It was the year we hoped would see travel bounce back, but instead we got a rollercoaster ride for the industry, prompted by new variants, traffic light list changes and testing back-and-forths.
While the government’s three-weekly updates to the red, green and amber lists played havoc with holiday plans and costs, airlines struggled to get capacity back to pre-pandemic levels, and travel companies were hit hard by restriction-led cancellations.
Here we recap a truly turbulent year for the travel businesses and holidaymakers alike.
With the Brexit transition phase over, the UK has opted to become subject to European Union “third country” rules.
British travellers to the EU are now subject to minimum passport validity and maximum stay rules.
Passports must have been issued in the past 10 years, and must be valid for at least three months after the intended date of departure from the EU.
Visitors from the UK can spend a maximum of 90 days of any 180-day period in the Schengen Area (most EU nations plus Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway).
For many travellers, though, the tougher rules are irrelevant: as part of Covid-prompted lockdowns, all international leisure travel from the UK is banned. The home secretary warns: “There are still too many people coming in and out of our country each day.”
The government says: “You must stay at home and not travel abroad unless it is for a permitted exempt reason.”
The prohibition will remain in place until 17 May.
In addition, testing for arrivals begins. The idea had been rubbished throughout 2020 by ministers – claiming that 93 per cent of positive cases would be missed.
But starting in 2021, travellers were require to test within 72 hours of departure to the UK, and take two more tests on days two and eight during 10 days in self-isolation at home.
A DfT spokesperson says: “This country already has some of the strongest safeguards against importing Covid-19.
“Additional measures, including testing before departure, will help keep the importation of new cases to an absolute minimum, while national lockdown and vaccination take effect.”
The term “red list” is coined for arrivals from high-risk nations.
“Don’t book holidays abroad” is the message to prospective travellers from the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, as well as the home secretary, Priti Patel and the Labour chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Yvette Cooper.
Mr Shapps tells the BBC’s Today programme: “On the shrinking chance that there’s anybody listening to this interview at this stage and thinking of booking a holiday under the current circumstances, bear in mind you cannot legally do that at the moment.
“Until you know the result of a lockdown which we can’t know until we have more data, more information, more information on vaccines as well, please don’t go ahead and book holidays for something which at this stage it is illegal to actually go and do – whether it’s here or abroad.
“Further down the line I simply don’t know the answer to the question of where we’ll be up to this summer. It’s too early to be able to give you that information. You’d want to wait until that’s clear before booking anything.
“The best advice is: do nothing at this stage.”
By February 2021 the red list has been extended to 33 countries – including the UAE. On 9 February (the then-health secretary) Matt Hancock announces “new measures to keep this country safe from coronavirus”.
Hotel quarantine is introduced, requiring arrivals to pay up to £1,750 per person for 11 nights in “managed quarantine”. The price includes three meals a day and two PCR tests during your stay.
Anyone required to stay in a quarantine hotel can arrive in England at Heathrow, Gatwick, London City, Bristol or Birmingham airports, or the private aviation airfields at Farnborough in Hampshire and Biggin Hill in London.
Travel within the UK and internationally for leisure purposes remains illegal under the rules of lockdown. Starting 8 March, anyone hoping to travel abroad from England must complete a “Declaration to Travel,” explaining why their journey is essential and therefore exempt from the no-go ruling.
It amounts to an exit permit. Travellers must provide their personal details including their address, passport number and destination. They must then tick a box to indicate their claimed reason to travel: work, education, volunteering, essential family reasons or “activities related to buying, selling, letting or renting a residential property”.
Anyone who enters “a port of departure to travel internationally” without a completed form is committing a criminal offence – even if they are legally entitled to travel – and faces a fixed penalty of £200. The new document is the latest piece of red tape in the most draconian restrictions on travel ever known in peacetime.
Priti Patel tells Parliament that the Declaration to Travel would be “a necessary step to protect the public and our world-class vaccination programme”.
Both the Scottish government and the Labour Party enthusiastically welcome the increased travel restrictions and call for even tougher measures.
From 29 March, the law preventing holidays abroad is strengthened, creating new powers for police to fine holidaymakers £5,000 for the offence of “leaving the United Kingdom without a reasonable excuse.”
Domestic holidays are legalised in England, Wales and Scotland.
In an “Ask Me Anything” session, I over-optimistically predict: “By late summer, I predict the landscape will have changed dramatically – and that it may simply become a question of filling in the right online form, and possibly taking the odd lateral flow test, both to enter other European countries and on return to the UK.
“Unfortunately autumn is when some senior medical figures are predicting an upsurge in coronavirus cases as life moves from outdoors to indoors, so stresses could continue as we get into the city-break season.
