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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Will a US/UK travel corridor be a reality this summer?

Will a US/UK travel corridor be a reality this summer?

Maybe it's falling asleep on the red-eye flight, dreaming of gleaming skyscrapers before waking up to views of Long Island, ready to live out all your NYC fantasies.

Or perhaps it's finally breezing down Route 66, the California wind in your hair, and the open road boundless in front of you.

For many British travelers, a vacation in America is a dream come true, a culmination of years of consuming US cinema and culture.

But it's been a dream that's been essentially off the table for over a year.

In March 2020, as Covid-19 spread across the world and borders closed, the US banned all non-essential travelers from the UK.

This rule remains in place, and while there's no reverse ban on US travelers entering the UK, ongoing British quarantine and lockdown restrictions mean few  Americans are vacationing in Britain right now.

Both the US and the UK have suffered greatly over the course of the pandemic, with grimly high death rates.

But recently there's been a glimmer of hope: both nations are enjoying speedy and largely smooth vaccine roll-outs.

While much of mainland Europe is entangled in vaccine delays, as of April 9 the UK had fully vaccinated 9.16% of its population and the US had vaccinated 18.74%.

President Joe Biden has promised vaccines for all US adults by the end of May, recently upping that to mid-April. Meanwhile, Britain is on track to meet its goal of offering the first jab to all adults by the end of July.

The CDC recently amended guidance to confirm fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves. In March, CNBC reported that Biden's administration is considering lifting the long-standing UK travel ban, and the similar bans that currently block EU and Brazilian arrivals.

And while non-essential international travel in the UK is off the table until at least May 17 -- and potentially illegal until June 30 -- the UK government's recent reveal of a "traffic light" system for international travel, in which destinations would be grouped into "red," "amber" or "green" categories depending on their vaccination roll-out and infection rate, suggests the US could be one of the more viable options for UK travelers this summer.

Popular airline route
British Airways aircraft parked at Terminal 5 of London Heathrow Airport in February 2021.


Pre-pandemic, the transatlantic travel corridor was one of the most popular in the world. Unsurprisingly, the major UK aviation players are keen for the route to be reopened.

British Airways' CEO and Chairman Sean Doyle calls transatlantic travel "crucial," highlighting that in 2019, 22 million passengers flew between the UK and US.

Doyle points to the impact of the travel ban not only on vacationers and business travelers, but also on families.

Covid-19 travel rules across the world have forcibly separated some binational couples, many of whom have rallied under the Love is Not Tourism banner and have been campaigning for a lifting of -- or exception to -- stringent travel restrictions since they were first instituted.

"I hear heartbreaking stories of Britons separated from loved ones and companies unable to restart global business operations for more than a year now," Doyle says.

He says he is "optimistic" about the UK's May 17 target date for the recommencement of international travel, but stresses that for overseas vacations to realistically start up this summer, advance notice is needed for both travelers and airlines.

"Our focus is on working hard to bring our operations back up to speed, but what we do is highly complex so it's vital that we hear more as soon as possible in order to safely restart, with time to plan effectively," he says.

Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss also points to the successful vaccine roll-outs in the US and the UK as offering "a clear opportunity to safely introduce a transatlantic corridor from 17 May."

UK traffic light system


Last summer, as lockdown lifted and Covid's first wave subsided in Europe, the UK established several travel corridors with European countries -- including tourism big-hitters Greece and Spain.

But one by one, the corridors collapsed. Destinations were placed on the UK's "red list" as cases rose, leading to sudden compulsory quarantines and canceled vacations.

"A priority for the industry is a more stable system which avoids the situation of last summer where travel to many destinations was quickly turned on and off," said a spokesperson for ABTA, a UK travel trade association.

On April 9, the UK government gave further details on how the traffic light system will work. Guidance suggests destinations will be categorized based on the percentage of the population who've been vaccinated, the rate of infection, the "prevalence of variants of concern" and the country's "access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing."

Travelers arriving or departing from a "green" destination will still need to take a pre-departure test, plus a PCR test on or before day two of their arrival back in the UK. They won't need to quarantine.

Those who've vacationed in "amber" destinations will need to quarantine for 10 days, take a pre-departure test and also get a PCR test on day two and day eight of their quarantine. The test to release system will remain an option.

As for "red" destinations, arrivals will still be sent to the UK's quarantine hotels and be subject to the same testing requirements as "amber" arrivals.

To try to avoid chaos caused by destinations changing colors while travelers are mid-trip, the UK government has said a "green watchlist" will be introduced, identifying destinations at risk of moving from "green" to "amber."

