Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
Unhappy days are here again for travellers, at least according to one headline on Friday morning. “Flight ban leaves British tourists stuck in Morocco,” it read – describing a group of 23 UK trekkers in the Atlas mountains who had not heard from their airline, easyJet.
For the sake of an accurate headline, the word “leaves” should be replaced by “doesn’t leave”. The suspension suddenly imposed this week by the North African nation on the UK (as well as the Netherlands and Germany) in response to soaring coronavirus rates, applies only to bringing passengers into the country. As such easyJet is operating (and selling tickets on) 16 flights out of Marrakesh and into the UK alone, running its normal schedule until the end of the month.
I don’t blame the happily unstuck hikers for feeling anxious about how they were going to get home. The sudden flights ban triggered another bout of the uncertainty that has dogged international travel for the past 19 months. It was on 23 March 2020 that the UK government told Brits abroad to come home as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Since then, prospective travellers have been the target of constantly changing and profoundly confusing restrictions.
As soon as the Morocco ban was announced on Wednesday, concerned parents contacted me to ask if they should abandon their half-term holiday plans in case other nations suddenly close their frontiers.
No, I responded: while new Covid-19 infection rates in the UK are way ahead of all other major European nations (20 times higher than Spain’s, for example), most of the popular destinations for British families are desperate for one final week of decent tourism revenue before the dark days of November descend.
If I am wrong? As with those trekkers in the High Atlas mountains, people with the good fortune to be on the far side of a flights ban should continue their holidays undisturbed.
Yet the Moroccan decision exemplifies the uncertainties that can jeopardise even the best-laid plans. As some of the UK’s great travel firms have told me during the Covid crisis, it is tougher to take apart a holiday than to put one together. In particular, companies offering multinational itineraries face multiple problems.
“The world isn’t ready for us yet,” says Charlie Hopkinson of Dragoman – an overland adventure firm with an excellent reputation. Attempting to take a truckload of people from a dozen nations, each with a different vaccination status, across a series of international frontiers is fraught with hazard.
He has shrewdly decided to put the firm into temporary hibernation. In the coming months Hopkinson’s team will set about rescuing the overland trucks scattered far and wide across South America, Africa and Asia. As international barriers started to clatter shut, these specialist vehicles had to be abandoned while tour leaders hurried their passengers to the nearest airport.
“Three in India, three in Chile, three in Argentina…” Hopkinson recites. Some trucks are properly stuck in Peru and Colombia, both still on the UK’s ever-less-justifiable red list from which hotel quarantine is mandatory.
“This year is about getting everything back on the road,” he says. “We will come back.”
A year from now, Dragoman’s resurrection should begin in Patagonia. I hope to join the first trip to go over the hills and far away in the deep south of Latin America.
Until then, I will stay optimistic about the industry of human happiness. And even as the UK looks increasingly like an international outcast, thanks to our Covid rates, I shall assume the best about travel until I know for certain otherwise.