“But I am optimistic that for the first time since 2019 we could have a decent European ski season this winter.”
To widespread derision, the government reveals its initial “green list”, which contains just a dozen countries and territories. The only plausible mainstream destination on it is Portugal – with Gibraltar and Iceland also included.
“Mordor is a late addition to the green list, being slightly more accessible than the South Sandwich Islands,” I tweet.
“Rumours that Ryanair plans flights from Stansted, though they will actually touch down in Gondor (known as Mordor West).
“Narnia also on the cards for the next green list.”
On 17 May, the first holidaymakers for 19 weeks leave the UK for these countries.
Travel industry bosses cite data on coronavirus infection rates and vaccination programmes to demand that many more nations – as well as individual islands – should be rated “green”.
Malta, the Balearic Islands of Spain and the Greek islands of Kos, Rhodes, Santorini and Zante are prime candidates for inclusion.
Red list countries, including Turkey, South Africa and the UAE, make strident representations to the UK for the red list designation – requiring hotel quarantine – to be removed. But Mr Shapps warns that hubs such as Dubai are red-listed because they have so many passengers arriving from different locations.
The first review of the “traffic light” system descends into chaos, with airlines and holiday companies learning that Portugal is being moved from the green to the amber list through leaks by government to friendly newspapers.
An airlift begins, and tens of thousands of travellers cut short their holidays to be back before the requirement for mandatory quarantine begins.
Travel firms expect an opening-up of Mediterranean destinations – Malta is fully expecting to be on the green list, with other candidates from Finland to a sprinkling of Greek islands likely to make the cut.
Instead, the process goes into reverse. The stated reason for the only significant “green” nation – Portugal- being removed? Concerns over the Delta variant.
Robert Boyle, analyst for Gridpoint Consulting, says: “In theory, we know what is being measured and the data sources being used, as the government has published that.
“What we don’t know is what the thresholds are and how they get from the data to the decisions.
“I think the truth is they follow the opinion polls.”
The government says: ”Public Health England is investigating this variant and mutation, to better understand whether it could be more transmissible and less effectively tackled by vaccines, potentially putting our progress with the roadmap at risk.”
Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Trinidad and Tobago are then added to the red list.
The transport secretary says: “The public has always known travel will be different this year and we must continue to take a cautious approach to reopening international travel in a way that protects public health and the vaccine rollout.
“While we are making great progress in the UK with the vaccine rollout, we continue to say that the public should not travel to destinations outside the green list.”
The first of the two main holiday months finally sees some good news for travellers – and provides some perks for those who have had their jabs. Fully vaccinated arrivals from amber list countries are able to avoid self-isolation. Initially, only jabs administered in the UK are recognised, because of government concerns over other countries’ vaccination standards.
The easing of restrictions applies to all amber list countries – except France.
In a move that baffles and enrages British travellers, holiday companies and French politicians, France is placed in a special “amber plus” category – which obliges all arrivals from the country to go into quarantine.
France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, tweets: “The UK’s quarantine measures for France are excessive and incomprehensible in health terms.”
The then-foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, says France’s special status is down to “the prevalence of the so-called Beta variant, in particular in the Réunion bit of France”. The fact that the island is 5,800 miles from Paris appears to be irrelevant.
“It’s not the distance that matters, it’s the ease of travel between different component parts of any individual country,” Raab tells BBC Today.
Yet Réunion island itself remains on the regular amber list. Anyone fully vaccinated seeking to travel from there to the UK without quarantine need only avoid mainland France.
A spokesperson for Brittany Ferries says: “It makes you wonder if those in the centre of power have access to an atlas – or a geography GCSE – between them.”
The UK continues to have the most onerous arrival requirements of any country in Europe: a pre-departure test and a post-arrival PCR.
The chief beneficiaries: fly-by-night firms that see travel testing as a get-rich-quick scheme with government backing. One proprietor works out that reducing the firm’s name to a single comma will be enough to propel them to the top of the official list of more than 400 test providers. Within a few days, the company formerly known as “,” vanishes, with the list headed by “.0.0.44 Tests”.
Some firms seize the opportunity of government-assisted marketing to mislead travellers – particularly by claiming you need a test to leave the UK. The Corona Test Centre asserted: “Fit To Fly Test – Required. Mandatory for most flights leaving the UK.”
Travellers are invited to spend £129 for a PCR test certificate that was likely to be completely pointless. The firm later removes the claim and offers to refund customers who were persuaded to pay for worthless tests.
Ministers deign to recognise vaccinations carried out in the EU and a few other carefully selected nations.
