(CNN) — The “Plague Island” headlines splashed across the front pages said it all.
With its out of control infection rates and deaths heading past the 125,000 mark, the UK started 2021 as Europe’s Covid pariah.
Now though, after a vaccination program that has seen more than a third of all adults receive at least one dose, countries across Europe, and tour operators who have struggled over the past 12 months, are falling over themselves to welcome weary Brits for a dose of summer sun.
Harry Theoharis, Tourism Minister for Greece, told the virtual ITB Tourism conference this week that the country would welcome anyone who’d been vaccinated, could prove they had antibodies or present a negative PCR test.
Declaring, “All you want is Greece,” his impassioned plea has kicked off a race for tourists’ unspent lockdown cash, which authorities across the Mediterranean hope will boost ailing communities that have lost millions over the past year.
Spain, which pulled in over 18 million British travelers in 2019, and Portugal have also said they’re keen to get Brits flying in as soon as it’s safe to do so.
There’s clearly a market too. ABTA, a UK travel trade association, says that 63% of Brits are hoping to book a foreign vacation in 2021.
There’s just one niggling issue. It remains illegal to leave the UK for a vacation. This week the country’s transport minister, Grant Shapps, warned that it’s still too soon to book a foreign trip.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has penciled in May 17 as the soonest possible date that international travel will be allowed.
Building traveler trust
Vaccinated British tourists will be permitted to visit Cyprus from May.
CHRISTINA ASSI/AFP via Getty Images
That doesn’t appear to be deterring European countries and tour operators from going all out to attract visitors or tourists from booking.
Thomas Cook said it saw a 25% rise in enquiries about the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the wake of its announcement about plans for vaccinated travelers.
From fully flexible booking offers, to tourism officials touting falling Covid numbers, there’s an undeniable effort to entice vacationers to book as soon as possible.
For Luis Araujo, president of tousim body VisitPortugal, it’s definitely not too soon to lock in a vacation.
“They should book immediately,” he says when asked whether potential tourists should wait before booking their summer break.
“We need to build trust with tour operators and travel agents. If we don’t have this proactive reaction in terms of booking or asking for travel, then everything will take longer to recover… What we need now is mobility.
“And we need it now because each day that passes is a day we lose.”
More than 25,000 people were given training in 2020, with a further 12,000 already being trained this year, he says.
With a fast-falling infection rate, down to 83.2 per 100,000, Araujo is keen to point out that Portugal is coming through the worst and will soon be ready to welcome back tourists.
It’s not just about vaccinated visitors, though. Araujo wants anyone who can prove they’re Covid-free, either by providing a negative test or proof they’ve got antibodies or had a vaccine, to be able to visit Portugal.
“The shift has to be from considering ‘dangerous’ countries to looking at people and the risk of people,” he says.
“It’s controlling the pandemic at the same time as allowing people to enter the country. It’s not just a country for those who are vaccinated.
“It’s important to consider that people, even from high risk countries, can enter if they have proof they’re not contaminated.”
Clearer Covid secure credentials
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
Araujo is keen to emphasize that Portugal is not in competition with other countries around Europe for vaccinated tourists.
Rather, that there needs to be cooperation across the European Union to provide standardized safety rules for starting travel up again safely.
“I think the competition is to build trust and get planes in the air,” he says. “It’s not a matter of discussing if we have five more tourists than Greece or 10 less than Spain.”
Operators, too, are making their Covid secure credentials clearer as international travel gets closer.
“We have a team dedicated to making sure that our accommodation, bike and taxi providers are compliant with all applicable Covid rules and have appropriate safety measures in place, such as enhanced room cleaning between stays and physical distancing,” says Simon Wrench from Inntravel, an operator that offers walking and cycling holidays in Cyprus, Spain and Slovenia.
Greece, meanwhile, is said to be prioritizing vaccines for residents of 40 small islands with populations of 1,000 or fewer, including Haiki, Kastellorizo and Meganisi, before vaccinating people on popular tourist islands such as Mykonos and Crete.
The aim is to vaccinate as many people working in the tourism industry as possible, making it safer for them and for visitors in the process.
