Chalkmarks: What’s the cost of the UK variant of covid-19 to tourism?

Visit Britain says £2.4bn

Credit: VisitBritain and TCI tourism research agency

WHEN UK scientists announced a new covid-19 strain that was up to 70% more contagious had been found in Kent in south-east England, it spread fear around the world. With the country already having one of the highest per capita covid-19 death rates in Europe, from the outside it was starting to look like “plague island”, the New York Times suggested.​ ​

Not surprisingly Britain’s reputation as a travel destination plummeted. Despite a national lockdown, the strain – now dubbed the UK variant – has reached all corners of Britain and has also been found in 70 other countries.

UK covid variant impacts tourism

Following the announcement, TCI Research, a tourism analytics agency, revealed it had dented Britain’s reputation as a place to visit. Its net sentiment index, which measures the polarity of web social conversation in relation to destinations, fell to below -20% on December 21st – the sharpest drop since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. ForwardKeys, a travel-data firm, also reported that flight bookings in the same week were 98% down year-on-year, a 10% drop from November.

Credit: VisitBritain

Reputation is a fragile thing

Unaware of what was around the corner, VisitBritain, the UK tourism agency, had been collecting data in early December to forecast tourism figures for 2021. (The chart highlights the dates they were conducting their fieldwork). It predicted the UK would see 16.9m inbound visits generating £9bn ​($12.4bn)​ in spending.

After the discovery of the new variant, it revised its estimates. How many travellers would be put off coming? The answer was 5.2m, costing the UK £2.4bn ​($3.3bn) ​in lost revenue. Richard Nicholls, head of research and forecasting at VisitBritain, said it was “unfortunate” the new strain is known internationally as the “UK or English variant”.

New strains have since emerged in South Africa and Brazil. These countries are also likely to struggle attracting tourists this year. Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell from cazenove+loyd, a tour operator, said he didn’t expect the UK government would hurry to put either country back on its travel corridors lists any time soon.

Meanwhile at home, the Government now requires a negative PCR test on all overseas arrivals. By mid-February those flying in from a “red list” of 33 countries, including South Africa and Brazil will have to stay in quarantine hotels for 10 days. This will leave many would-be visitors questioning whether they really need to make that trip to Britain.

Vaccine optimism

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Britain’s speedy roll out of its covid-19 vaccine programme has not gone unnoticed abroad. Tom Jenkins, CEO of the ETOA, a tourism trade association, said: “Rolling out the vaccine is the acid test of being a coherent holiday destination, and the UK looks like it’s doing a reasonably good job in comparison to everyone else.” Maybe VisitBritain will have to revise its 2021 estimates once again—this time upwards.

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