Hopes for surge in holiday bookings as England’s ‘red list’ cut to seven countries

Travel industry insiders predicted a surge in bookings for October half-term as ministers cut England’s travel red list to just seven countries, all in Latin America: Peru, Columbia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Venezuela. Travellers from other destinations will no longer have to quarantine in a hotel on their return to the country.

The decision to reduce the red list from 54 countries to seven was taken at a meeting on Thursday morning, after discussions about the safety of opening the country’s borders.

Travel rules changed earlier this week to scrap the traffic-light system that graded countries red, amber or green. Now there are just two lists: “red” and “rest of the world”.

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, said the announcement was “major progress” for the industry, but called on the government to further simplify the rules on testing for holidaymakers.

He predicted that there would be an almost “immediate surge” in holiday bookings. “This is a highly significant moment and it will give people the confidence to go abroad again. It really is encouraging for the travel industry and it shows that it is perfectly safe, as long as you are vaccinated, to start travelling again. But what we need the government to do now is to remove any layers of complexity around testing.”

Discussions are currently taking place on when PCR tests can be replaced with significantly cheaper lateral flow tests with the government only saying the change will take place by the end of October. Currently, fully vaccinated travellers need a negative PCR test to avoid isolation from non-red list countries.

Liz Matthews, UK general manager of Flight Centre, said the decision was a “massively positive step”: “The vast majority of the world is now open to UK travellers, with just a few destinations off-limits.”

Flight Centre bookings doubled after the scrapping of the amber list last month, and now the company anticipates high demand for winter sun destinations including Mexico, Bali and South Africa. Looking ahead to January, peak sales month for flights, Matthew said: “By far the most important thing now is that we don’t see any backtracking or U-turns.”

Pablo Caspers of online agency Opodo said there was clear evidence of “an appetite to travel more widely” in the week leading up to the announcement. UK searches for travel to Brazil were up 184% on the previous week and searches to South Africa increased by 163%.

Teresa Bennett of the Natural Travel Collection said previous changes to travel rules had had an immediate impact. “When Egypt and the Maldives came off the red list [on 22 September], we had calls and emails from customers within hours. The increased business to just two destinations meant I could increase the hours of my sales staff.”

However, she cautioned that travel to some destinations not on the red list may remain difficult, either because they are not yet open to UK travellers or for logistical reasons. “The government lifted its advice against non-essential travel to Madagascar on Wednesday, for example – but there are no flights there from the UK.”

Emma Coulthurst of price comparison site TravelSupermarket said bookings this week remained at nearly double the level seen before the dismantling of the traffic light system. Popular destinations included Tenerife, New York, the Costa Blanca and Fuerteventura.

“The scrapping of pre-departure tests from 4 October continues to have a major impact on bookings,” she said, “with many people booking late-season trips to the Med. Fully 40% of all bookings in the past week are for October get-aways. People are really keen to get away.”

Tom Power of Pura Adventure, which specialises in holidays to Latin America, was “delighted” to see several countries removed from the red list. He said the timing was particularly good for Chile, which is reopening to international travellers this month.

Power believes people remain nervous at the prospect of long-haul flights, partly for fear of the rules changing while they are away. “It’s going to take time for people to get used to travelling again,” he said. For adventure travel, he expects the latest announcement to most benefit those whose trips to, say, Patagonia or Antarctica were deferred during the pandemic.

Sue Ockwell of the Association of Independent Tour Operators said that with half-term in England and Wales just two weeks away, the announcement had come too late. “It’s not going to give a boost to the travel industry – people aren’t just going to go out and book a safari tomorrow.” She criticised transport secretary Grant Shapps for a lack of consultation with industry experts and accused him of “trashing travel and tourism”.

The red list is next expected to be updated on 28 October.

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