“We believe that the latest announcement from the tourism minister regarding Greece welcoming British tourists from mid-May and the protocols required for travel to Greece will help build consumer confidence ahead of the summer season,” says Dimos Stasinopoulos, CEO of Epoque Collection, which has properties in Santorini and Athens.
“We will be introducing a number of safety measures at OMMA Santorini when it opens in May and will be offering flexible cancellation policies to put our guests’ minds at rest.
“The safety measures at OMMA Santorini include temperature checks, safety kits in each room, frequent cleaning protocols as per WHO standards and disinfected key cards.”
Israel’s green pass
Israelis receive a “green pass” after vaccination which can be used to grant access to venues and events.
JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Image
And it’s not just Brits that are being courted by tourist hotspots across southern Europe.
Israel has the most successful vaccine program in the world, with 4.8 million of its 9 million people fully vaccinated with two doses and 80% having had at least one jab.
“For such a small country, pretty much everyone travels by plane, so for them in particular it’s felt hard to be “locked in,” says Andrea Bertoli, Deputy CEO of lm group.
“In similar echoes to what’s been happening in the UK as the vaccine program accelerates, the talk [in Israel] has been about the skies opening.
“In fact, in Israel, it’s probably one of the main aspects of Covid-19 discussions since the infection rates started to go down.”
The country has penciled in travel agreements with Cyprus and Greece, but is planning to introduce strict rules amid concerns about the importation of more contagious variants of Covid-19.
Bertoli explains that travelers will need a so-called “green passport” proving they’ve been vaccinated, with no travel allowed until 10 days after a second dose.
Israel’s high levels of vaccination also mean it’s ripe to attract visitors looking for a Covid safe break.
“The success of Israel’s vaccination roll-out has given hope for the return of international tourism,” says Sharon E. Bershadsky, director of The Israel Government Tourist Office UK.
“It is allowing the industry to plan for the return of tourists in the not too distant future — making Israel not only an attractive destination, but a healthy destination.”
Bershadsky is optimistic that tourists can return “soon.” And with its vaccination program almost complete, it could mean the country enjoys a tourism boom while others play catchup.
Too early to book
Greece plan to open its borders to British travelers on May 1.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images
Despite tourism boards and operators making every effort to prove they can safely host visitors, the fact remains that leisure travel will not be possible for some weeks at least.
While this may change, booking right now is a major risk according to Rory Boland, travel editor at consumer website which.co.uk.
“Our advice is that it is too early to book,” he says. “You don’t know where you can go or when you can go and booking at the moment opens you up to financial risk.”
Boland also points out that stories about increased demand don’t tell the whole story.
“Some of the headlines you’ve seen of 500% increase in bookings are from very low original numbers,” he says
“Yes, there is a group of people, particular older people, who feel more confident about booking holidays abroad to countries that are making noises about allowing vaccinated people in. There are a lot of risks still attached to that.”
Boland highlights the fact that, as with the UK government’s much derided travel corridors policy in 2020, destinations could potentially end up on the “red list” while holidaymakers are on the beach or lying by the pool.
That could mean having to quarantine in a managed facility at their own cost, something which would not be covered by insurance.
Then there’s the added cost of Covid tests, which are likely to be required anywhere between three or five times on a trip depending on the destination. Currently a PCR test costs around £100 ($139), which soon adds up if you’re a family of four.
“We’re calling for travel companies to be up front,” adds Boland. “You can’t just keep promising flexibility will cover you in every eventuality, because it won’t, not right now.”
Although it may be too soon to book, vaccines appear to be the most certain way for travel to start up again safely.
“We are really optimistic that a green corridor agreement between individual countries if not a common green passport will be accepted across Europe and the UK,” says Andrea Bertoli.
“While it’s not quite a turbo-boost to tourism, it means we can certainly put the key in the ignition.”
Although a unified vaccine passport is unlikely to be agreed soon, there’s no denying those that can prove themselves to be immune to Covid are likely to power the travel industry for the rest of 2021 and well into 2022 as well.
The race for bookings is on.