Covid-19 vaccines have been heralded as the moment when the fightback really begins. But, with travel restrictions in place, is this truly the beginning of the end? Gary Peters investigates.
On 8 December, then 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be given the Pfizer/BioNTech jab as part of a mass vaccination programme.
Keenan, who turned 91 just a week later, called it the “best early birthday present”, and across the nation the joy was palpable. Scientists were rightly hailed for their expertise and sheer hard work in reaching such a point in a very short timeframe. Regulators were praised for their speed at formally approving the vaccine for use among the general public.
Then, on 4 January, 82-year-old Brian Pinker became the first person to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, as the government began the roll-out of the second type.
Across the travel sector, the response has been one of relief more than anything else. There has been no huge celebration, no jumping for joy. A slight fist-clench and exclamation of ‘come on’, perhaps.
Optimism and realism
The overall feeling is one of realistic optimism – yes, the vaccines are hugely significant, but restrictions are still in place and lockdowns persist. Nonetheless, “the vaccination programme is giving everyone the chance to dream and start thinking about their travel plans for later this year and beyond”, says A-Rosa UK & Ireland MD Lucia Rowe.
Philip Ordever and Stuart Perl, co-founders of The Cruise Strategy Company, an independent business designed to help agents sell more cruise holidays, back this view: “It is undoubtedly a huge step forward in the global battle against Covid-19 that vaccines have been approved, and we can be cautiously optimistic about the positive impact this will have on consumers’ confidence to book holidays,” they say.
“We do, however, need to balance this with the fact that the phased roll-out of the vaccine will mean that the segments of the market most likely to cruise are unlikely to be vaccinated before the spring.”
For Travel Counsellors’ head of cruise, Janet Whittingham, the positivity has been demonstrated in customer surveys (albeit the results of the following were taken before the third lockdown announcement).
She says: “In a recent survey, 70 per cent said they were keen to cruise again in the next 12 months. Over 60 per cent also said that news of a vaccine boosted their confidence in being able to set sail again sooner.
“The experience for many customers has proved the value of being able to rely on an experienced travel professional, particularly those with expertise in cruise, to help travellers to navigate the latest developments as restrictions continue across the globe.”
Advantage Travel Partnership leisure director Kelly Cookes comments: “Feedback has been very positive, particularly from seasoned cruisers. They are keen to cruise again and are making bookings.”
Recent findings from Saga also paint a positive picture in terms of consumer sentiment about travel in general, with the company reporting an increase in the number of over-50s booking once-in-a-lifetime holidays.
Another survey, this one by Mundy Cruising from late last year, found that 47 per cent of respondents said they would only cruise once they had been vaccinated and the majority of the population had been vaccinated.
Mundy Cruising managing director Edwina Lonsdale said at the time that the results provided a “lot of food for thought but the overriding sentiment is one of cautious optimism regarding the resumption of cruising”.
The UK Travel Intelligence Report, compiled by communications firm Lotus, also shows that “of the UK population who prefer to cruise, 26 per cent of those looking to cruise in Europe, and 32 per cent of those aiming beyond the continent, are waiting to be vaccinated”, Lotus CEO Jules Ugo tells CTN.
“Meanwhile, 14 per cent of those looking to cruise in Europe within the next six months, and seven per cent of those looking outside Europe, are eager to cruise regardless of the vaccine.”
Rowe adds that by late March, with more and more over-50s vaccinated, “we could see a real surge in demand for the second half of this year and into 2022… for many, their suitcases are ready and waiting to be packed”.
Testing is vital
What is accepted across the industry is that vaccines do not reduce the need for comprehensive testing, at least in the short term. Globally, CLIA cruise line members have agreed to 100 per cent testing of passengers and crew on all ships with a capacity to carry 250 or more passengers. This signifies the common approach that has been prevalent since the very first days of the pandemic.
CLIA UK & Ireland director Andy Harmer says: “There is still so much unknown about the virus and the scientific and medical understanding is constantly changing, but we are an innovative industry taking innovative approaches that continue to put people first.
“Our members are working together to consider new and enhanced health protocols, technologies and sanitation solutions informed by some of the world’s leading experts in coordination with public health officials, governments and ports.”
Travel expert and chairman of Rock Insurance Steve Endacott says that “vaccines are vital in creating a light at the end of the tunnel”, but that testing “is vital for convincing customers pre-vaccination that relatively Covid-19-free environments can be created on board”.
Ordever and Perl add: “The vaccines [are] the major factor in boosting recovery but all of the other elements involved to ensure a safe return to cruising must be in place and proven before there is a sustained return to pre-pandemic booking volumes.”
Vaccine to travel
With the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines and the continued roll-out across the country and indeed globally, attention has now turned to the question of health passports and the need to demonstrate evidence of a vaccination to travel.
In mid-January, Saga revealed that it will require all passengers to have been vaccinated against Covid-19 at least 14 days before departure. The initial reaction across social media has been one that is generally supportive of the move.
The operator has confirmed all guests should be fully inoculated, meaning both doses of the vaccine, adding that guests will be required to show their vaccination document and/or evidence at the time of boarding.
If guests have not had the Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 days before departure they will not be permitted to board and will be given a different date or a full refund, Saga confirmed. The line is currently scheduled to restart operations with new ship Spirit of Adventure’s inaugural voyage on 4 May. Spirit of Discovery will then return to service on 2 June.
On 2 February, American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister company Victory Cruise Lines also announced it will require passengers to provide proof of a vaccination to sail with the lines.
Beginning 1 July 2021, the move is “the most prudent next step to ensure that we are providing the safest cruising experience possible”, said American Queen Steamboat Company CEO and founder John Waggoner.
He added in a statement: “Our new vaccination requirement, coupled with comprehensive health and safety protocols and risk-free booking policy, will give our loyal guests another added level of assurance to join us as we return to sailing.”
As for travel in general, Qantas boss Alan Joyce said last year that international air travellers will need to prove they have been vaccinated to board longer flights with Qantas, while in January former UK prime minister Tony Blair told The Telegraph that the government should look to establish a global vaccine passport scheme through the G7. The passport should be digital, Blair argued, and capable of tracking and verifying someone’s Covid-19 status, wherever they travel.
Also in January, after a meeting set up by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the Global Tourism Crisis Committee called for the coordination of a standardised system, as well as harmonised testing protocols.
UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Vaccines must be part of a wider, coordinated approach that includes certificates and passes for safe cross-border travel.”
On the other side of the coin, speaking in January, WTTC president & CEO Gloria Guevara said: “It will take a significant time to vaccinate the global population… so we shouldn’t discriminate against those who wish to travel but haven’t been vaccinated. The common-sense approach is to allow the free movement of people who can prove a negative test result.”
There is plenty of uncertainty, but absolutely no disputing that Covid-19 vaccines mark the beginning of the fightback against this rotten disease.
Illustration credit: Phil Couzens