HAMISH MCRAE: Let’s cherish the freedom to visit other countries; Let’s celebrate it; And let’s get that freedom back as fast as we possibly can
There are two stories embedded in the continuing chaotic disruption to global travel. One is that Britons are in danger of losing another summer of foreign holidays, with traditional destinations losing a large chunk of their business.
The other is that the world’s largest industry, travel and tourism, is taking a huge and to some extent unnecessarily large hit, leaving wounds that will take several years to heal.
For many British families this is misery. How on earth do you plan a foreign holiday when our own rules keep on changing and other countries open and shut their doors at every new story about the advance or retreat of the virus? The result is that many people won’t get the holidays they were looking forward to at all.
Up in the air: Why are governments, including our own, not more determined to find a way to open borders?
But why are governments, including our own, not more determined to find a way to open borders? It is an easy political decision to shut them, but a much harder one to manage the reopening. There are obvious reasons why this should be so, but behind the reluctance is a sense that somehow foreign travel is a frippery, a luxury that we don’t really need.
Grandees have to travel of course, be it to the G7 meeting in Cornwall or the Euro 2020 final in Wembley. But the rest of us are urged to stay at home.
Yet travel and tourism are not frothy unnecessary sectors of the economy at all. Getting them going again is just as important as, for example, getting the motor industry back up to its earlier output.
If people want to spend their earnings on a foreign holiday rather than buying a new car, or indeed saving more for their pension, that is absolutely their right to do so. Surely an outward-looking attitude to the world is something to be celebrated.
The sad thing is that as far as travel to Europe is concerned, this has become yet another skirmish in the ongoing tussle between the UK and the EU.
So Angela Merkel puts pressure on the rest of Europe to force UK visitors to go into quarantine, a suggestion that has not gone down well in Greece or other popular tourist destinations.
There are sensible straightforward ways of speeding the reopening of travel, including fewer restrictions on people who are fully jabbed. But the politicians are not really trying to find them.
If this is tough on families it is tough on the world. Combine travel and tourism and it was the world’s biggest industry at 10.4 per cent of global GDP in 2019. (It was 10.9 per cent in the UK.)
It generates jobs across the entire skills spectrum, from students doing gig work in the hospitality industries to airline pilots and aircraft engineers.
And it brings employment to some of the job-hungry parts of the emerging world.
Last year however its share of GDP fell to 5.5 per cent of world GDP. That compares with an overall contraction of the world economy last year of 4.5 per cent.
Other industries have been gravely damaged by the pandemic while some have boomed, but by far the largest burden has been carried by travel and tourism. That is why it matters to the entire world that we get it moving again. This is not just about who gets first to the sun-loungers on the beach by the Med. Before Covid struck the industry was growing faster than the world economy as a whole. It needs to get back to that position.
So what’s to be done? Well, the first thing is to listen to the travel industry. Airlines don’t want a reputation for passing on illnesses between their passengers and have a lot of sensible ideas about testing prior to flights and vaccine certificates. Hotels need to give confidence to their guests and most have worked hard at improving their hygiene standards.
Governments should seek to cooperate rationally and professionally, instead of suddenly making new edicts based on dodgy data. It is depressing seeing leaders trying to score points, presumably for political reasons.
I don’t think it helps to trot out all the silly things they have said in recent weeks, though it does stick in the craw to see how freely they travel abroad while the rest of us are told to stay home.
So let’s just note here that the vaccines work and since they work that shows the path back to normal human activity.
Finally, let’s cherish the freedom to visit other countries. Let’s celebrate it. And let’s get that freedom back as fast as we possibly can, for our own good but also the good of the world.