This story was updated following publication to include input from the hotel sector and from United Airlines.
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Photo credit: Tourists once again could throng St. Paul's if the U.S. and the UK establish a less-restrictive travel bubble this summer Barnyz / Flickr