Hotels across the UK and overseas have reacted to the government’s suggestion of trialling airport testing at Heathrow this month.
With a coronavirus testing facility on stand-by, Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said that talks with Downing Street had been “progressive” and testing could be operational within a couple of weeks. One test would be performed on arrival (billed at £150) with another five or seven days later.
The industry welcomes the news with socially distant open arms. Remarks like “step forward”, “postive” and “about time” make up the majority of comments from CEOs, managers and directors of both large and independent hotel groups, who argue that quarantine measures have been devastating for businesses and holidaymakers at home and abroad.
“Testing is the lifeline that the hotel industry needs to get back on its feet,” managing director of Red Carnation Hotels, Jonathan Raggett, said. “It gives global travellers the confidence to travel again, while simultaneously removing the need for economically damaging, long quarantine periods.”
Alan Ball, area director of sales and marketing at JOALI in the Maldives, echoes this as an “intelligent next step”. He also argues that the current 14-day self-isolation is both inefficient and destructive to the wider economy, while general manager at Huvafen Fushi, Noel Cameron, says that taking a proactive approach to reduce quarantining sends out a positive message.
“Ensuring affordable, timely and accurate testing is in place for holidaymakers returning to the UK will be a boon to many destinations struggling with the effects on tourism of Covid-19,” Cameron said. Sonu Shivdasani, founder of Soneva Fushi, which has already introduced testing for guests and hosts at the resort, said that it’s as much a solution to the virus as a vaccine. “If the world has learned anything from the pandemic,” Shivdasani said, “apart from how damaging fear itself can be, it is the central importance of testing to get the virus under control”.
To say that the quarantine measures have had a drastic effect on the industry is an understatement, not least for the airlines transporting passengers to and from tourist destinations. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), international arrivals fell 65 per cent during the first half of the year and with a predicted 70 per cent decline in international arrivals for the rest of the year, it’s a bleak prognosis.
But, as with many airline chiefs, hoteliers are confident that once a testing system is in place people will book flights and accommodation again. “At Airelles we’ve really felt the direct impact of the current UK travel restrictions as all of our properties are in France,” says Guillaume Fonquernie, CEO of the French hotel group. “This was initially felt half way through the summer season when our much-loved British guests all cancelled.
“Now as we approach the winter, we once again feel the hesitation in booking from our UK visitors which is completely understandable. We hope this news will bring some much needed confidence to UK travellers and the travel industry as a whole.”
In The Netherlands, Robbert Van Rijsbergen who is the director of sales and marketing at The Dylan Amsterdam agrees. “Britons typically travel to Amsterdam and stay for two or three nights. With airport testing at Heathrow, Brits will feel more comfortable about travelling for a short break, knowing they have considerably fewer days to self-quarantine on their return,” he said.
A spokesperson for Adriatic Luxury Hotels in Dubrovnik said that the UK market makes up a quarter of the country’s tourism industry. “We’ve witnessed first-hand the detrimental effects of the air corridor system when we were placed on the red list, but also the positive effects of a savvy airport testing service such as in Germany. Dubrovnik had one of the lowest levels of Covid-19 in the country and continues to do so and we look forward to welcoming our British friends to our shores once again.”
Some hotels are resting on a knife edge. “The existing UK quarantine is deterring hundreds of Brits from visiting the Andronis Exclusive family-run luxury hotels collection in Santorini, an island currently on the UK governments quarantine list,” says the managing director of the group, George Filippidis.
“As such, we have already closed one of our hotels (of the two currently open) months earlier than planned. Looking at our cancellations, we have been told the main deterrent is the UK government’s 14-day quarantine upon return. Therefore I absolutely welcome a speedy Covid-19 test.”
In the UK, the story is similar for hotels with a large overseas clientele. Nassar Khalil, CEO of Roque City Hotels, says they have seen properties close their doors for the last time because of the restrictions. “With city centre hotels bearing a large share of the brunt caused by Covid, further exacerbated by the introduction of government travel restrictions such as the two-week quarantine rule, we have seen hotels closing their doors.”
Around 30 countries including France, Germany, Greece and Iceland have already introduced airport testing, and more than 5,000 travel and tourism companies in Europe have issued an appeal to the European Commission calling for a testing regime to help save the industry.
“[Testing] is not new, it has successfully been implemented in a number of countries with good measured outcomes. For reasons too dull to adumbrate, I very much hope that the ministers responsible will finally support what is a common sense proposal not only to save the hospitality industry by bolstering international travel but also to help many other ancillary businesses that the travel trade supports including culture, sport and entertainment,” Khalil added.
Gabriel Escarrer, executive vice chairman of Exceltur (the main Spanish Tourism Lobby) and CEO of Melia Hotels International, said he “heartily welcomes” the initiative. “We have been claiming for testing at airports since last April, as it is the best way to provide confidence and set up safe tourist corridors, and now, the new antigen tests, affordable and highly reliable, will make it possible.”
Not everyone is convinced that this will be the travel industry’s silver bullet. Some argue that it’s too little too late, or that there are still some issues with the new modelling that need to be addressed.
Andrew Stembridge, executive director for Iconic Luxury Hotels, said that while they fully welcome the recent airport testing discussions, they do still see problems as quarantine would still be required upon landing in the UK. He said: “The new tests discussed effectively only halve the quarantine requirement, and whilst this is a step in the right direction, even a five to seven-day quarantine is too long for the majority, especially when on holiday.”
The group, which runs well-known establishments such as 11 Cadogan Gardens in London, Chewton Glen in Hampshire and Cliveden House in Berkshire, has experienced high staycation bookings this year, but a dramatic drop in city-centre hotels who rely on international city hoppers. “For some international guests who are deterred from visiting […] any form of testing to reduce [quarantine] will give them extra reason to enjoy an international break and help London get open for business again,” he said.
The Lux Collective, which comprises LUX* Resorts & Hotels and SALT resorts, welcomes thousands of guests from the UK every year. Executive vice president of the group, Julian Hagger, believes that the travel industry is “resilient and will recover from the current crisis” – depending on how fast it learns to live with the virus.
He said: “Covid-19 testing facilities at airports globally will not only facilitate the process of acquiring the necessary tests most countries require prior to entry but also reassure passengers that the flight is Covid free prior to stepping on board.”
This is seconded by Amar Lalvani, CEO of Standard International (parent company of Standard Hotels) who applauds the smart, rapid testing initiatives and tracing at airports, especially as there is still a great desire to travel. “Unfortunately it looks like Covid-19 will be with us for a while,” he said, adding: “I and many New Yorkers can’t wait to get back to London and would certainly be willing to opt into the programme.”
Jeremy Goring, the managing director of The Goring hotel in London highlighted that anything that makes it easier for people to travel is good for employment in the UK.. “This country has a vibrant hospitality sector that offers opportunity and growth to all and anyone.
“It also brings in 40 million visitors (and their money) in a typical year. Therefore we in UK hospitality would like to see a positive approach from government as opposed to what is currently happening, whereby every time a minister opens his mouth, more jobs are lost in the sector.”
Last month, Telegraph Travel launched Test4Travel – a campaign urging the Government to roll out affordable Covid-19 tests on arrivals at all UK airports and ports, by Christmas.