KATE SMITH

UK Ambassador: Tourism recovery will be ‘fast and impressive’

uk-ambassador-tourism-recovery-will-be-fast-and-impressive

The UK authorities have begun examining individual islands that are popular holiday destinations for British tourists in order to evaluate whether they can be moved from the amber to the green list, which would mean travelers wouldn’t have to quarantine upon their return home, British Ambassador to Greece Kate Smith CMG reveals in an interview with Kathimerini. She clarifies that the strategy of the British government is to make possible the gradual restart of international travel, always bearing the protection of public health in mind. 

Smith notes that, “until May 17, there was an international travel ban for the British, which has now been lifted.” However, the British government does advise its citizens to avoid leisure travel to destinations included in the amber list, which for the time being includes Greece. Still, the ambassador expresses the hope that destinations such as Greece can be included in the green list as their epidemiological pictures improve. She also emphasizes that “the British hold a special place in their hearts for Greece” and thus believes that “the recovery of tourism will be fast and impressive.”

Several British companies, airlines, tour operators, specialists and others have strongly criticized recent statements by UK government officials against international travel. Could you clarify whether such a directive actually exists?

We all know this will not be a normal summer. But we want to make sure it is not like the summer of 2020 either. We’ve made enormous progress this year tackling the pandemic, both in the UK and Greece. We’re not at the end of it, but the signs are very hopeful. That progress has been hard won by the speed and success of the vaccination program, the scale of testing, the sacrifice and the discipline of the public. The British and, I think, the Greek government’s approaches are aligned: not to risk undermining that hard-won success.

Up to May 17 there was a “Stay in the UK” legal prohibition on foreign travel. This is now lifted. The British government’s approach is to gradually enable international travel to restart again, while protecting public health. So, while travel is now permitted, we recommend against leisure trips to countries listed in the red and amber categories. Caution dictates that we do everything possible to limit the continuing – and significant – risks. For the British government, particular risks are posed by the variants of the virus currently, and potentially in future, in circulation overseas and which could enter the UK as a result of international travel. For this reason, among other criteria, the number of destinations on the green list, where the risks associated with variants is lower, is small. Many popular destinations for British tourists – Spain, Italy, France and Cyprus, as well as Greece, are in the amber list. We hope that many of those can transition to green as the epidemiological situation improves.

How do you respond to criticism that the UK, and other European countries for that matter, want to discourage their citizens from traveling abroad not only for health and safety reasons, but also because they would prefer to keep that travel expenditure within their own economies?

The British government’s approach is driven by public health concerns pure and simple. Of course, we too recognize the enormous challenge the pandemic has posed for the travel and transport industry – a very important economic sector in the UK just as in Greece. And as in Greece, we have put in place a comprehensive package of business support to the sector. But our decisions on international travel are guided by the science first and foremost.

How soon can we expect the normalization – that is, without quarantines – of travel between the UK and Greece, given the high demand for Greek holidays on the part of UK travelers?

The British are a nation that thrives on travel, a nation with personal, business and cultural ties across the globe. To give you an idea, in 2019 UK residents took over 93 million trips abroad. So, I’m glad that the UK has taken the first – albeit tentative – steps towards unlocking international travel. We want a summer in which, with the key tools of vaccines and testing, we can reunite with family and friends, traveling to places we love, and resume all-important personal and business contacts. We want to start looking outward again.

Let me set out how the traffic light system works. Ministers take their decisions on red, amber or green list assignment based on risk assessments provided by an expert body, the Joint Biosecurity Center (JBC). Countries are categorized based on the risk to public health. The key criteria include testing rates, weekly incidence rates, test positivity, evidence of variants of concern (or high-risk variants under investigation) in a country, exported cases (including variants of concern [VoCs] and high-risk variants under investigation [VuIs]) to the UK and elsewhere, genomic sequencing capability and strong travel links with countries known to have community transmission of a VoC/VuI. Measures will be reviewed regularly, on the basis of the latest scientific data and the next milestones are June 28, July 31 and October 1. In addition, the JBC is now beginning, where the necessary data is available, to assess island destinations separately where these are significant destinations for British travelers. The guiding principle for the traffic light system is the public health risk to the UK associated with returning travelers from overseas destinations. UK government Travel Advice is different: It is focused on the risks that UK travelers face in different locations abroad. That is why there is some differentiation – though not much – between the two systems.

What is the current regulation framework concerning UK citizens who want to come to Greece, and specifically their obligations upon their return to your country?

Greece is currently categorized as amber under the traffic light system. Anyone arriving in the UK from Greece must bring, in addition to their completed Passenger Locator Form (PLF), evidence of a negative pre-departure PCR test; will need to self-isolate at home for a period of 10 days and then take further PCR tests on day 2 and day 8 after their arrival. There is an option for an additional “Test to Release” on day 5 to end self-isolation early. I know this is burdensome, but these measures are carefully designed and necessary to protect public health in the UK.

Do you think that the post-pandemic recovery of tourism flows between our two countries will take more than a year or two to normalize?

I very much doubt it. As this year’s bookings – and the most recent evidence of “normal” years shows (3.6 million visitors from the UK in 2019) – Greece is a well-established, favored destination for Brits. “All You Need is Greece” is definitely a message that will resonate with my compatriots – as it does with me. The Greek “offer” – wonderful climate, food and drink, and “sun and sea” landscape has been familiar and enjoyed for decades. Recently, British tourists have begun to enjoy the “alternative” tourism developing in Greece too – hiking, cycling in the mountains, new watersports, and cultural tours. All this is underpinned by our longstanding historic, cultural and social ties that make Greece an especially loved destination. Of course, so much still depends on the course of the pandemic and our approaches must be guided by science at all times. But if developments continue in the current positive direction, I believe the recovery in tourism will be quick and impressive.

Given the good relations that our two countries enjoy, but also implications after Brexit, are you concerned that travel flows to and from Greece will be impacted in the medium term?

Well, relations are not just good; they are excellent. They are historic, close and significant to both countries. People-to-people relations have played a big role in forging those bonds. Greece occupies a special place in the hearts of British people, it’s not just travelers who keep coming back to Greece year after year; there are the thousands of UK nationals who have made Greece their second home and the Greek government has taken a most constructive and generous approach towards them, post-EU exit. Equally, thousands of Greeks choose to invest in the excellence of UK education and thousands have chosen to stay on after their studies, living, working and making a valuable contribution to UK life. And the UK continues to be a hugely attractive base for Greek entrepreneurs to invest and expand their businesses internationally.