"It is too early to predict which countries will be on which list over the summer, and the government continues to consider a range of factors to inform the restrictions placed on them," reads a April 9 government statement.

"We will set out by early May which countries will fall into which category, as well as confirming whether international travel can resume from 17 May 2021."

Passengers arriving from a "red list" destination in Terminal 5 of Heathrow airport in February 2021.


Some travel industry stakeholders are championing further removal of quarantine and testing requirements.

Tim Alderslade, CEO of Airlines UK, an industry body representing UK airlines, said in a statement that "the insistence on expensive and unnecessary PCR testing rather than rapid testing -- even for low-risk countries -- will pose an unsustainable burden on passengers, making travel unviable and unaffordable for many people."

Weiss, from Virgin Atlantic, said that the traffic light framework "doesn't go far enough" and added that travel to and from "green" and "amber" destinations should not include testing or quarantine requirements.

"We need certainty that the framework will allow for a phased removal of testing and quarantine."

Meanwhile, ABTA suggests that the UK should allow free NHS lateral flow tests for international travel to "green" countries.

"At present the costs of testing may be a deterrent to many UK travelers, so the Government must ensure that testing is required only where the public health risk justifies it, and that a cost-effective and efficient testing regime is in place," said an ABTA representative.

There are also plans for the UK to implement digital travel certification -- AKA vaccine passports -- to unlock the international travel stalemate.

The UK government says it's considering "the role certification could play in facilitating outbound travel, for those countries which have systems in place."

"Work also continues to develop a system that would facilitate travel certification for inbound international travel," the statement adds.

British Airways' Doyle says his airline is trialing using an app called Verifly, as well as working on BA-specific concepts and working with IATA on its Travel Pass app.

US uncertainty
Covid-19 testing signage at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in January 2021.


Realistically, an effective US/UK travel corridor can only be established if both countries are on board.

And while the UK and the USA have vaccinated high percentages of their populations, will that be enough to persuade Biden's team to lift the UK travel ban?

The UK's proximity to and links with mainland Europe mean there are still fears Britain could follow in the footsteps of countries like Italy and France, currently experiencing third waves of Covid.

And it was in the UK that one of the new contagious variants was first detected.

A spokesperson for the CDC said they had no updates to share on when the US will lift the current UK travel ban.

CNN Travel reached out to the White House for comment, but did not receive a response.

Tony Johnston, head of the department of hospitality, tourism and leisure studies at Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland, suggests that the US has less immediate need to reestablish inbound international tourism than other destinations.

"America's accelerated delivery of vaccines is aimed primarily at a wider reopening of their domestic society and economy," says Johnston.

"Many millions of Americans depend on tourism and hospitality jobs but the strength of the domestic tourism market in the USA insulated many of these jobs to some extent from the border restrictions and closures."

That said, Johnston suggests other factors could motivate the US to allow international vacationers and business travelers to return.

"While the domestic tourism market dwarfs the international inbound market in the USA, there will be strong political and industry pressure to reopen borders to welcome back international visitors," says Johnston.

'I'm dead set on going to the US'
Visitors at the Grand Canyon, a popular tourist destination, in August 2020.


Amid the continued uncertainty surrounding international vacations, many British people are planning to holiday within the UK this summer. But some are still hoping for an American adventure.

Saurav Dutt, an author and corporate consultant based in the UK, says he's "desperate" to vacation in the US this summer.

"To celebrate my 40th this year I'm dead set on going to the US, particularly LA, Vegas, Nashville, Memphis (big Elvis fan) and round it off with Mississippi," Dutt tells CNN Travel.

Dutt's not booked his flights yet -- he's holding off until that May 17 date is confirmed -- but as soon as he's got the go-ahead, he'll confirm his booking.

If the UK/US travel corridor does reopen, exactly which transatlantic flights will be available -- and what these flights will cost -- is currently uncertain.

"Before the pandemic British Airways connected Britain directly with 25+ US cities. For more than a year we have been only flying to a handful, with a dramatically reduced frequency," says British Airways' Sean Doyle.

Doyle said BA was "working hard to bring our operations back up to speed, but what we do is highly complex so it's vital that we hear more as soon as possible in order to safely re-start, with time to plan effectively."

His words were echoed by Shai Weiss, who says Virgin Atlantic is also running fewer flights right now, but plans to recommence currently-out-of-action routes from London Heathrow to Las Vegas, Seattle, Washington DC, Orlando and San Francisco "later this year."

