If the end of Covid lockdowns was all about liberation and embracing old freedoms, it also brought to the global news screens an awkward set of images for the UK, where airports have been clogged with frustrated passengers caught in delays and cancellations.
Never-ending queues at immigration or security, lost baggage and cancelled flights by the ailing British Airways left many travellers with a bitter aftertaste.
Industry insiders are saying that the scenes, replicated at airports across the UK and broadcast worldwide, are taking a wrecking ball to the image of Brand Britain as an open and fast-paced destination for the global adventurer.
Foreign visitors are put off the UK by the scarring Covid left at the border as travellers faced hurdles trying to get into or out of the UK since two years of travel restrictions were dropped at the start of spring.
"We are very sorry to hear about the queue times at check-in you are experiencing this afternoon," is a much-repeated tweet by Heathrow Airport this spring. It is something of a dreary dirge for the country's image.
Across the aviation industry bosses are struggling to recruit and train new staff to cope with a sudden surge in demand for travel.
The sheer lack of staff is proving a major hindrance to the sector's role in Britain's attempt to make a comeback as one of the world's leading destinations for holidaymakers and business travellers. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Britain ranked 10th in the most popular destinations for international holidays, welcoming 39.4 million visitors from overseas, according to Visit Britain, which has yet to publish comparison figures for more recent years.
After the nightmarish scenes, Heathrow's chief executive John Holland-Kaye appealed to Border Force to help ensure the smooth running of travel at Britain's busiest airport this summer.
Douglas Tweddle, who was the director of customs at the former Border Agency when Border Force was created in 2012, last month wondered how damaging airport queues are to Britain’s image.
During a discussion on borders hosted by Policy Exchange, a UK think tank, he said “any border control is giving a customer service” and asked whether authorities had “got the emphasis right on facilitating the legitimate and giving a proper customer service”.
The problems blighting airports and structural issues with Border Force have damaged staff morale, which in turn has affected recruitment. These flaws will not be easily overcome, according to John Strickland, an aviation analyst at JLS Consulting.
He told The National the industry is seen as less attractive for jobseekers because many of those laid off during the pandemic have found work in other fields, with more benefits.
“Covid, even sickness, had pushed up absenteeism and new security vetting procedures for many positions introduced in the new year have slowed things down," he said.
“It will take some months at least to move staff levels up. Further delays and disruptions can be expected and some airlines like BA and easyJet have pre-emptively thinned out flight schedules to protect reliability. JetBlue is a US example of doing similar.”
‘Covid restrictions inflicted lasting damage’
Britain’s image overseas can only be salvaged by a mass campaign to promote it as a unique holiday destination, according to Paul Charles, chief executive of the PC Agency travel consultancy.
He said that the on, off and on again travel rules in the UK, which included the traffic light system, has convinced many travellers that Britain is a place of tight restrictions. Although the measures have been dropped the legacy remains.
Mr Charles, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the industry, said government policies during the pandemic has made Britain “a less attractive place to be”.
“I think it has done lasting damage ,” he said. “People are questioning whether they need to visit so much from Europe and they’ve seen other countries become more attractive.
“There’s a feeling that Britain has lost some of its shine during the pandemic and it needs to reinvigorate interest.”
‘This is Britain’s Covid legacy’
Graham Lake, director at FiveAero aviation consultancy and a former director general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, said any negative developments about Britain’s travel industry have far-reaching effects.
He said that the aftermath of strict travel rules during the pandemic are likely to prove more damaging to Britain’s image abroad than short-lived chaos at airports.
“Because English is one of the main languages of the world, the stories around Heathrow have been picked up," he said. “If people are visiting friends or relatives, they will grit their teeth and do it. If people are coming on a business trip they may or may not do it.”
Joshua Jalloul, a London brand consultant and founder of Brand Hatch, suggested some travellers, including Americans, could steer clear of the UK this year because of record inflation and the rising cost of living, which would limit their spending power.
This would hit the UK's travel sector particularly hard, given that travellers from the US contribute to the sector more than any other nation. About 4.5 million Americans touched down in the UK in 2019, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, nearly a million more than their French counterparts who comprised the second-largest batch of travellers.
'Rock bottom relations between industry and officials
The travel industry contributes about 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP and plays a vital role in the health of the economy. A multi-pronged marketing campaign promoting Britain’s main attractions – which include Stonehenge, the Tower of London and Bath – is urgently needed to salvage Brand Britain, according to Mr Charles.
“I think the UK has a big job to do in attracting people again in the numbers that we saw pre-pandemic," he said. “If they don’t do the UK would be left behind, it would lose market share, consumers would choose to travel to other countries and Britain would suffer from a long-term decline in inbound travel.”
The travel industry is also under pressure to improve its ties with the government after a bruising set of clashes over policy in the pandemic. The lack of transparency from the government at times during the pandemic and ministers’ rush to impose new rules when infection rates shot up has caused a gulf to open up between Downing Street and the travel industry, Mr Charles said.
“I have not seen the relationship between government and the travel sector at such a low level as this,” he said.
“There’s still mistrust, there’s still a lack of credibility in government about the way they treat the industry and I think there has been long-term damage to that relationship and it needs rebuilding. Sometimes that can only come from new personalities.”
Mr Jalloul said Britain will have to compete with other countries eager to attract tourists post-pandemic.
He said the country should push London’s West End as a major attraction to foreign travellers. Along with New York’s Broadway, London’s West End is considered the stage for some of the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.
“Britain is focusing on its cities as major selling points to the international traveller, and they have not only reopened, but possess one of the most sought-after attractions post-pandemic – the West End. With theatres back in business and Britain’s approach to ‘living with Covid’, the pull is strong," he said.
Mr Jalloul said there is a “market saturation in the travel sector, with advertising pushes from neighbours like Switzerland, farther out in the Middle East, and as far as Canada”.
“Countries are running major campaigns globally at the same time as the world opens up. Competition is the key."
Royals to the rescue
Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee celebrations in June, which mark 70 years of her reign, are expected to draw visitors from around the globe.
Visit Britain, the official marketing board for tourism, is banking on the month-long set of events to boost the country's appeal to foreigners, many of whom have not been on an overseas trip since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. The authority has rolled out a £10 million ($12.54 million) campaign aimed at making the UK more attractive to travellers by shining a spotlight on the country’s uniqueness. Promoters also hope the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games will serve as a major draw for visitors.
A UK government official called 2022 a “landmark year for the UK” and said people from around the world are expected to visit without the hassle of travel restrictions.
The challenge will be to provide a smoother experience this summer for travellers than they have experienced so far.