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New Coronavirus Variants Postpone Recovery Of Leisure Travel

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Demand for travel in Britain continues to grow despite the pandemic. Vacation bookings are up even as the government tightens travel restrictions. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: After months of lockdowns and cancelled plans, some people here can't wait to get on the road again.

GREG WHITE: We're going to go to South Africa in late March. We're traveling to Cape Town, and then we're going to travel up the garden routes to Port Elizabeth.

JUDY PEEL: We've booked a holiday to go to Amsterdam, primarily to see the bulb fields in the Keukenhof Gardens.

LANGFITT: That was Greg White, who's 33 and works in finance in London, and Judy Peel. She's a homemaker in her 60s in county Kent who's talking about her 2022 plans. And then there's Kelly Newton, 49. She owns a small clothing business in South London. This is her ambitious wish list.

KELLY NEWTON: Suffolk for five days at Easter, then Portugal for five days in June, France for a week in August with the family, five days in Mykonos in September with some girlfriends and then a week in the Maldives with my husband.

LANGFITT: Sophie Griffiths edits Travel Trade Gazette, the world's oldest travel trade magazine. She says there's a lot of pent-up demand and cautious optimism in a nation which has already delivered first vaccine doses to more than 15 million people.

SOPHIE GRIFFITHS: A lot of people didn't get to go away last year. They're itching for their holiday. And I think we've seen a real boost amongst the travel industry since news of the vaccine first came out in late November, early December. And that's now playing out with new bookings.

LANGFITT: TUI, the German-based travel giant, says bookings last month were up 70% compared to December, with people prepared to spend on average 20% more on vacations than last summer. Griffiths says the quicker a country distributes vaccines, the faster its tourist economy might recover.

GRIFFITHS: Israel, for instance, is talking a big game in terms of wanting to get all of their over-sixteens vaccinated by the end of March. So that might make Israel more popular as a destination.

LANGFITT: But new, more infectious variants are making flying even more difficult, confusing and time-consuming. The U.K. is now requiring three COVID tests, plus mandatory quarantine at home or hotel for all arriving passengers, including those returning from vacation. British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps issued this warning on the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRANT SHAPPS: People shouldn't be booking holidays right now, not domestically or internationally.

LANGFITT: Vaccine passports could be a long-term solution. The trade group, which represents some 290 airlines, is developing a phone app. It would link people's COVID test results and vaccination records to a digital version of their passport, which the passenger could share with airlines and immigration. Alan Murray Hayden of the association explains how it would work on a flight from London to Washington, D.C.

ALAN MURRAY HAYDEN: If you shared it with British Airways, it means you don't need to be checked at Heathrow. When you arrive in Dulles, if the U.S. government were to accept the test results from us, you would need to show your paper vaccination certificate at Dulles Airport.

LANGFITT: What's at stake financially?

HAYDEN: Simply put, survival. Unless we can implement these type of technologies, we will not be able to open up travel again. And if we can't trust them to travel again, then airlines will go bankrupt.

ANA BEDUSCHI: If people cannot access or cannot afford COVID tests or vaccines, then their freedoms will be de facto restricted.

LANGFITT: Ana Beduschi worries about the fairness of a system like this. She teaches law here at the University of Exeter and co-authored a study on the impact of health passports on human rights.

BEDUSCHI: Imagine that public authorities would start to require everyone to routinely display their health status to access public transport, restaurants, churches. Some people could start moving freely. Others would not be allowed to travel and to access specific places.

LANGFITT: Which could simply be based on where they live and their government's ability to obtain vaccine doses.

BEDUSCHI: It's important that vaccines are accessible to all and tests are affordable by all before any large-scale deployment of these digital health experts or vaccine passports.

LANGFITT: But that could take years.

BEDUSCHI: Well, yes, that could take years. But at the same time, you would find a situation in which the already existing inequalities in the society would be even more exacerbated.

LANGFITT: Airlines think a return to mass travel will hinge on vaccine distribution and more efficient ways to verify passengers are COVID-free or vaccinated. The Air Transport Association plans to roll out its new app in March.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.