Travel industry bets on vaccine passports to draw Brits to sunny Mediterranean
By Sarah Young, Clara-Laeila Laudette and Laurence Frost
LONDON/MADRID/PARIS - The race to rollout vaccination passports is spurring competition among travel companies and tourist destinations for the large number of Britons set to receive Covid-19 shots before the summer.
Thanks to its swift vaccine deployment, Britain is the only major European country likely to inoculate a large share of working-age adults by summer. They may become the first big regional test of digital health credentials in development.
Airlines such as easyJet saw outbound bookings from Britain surge last week as the government raised the prospect of a return to quarantine-free summer travel, and the European Union agreed to develop vaccine passports under pressure from tourism-dependent southern countries.
But cooped-up consumers' getaway plans face reality checks –from unpredictable virus variants to lingering EU divisions over vaccine passports, with France leading resistance from several states over political and discrimination concerns.
Britain's tentative move towards restoring travel "puts pressure on other countries to do the same, which is good for us", said Grigoris Tasios of the Greek Hoteliers' Federation.Greece has eased restrictions for vaccinated Israelis and is discussing a similar arrangement with the UK.
Tourism from Germany, another big travel market lagging the UK on vaccinations, hinges on Berlin dropping quarantines for tested passengers, Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said this week.
In the aftermath of Britain's departure from the EU, its reputedly unruly tourists are at the centre of a battered travel industry's hopes for the peak season.
Spain, typically Britons' number-one destination by far, has pushed hard for EU vaccination certificates. The island of Mallorca's mostly shuttered hotels anxiously await details,their spokeswoman Maria Duran said.
"We're paying very close attention to the UK, the firstcountry to design and share a roadmap for restoring mobility,"she said. Spain saw UK visitor numbers plunge to 3.1 million last year from more than 18 million in 2019.
'DON'T COME' - FRENCH MAYOR
Athens is appealing directly to British consumers.
Those with shots will be spared tests, with or without the EU's blessing, tourism minister Harry Theocharis said in UK media interviews.
Tourism sustains a fifth of Greece's workforce and economy,hit by a 76% drop in international arrivals last year and 14-billion euros in lost sector revenue.
Greece's position, and similar Spanish assurances, contrast with the message from France, the second-ranked destination for Britons – which is in no hurry to welcome them back.
"Don't come," the mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi advised potential overseas visitors last month as the Mediterranean city grappled with a faster-spreading Covid-19 variant first identified in Britain. "It's not the time."
As a result, airlines and tour operators are pushing"sun-and-sea" bookings to Spain, Greece and Portugal in a bid to bring in much-needed cash.
"The trend now is towards what's likely to be open," said Toby Kelly, CEO of UK travel agency Trail finders, pointing to a"massive pick up in demand" to Greek destinations.
"Greece has been the big story, with its government totally behind vaccine certificates."
Without waiting for Brussels, Cyprus joined the rush on Thursday, announcing that vaccinated UK tourists could enter from May 1 without testing or quarantine.
Andy Davies, a 43-year-old British company director who booked a Mallorca villa for July after getting vaccinated, said he was reassured by Britain's reopening plans and "noises coming out of Europe about the vaccine passport".
Free cancellation guarantees on the rental and easyJet flights also helped, he said.
"Clearly there are still risks."