It is February 2021, and ESTA travel still looks like a distant dream. But last summer, it felt like travel was about to start again, Europe had reopened – albeit with restrictions – and people began to move again. Fast forward seven months, and it feels like we are back to square one.
Coronavirus has started to mutate into different forms; meaning countries have begun to shut their borders again and implement more stringent restrictions. The new U.S president has implemented mandatory quarantine on all U.S arrivals. And the British government has introduced compulsory hotel quarantine on arrivals from high-risk countries.
So we’re seemingly incredibly far from travel reopening.
What are the current restrictions?
United Kingdom citizens face travel restrictions on almost every country they visit. Joe Biden, the new US President, has banned United Kingdom citizens from traveling to the United States. Former US President Donald Trump removed the ban two days before leaving office, but the Biden administration reversed the decision.
Since the pandemic’s early days, the initial ban had been in place. And UK citizens – unless they have special access – haven’t been able to visit the country ever since. Furthermore, British citizens aren’t allowed to leave the country for non-essential travel. So travel to the US is entirely off for now.
The UK identified the mutant strain of covid19 in Kent, England, at the end of 2020, leading to a ban on British travelers worldwide.
What is the ongoing damage to the travel industry?
The ESTA travel industry is under immense pressure right now. But British travel companies were given a lifeline in the summer of 2020 with the introduction of travel corridors. These corridors allowed citizens to move between countries – with low infection rates – without the need for mandatory quarantine or a PCR covid19 test.
A rise in travel occurred, and many British citizens saw this as an opportunity to grab some summer sun. But evidence suggests the travel corridors within the European Union are the catalyst for the current second wave. Almost all corridors are now closed, and travel has ground to the slowest half since the pandemic began.
Heathrow Airport claimed a 73% drop in passenger numbers in 2020. In December 2020, travel numbers decreased by 82.9 percent.
The number of passengers traveling to North America decreased by 15 million. In 2019, over 19 million people crossed from Heathrow Airport to the US and Canada – but only 4 million made the journey during 2020.
Airline companies are the worst affected. Ryanair suggested a 95% drop in passengers until April 2021 – claiming that ‘brutal lockdowns’ and slow vaccination drives are to blame.
What are the solutions?
Since the pandemic began, airports, governments, and travel companies have tried their best to be creative. Every country has had a different position on handling travel numbers, with PCR tests, the reduced quarantine on arrival, and travel bubbles. But with the new strains of covid19 looming globally, vaccination passports seem to be the only way forward.
Following the AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer vaccines’ approval, discussions have begun around vaccine passports. Over the previous three months, there has been a debate surrounding the introduction of vaccine passports – but there isn’t a consensus yet.
ESTA travel & what are the current discussions surrounding vaccine passports?
So Greece and Denmark began vaccine passport discussions in January, with both countries potentially allowing the passports before the summer. And Iceland has just started to issue covid19 certificates to all Iceland citizens who have received the second dose of the vaccination. The UK is about to open international travel based on an ESTA Travel Passport in May of 2021.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Union Commission, said she fully supports the idea of a standard vaccination certificate. And the Greek Prime Minister, Mitsoakis, called on the EU to introduce a joint vaccination certificate to allow citizens to travel between EU member states.
Also, Israel has proposed introducing a “green passport.” That would allow vaccinated individuals to travel in and out of Israel without restrictions.
Many major technology companies within Europe and the United States are working together to create a global digital certificate for vaccination. These companies include IBM, Covid Credentials Initiative, and the Commons Project.
And the goal of the standard digital pass is to allow individuals to access vaccination records before entering a country. Still, it wouldn’t allow individuals to access any other underlying health conditions.
Concerns over the vaccine passports
Some politicians and citizens are concerned about privacy issues. And there is also an ongoing debate around how governments will determine which vaccines are suitable and which vaccines are not.
Some in the travel industry have criticized the vaccination passport idea, suggesting it will delay global travel reopening. And the travel industry argues it will take a considerable time to vaccinate the world population.
We already see a disparity in world vaccinations, with many developing nations yet to start vaccinating their citizens. Even developed countries like Australia and New Zealand have yet to vaccinate anyone.
The travel industry also argues some citizens with allergies have been discouraged from taking the vaccine until there is more data. And many citizens will be unable to travel in the distant future.
So the consensus for many in travel is that vaccine passports are not getting out of jail cards. But some people in the travel industry see the vaccine passport as a positive ray of light after 12 months of a nightmare.
When will ESTA travel return?
The introduction of vaccines in the past two months and the growing discussion around vaccination passports leads to a hope that travel will resume in the third quarter of the year.
And the United States is open to the idea of vaccination passports, meaning it is likely UK citizens can travel to the US after the summer. But it remains unlikely we will see travel reopen to any form of normality until after mid-2021.
We will need to see a large proportion of the world vaccinated before governments feel comfortable allowing foreign citizens through their borders. So continue to be patient because we are on the verge of getting through this travel nightmare.