The UK travel sector has reacted with shock and confusion to a decision by the government to remove Portugal from the green list of safe travel destinations.
AITO chairman, Chris Rowles, said: “Nothing makes sense, unfortunately.
“Changing Portugal from green to amber at short notice – despite telling us that more notice would be given – is not going to encourage consumer confidence, and it will bring the tiny number of bookings that have been coming in daily to a juddering halt.
“It will also create even more confusion and a demand for refunds, which customers will not be entitled to should they decline to travel.
“We know the vaccine is working – even against the Delta variant (previously called the Indian variant), which the government so cavalierly allowed to enter the UK by permitting flights from India to continue freely despite the obvious risks involved.”
Government officials said the decision to move Portugal (including Madeira and the Azores) to the amber list follows increased concern in the spread of variants of coronavirus, including a mutation of the Delta variant.
In a forthright statement, Rowles added: “Our message is crystal clear – pay up, prime minister, chancellor and fellow ministers, without delay.
“Tour operators and travel agents need significant sector-specific payments, and we need them quickly.
“You have ignored our considerable problems to date.
“You know that furloughing staff is impossible for many travel companies due to the amount of changes, cancellations and deferrals involved, which earn us no money whatsoever, but which cost us dear in terms of paying staff and other office-related costs.
“The solution is simple: significant cash directed, urgently, straight to tour operators, travel agents and others in the dark hole that is currently the formerly vibrant travel industry.”
Charlie Cornish, MAG chief executive, said the current system for reopening borders was not working as expected.
He argued: “We were told the traffic light system would allow people to travel safely, with the right measures in place to manage risk for different countries.
“But it is now clear the government doesn’t trust its own system and that international travel is being unfairly scapegoated, with tens of thousands of jobs placed at risk in the process.
“Low-risk destinations continue to be left off the green list despite clear evidence they are safe to visit.
“With case rates lower than the UK, we simply cannot understand why the likes of the Balearics, the Canaries and some Greek islands do not fall into that category.”
He added: “If we followed the approach being taken across Europe, lots of other countries – like the United States, Germany and Italy – would also be classed as green.
“Instead, we’re stuck with a system that is clearly not fit for purpose and will deny people the opportunity to travel abroad safely this year.
“The lack of transparency is shocking and totally unacceptable.
“If the government has information that supports its decisions, then it needs to publish it.
“We have repeatedly asked for this data, but we are being left in the dark about how it is making these choices, with no opportunity for scrutiny or challenge.”
Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick Airport, added his voice to the condemnation of the decision.
“It is bitterly disappointing news for our impacted passengers and airlines that Portugal is to be added to the amber list from next week while no further destinations are being opened up for green travel,” he said.
“While it is in all of our interests to ensure that we only take forward steps out of the pandemic, we hope that the rest of Europe follows the speed of public vaccination in the UK so that safe and easy travel to and from the UK becomes a reality quickly, particularly as travel between mainland European countries is opening up already.
“As the UK remains focussed on its final easing out of lockdown at the end of June, we remain optimistic that summer holidays abroad will be a reality for the many people desperate to reunite with friends and family or enjoy a well-earned break.”
Meanwhile, in Portugal, João Fernandes, president of Algarve Tourism, reacted with dismay.
“As you can imagine we are bitterly disappointed to be moved to the amber list.
“In the Algarve region we host two thirds of the British overnight hotel stays in Portugal.
“And since the start of the pandemic the Algarve has had the lowest number of cases and better indicators than the rest of the country.
“Furthermore, Portugal has one of the highest levels of pandemic control and prevention in the EU, according to indicators in the latest European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control report.”
He added: “The millions of Brits that visit us each year contribute to the livelihoods of many people in the region.
“Our hotels, tour operators and airline partners will also once again be put in a difficult situation, trying to plan around these ever-changing rules.
“For holidaymakers it is an impossible situation trying to book a holiday overseas, and I sympathise with those that were looking forward to visiting our beautiful region for a well-deserved break.
“We hope they will re-arrange their holiday to the Algarve for later in the year rather than cancel completely.”
Image: Armando Jorge Mota Ribeiro