But the traffic light shenanigans continue. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Switzerland and Liechtenstein are moved to the quarantine-free “green list”, along with Portugal’s Atlantic archipelago, the Azores. But Turkey remains on the red list during what would be the busiest month – and is joined by Thailand and Montenegro.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, says: “The traffic light review system is destroying public confidence and making it impossible for the travel industry to trade its way through to recovery, let alone the British public to make plans to travel, do business or be reunited with loved ones.
“There would appear to be a wholehearted attempt by government to completely sabotage public confidence because there really is now no other logical rationale, as the data certainly doesn’t point to protecting public health given how broken the whole testing system is, too.”
A Department for Transport statement reads: “All classification changes have been decided by ministers, informed by the latest data and analysis by the Joint Biosecurity Centre and wider public health considerations, to help the public understand the risks to UK public health from incoming travel from different destinations.
“Continuing with our phased approach to restarting international travel while protecting public health, we are engaging with governments around the world, offering technical expertise and support to help them make any improvements needed for a change in traffic light rating.”
In a dramatic illustration of the arbitrary nature of the rules, an easyJet plane is delayed in Montenegro. It lands at Gatwick at 3.58am on 31 August – two minutes before all passengers on board would need to go into hotel quarantine.
The calamitous state of inbound tourism to the UK is revealed in visitor figures from the analysts ForwardKeys. A study of international arrivals to 20 European countries during July and August, compared with 2019, shows the UK firmly in last place with just 14 per cent of its 2019 numbers. By comparison, Greece welcomed 86 per cent.
Sean Doyle, chairman and chief executive of British Airways, says: “Despite our world-leading vaccination programme the UK’s economic recovery remains far behind our more pragmatic European neighbours, which are already reaping the rewards of a rapid recovery.
“We have a much more costly, prohibitive and restrictive testing regime than everyone else. We also need to urgently end the uncertainty caused by the constant threat of changes to countries’ traffic light status. Our ‘green’ list is much smaller than that of the US and EU, despite no new variants being transported into the UK.”
The red list reaches a peak of 55 countries – more than a quarter of the world’s nations.
Around 300 million European Union citizens who hold identity cards but not passports are banned from visiting the UK, in fulfilment of a Brexit promise.
On 4 October, Grant Shapps removes the need for a pre-departure test for fully vaccinated travellers to the UK, saying: “Now is the time for us to get our country moving once again.”
One week later, the biggest red list change takes place as 47 of the 55 nations are removed. Only Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Venezuela remain on the list, apparently because of concerns about the Lambda and Mu variants.
By the end of the month, the UK’s post-arrival test requirement for fully vaccinated travellers has been eased, with lateral flow tests allowed in place of PCRs.
The seven remaining red list countries are removed on the first day of the month, with the list seemingly scrapped. Mr Shapps says: “This is another step in the right direction for international travel with more good news today for passengers, businesses and the travel sector.
“We’re continuing to make great progress as we recover from the pandemic and today is another example of how far we have come.”
A week later, the US opens its borders to UK visitors after 19 months of closure.
But before the month is up, the red list is brought back due to fears around what we now know as the Omicron variant. Flights from South Africa are cancelled; anyone who has been in one of six (later 11) African nations is suddenly required to go into hotel quarantine.
Mr Shapps said: “We’ve always maintained public safety is our number one priority, which is why we’ve kept in place measures which allow us to protect the UK from new variants.
“We’re taking this early precautionary action now to protect the progress made across the country, and will continue to keep a close eye on the situation as we continue into the winter.”
In addition, the post-arrival PCR test is made mandatory again – with added twist of having to self-isolate until a negative PCR test result is received.
Let’s test again like we did last summer, announces the government – bringing back the mandatory pre-departure test for travellers to the UK.
“Chaotic changes in government measures towards international travel are creating an avalanche of cancellations,” says Advantage Travel Partnership’s Julia Lo Bue-Said.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson says: “Reintroducing restrictions will only result in confusion for millions of travellers, damaging consumer confidence and economic recovery.
“It’s imperative that criteria for restrictions is clear and the speed at which they are implemented should be mirrored in their removal, once we have the evidence.”
The transport secretary says: “The science shows that we must be cautious in guarding against this new variant and so, while we appreciate this will be difficult for the travel sector, it’s important we prioritise public health.”
On 6 December Nigeria is added to the red list. Yet the following day the health secretary, Sajid Javid, says all travel restrictions should be removed “very soon”.
He later adds: “Given that we already know that the Omicron variant is fast becoming the dominant variant in our capital city, spreading rapidly around the country, the justification for having the rules is minimised.”
The red list is emptied again at 4am on 15 December, but testing restrictions introduced to stem the tide of Omicron infections stay in place – where they’ll remain until at least January 2022.