As he's hoping to travel to the US to celebrate a landmark birthday, Dutt's not too concerned about costly flights, but he knows prices could be steep.

"The amounts could be astronomical, especially as the US is never considered a budget-friendly holiday," he says.

Still, Dutt reckons that -- despite the current uncertainty and potential cost -- his US vacation is a more achievable goal than a summer 2021 trip to mainland Europe.

He's also had both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, and he acknowledges this is a "significant factor" in his vacation ambitions.

"The US has, like the UK, been on top of vaccinations per hundred residents, and is as aggressive on this front as we are," Dutt says.

Sabilah Eboo Alwani, a doctoral researcher in education and early childhood at the University of Cambridge, is also hoping to travel to the US from the UK this summer.

"We're hoping to visit my sister and her husband, who we won't have seen in a year and a half by then. We have small children, so we'd like to go for a few weeks to make it worth all of the jet lag they'll have to suffer!" she tells CNN Travel.

Eboo Alwani and her partner have also had the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and they should have had the second by the time they plan to travel.

Meanwhile, her sister and brother-in-law in San Francisco are fully vaccinated.

Like Dutt, this makes her more confident the trip might happen. But Eboo Alwani's still holding off on purchasing the plane tickets.

"We haven't booked yet, as we're nervous about having to cancel plans if we aren't able to travel."

For Eboo Alwani and her family, it's not just a case of getting the go-ahead from the UK government -- the family will also take into consideration the conditions of the travel corridor reopening.

"I don't know if we would be able to consider traveling if there were a hotel-based quarantine requirement," she says, pointing to the steep expense, and the difficulties associated with quarantining with two young children.

Eboo Alwani is hoping the trip will happen, but unlike Dutt, she's not convinced traveling to the US will be easier than visiting European destinations.

"I imagine it would be easier to visit Europe if one could show a vaccination card or certificate," she says. "The US has been strict on Covid-related border control."

American perspective
Elizabeth Prairie vacationed in London during the November 2020 lockdown.


Throughout the pandemic, it's been easier for Americans to visit the UK than vice versa, but the prospect of quarantine and the UK's ongoing lockdown restrictions is enough to put off most.

Marketing entrepreneur Elizabeth Prairie vacationed in London during England's November lockdown. Before she departed New York, she knew there would be restrictions in place, but the country moved to full lockdown during her visit.

While Prairie made the most of the experience -- abandoning plans for al fresco dining and trips on the London Eye in favor of autumnal walks and takeout -- she recently postponed an upcoming spring trip until June 2021, the date when England's scheduled to fully reopen.

"Even though I am now fully vaccinated, with the restrictions of multiple Covid tests needed and a quarantine, it wasn't worth taking the trip now with only outdoor dining open," Prairie tells CNN Travel.

Travel agency Skyscanner said the top destinations booked by US travelers since April 1 were all in North America, but interest in international destinations was returning.

"Popular international destinations searched by US travelers on Skyscanner in the last month include Singapore, Tokyo, London and Madrid, suggesting that Americans are eager to get back to long-haul travel and experiencing the diversity the world has to offer once again," said Mark Crossey, US travel expert at Skyscanner, in a statement.

Managing expectations


For now, would-be-transatlantic-travelers and industry stakeholders are playing a waiting game.

Maggi Smit, managing director of UK-based US tour operator America as You Like It, says her company has seen "definite interest" from British people hoping to vacation in the US this summer and that those with existing bookings were "holding out hope."

"But people [are] wary of committing until they know they will definitely be able to travel," Smit adds.

Virgin Atlantic's Shai Weiss says there's been an "uptick in recent weeks" in UK-US summer bookings, but that most travelers are opting for dates later in the year.

"Favorite destinations like Florida and iconic cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are performing well, particularly in the latter part of the year and into 2022," he says.

Meanwhile, Alan Wilson, who runs US travel company Bon Voyage, says the majority of his recent bookings have been for 2022 or 2023.

"There has been a marked uptick in inquiries and bookings over the past several weeks, but it is hardly surprising that most would rather be sure of a holiday going ahead in 2022 and beyond rather than wondering if their 2021 arrangements will actually happen," he says.

"The feedback we are getting from our customers is that they are very keen to travel as soon as possible however they don't want to commit to booking anything for 2021 until there is an announcement about when the borders will be reopened," says North American Travel Service's Ruby Briggs.

"Once that happens, we feel very confident that there will be a surge of inquiries/demand for immediate travel although the longer it takes for that announcement to happen, the smaller that surge will be because people will have already made commitments to stay within the UK this year."

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