LONDON - Europe’s airlines, hoteliers and tour operators fear abrupt changes to coronavirus travel rules by governments are killing their chances to salvage something of a wrecked vacation season.
The British government’s sudden decision Saturday to add Spain to its list of “at-risk” countries, forcing tens of thousands of Britons already holidaying in Spain to quarantine for 14 days on their return and upending plans for tens of thousands of others scheduling vacations, has dealt a massive blow to hopes that the travel industry might be able to recoup some of its massive losses from the pandemic.
Britain and its European neighbors only recently lifted bans on overseas travel for leisure in a bid to return to some semblance of normality. They had come under fierce lobbying by the continent’s desperate airlines and travel firms to do so.
“This is going to cause absolute chaos for travel firms as they are at peak season now,” said travel consultant Paul Charles.
“The timings could not be worse. With departures this weekend, there are about to be 2 million Brits in Spain. It is the last thing travel companies want to see because of the sheer volume of holidaymakers affected. And it will be a huge blow to people there, who will now have to quarantine, or those about to fly on holiday,” he added.
Britain isn’t alone in opting for caution. Saturday also saw Ireland omit Britain from a list of “safe” countries, telling its citizens it should be avoided for all but essential travel. France has issued a warning about travel to Spain. The French government has not closed the border with Spain, but a French official told VOA that Paris is considering the possibility.
Norway, too, is advising against travel to Spain.
The sudden moves are likely to deter travelers generally from risking trips to other countries because of the chance of new restrictions being imposed with little warning.
That point was underscored by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who tweeted, “This reinforces the point that these matters are subject to change at short notice and so my advice is to be cautious about non-essential foreign travel.”
Almost 40 countries worldwide have reported record single-day increases in coronavirus infections during the past week, and fears of an imminent second wave of the pandemic in Europe are also mounting.
The British government’s Spain decision came without warning, catching out the country’s own transport minister, Grant Shapps, who’s vacationing in Spain with his family. British officials say they had no option but to add Spain to the red list following a significant coronavirus spike in the Mediterranean country. Spain recorded an additional 2,255 new cases Friday, following 2,615 on Thursday.
Spanish authorities say they have identified 281 active outbreaks with a third of them triggered by social or family gatherings. Nightclubs have also been identified as hot spots. Spanish officials are warning of a possible second wave of infections, with the northeast region of Catalonia the worst affected. Catalonia has closed nightlife down for two weeks.
However, major towns away from the northeast are also seeing surges in confirmed cases. The Murcia region sealed off 30,000 people in the town of Totana on Thursday, barring anyone from entering or leaving after 55 people tested positive following a nightclub visit. Restrictions have also been tightened in Zaragoza and Pamplona.
“We have important outbreaks. It could be a second wave. We’ll have to see what happens in the next few weeks,” said Maria José Sierra, Spain’s deputy emergency health director.
“Protecting public health is our absolute priority and we have taken this decision to limit any potential spread to the UK,” Britain’s Department of Transport said in a statement. “We've always been clear that we would act immediately to remove a country [from quarantine exemptions list] where necessary,” it added.
Airlines and travel businesses are reacting, though, with anger. British Airways said the change “cannot fail to have an impact on an already troubled aviation industry.”
EasyJet, one of Europe’s biggest airlines, said, “We are disappointed that the Government has decided to impose a quarantine requirement for those traveling from the whole of Spain since the increased occurrence of Coronavirus is regional rather than nationwide.”
Moreover, Britain’s Airport Operators Association said it would “further damage what is already a fragile restart of the aviation sector which continues to face the biggest challenge in its history.”
British airline bosses and their counterparts say that the abruptness of the decision will chill vacation travel as a whole across the continent, with holidaymakers fearful of rule changes being announced while they are vacationing.
“This level of uncertainty and confusion is damaging for business,” said Andrew Flintham, managing director of TUI, Britain’s biggest tour operator. TUI announced it will cancel all reservations for Spain, saying it “won’t take customers on holiday” if they were required to quarantine on their return.
Lois Stothard, from South Yorkshire, told the BBC she had booked a vacation in the Spanish town of Seville and was due to fly Sunday with her boyfriend but would now have to cancel.
“I'm a key worker — I'm a teacher — and my boyfriend has work commitments, so we cannot quarantine for 14 days when we return. We can't get any money back and to change, the company want double what I've already paid in fees. I'm very disappointed and upset as we're packed and ready to go,” she said.
Some travel experts say the decision to add Spain to the red list should have been made sooner and well before the weekend.
“Why on earth was this decision not taken 48 hours ago, when it was clear there was a problem with Spain, and before tens of thousands of UK holidaymakers flew out on Friday as the summer holidays started?” asked Rory Boland, editor of the travel magazine Which?
Anxiety is mounting across Europe that it could soon be back in the eye of the coronavirus storm. Officials say young people have been lowering their guard after lockdowns were lifted.
“We have canceled out much of the progress accomplished during the first weeks of exit from lockdown,” the French health ministry said.
Alarmed French officials say some of the young people testing positive for the virus have been failing to self-isolate.
There are also worries in the Italian region of Lazio, which includes Rome. Regional officials warned last week that there could be a second lockdown after coronavirus cases began to rise again. Authorities warned that restrictions to curb the spread of the virus may be reintroduced if infections continue to climb. There were 17 new cases confirmed last Sunday, with 10 among people returning to the country from overseas.
Lazio’s health commissioner, Alessio D’Amato, urged people to wear masks in public spaces as instructed.
“I appeal for the use of masks, otherwise, we’ll have to close down again. We can’t turn back and waste all the efforts done until now,” he said.