New research from ForwardKeys reveals that flight bookings to and from the UK have soared following the government’s announcement that COVID-19 testing would no longer be required for fully vaccinated travellers entering the UK. 

The day after the announcement by the UK Transport Secretary was made, combined inbound and outbound flight bookings jumped to 84% of pre-pandemic (2019) levels, outbound to 106% and inbound to 47%.

This news followed a series of relaxations in rules affecting travel to the UK, each triggering bookings spikes for outbound and inbound tourism.

More importantly, the typical seasonality patterns have returned and are evident in the recent recovery, with peaks showing for the forthcoming half-term break in February and the Easter holiday period, when looking at flight tickets confirmed in January.

The demand to travel abroad during the extended holiday weekend to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, in early June, is already 13% ahead of 2019.

UK Outbound Tourism: Sun and Sea destinations dominate

Benchmarked against pre-pandemic levels, the five destinations for which bookings have recovered most strongly in January, were: 1. Mexico, 72% up on 2019; 2. The Maldives, 54% up; 3. Greece, 22% up; 4. Cyprus, 20% up; 5. Barbados, 16% up.

The destinations which are doing best for the upcoming half-term break are now all ahead of where they were at the end of January 2019.

In the lead is Mexico, 68% ahead; it is followed by Pakistan, 60% ahead; The Maldives, 55% ahead; Barbados, 32% ahead; Qatar, 28% ahead; Bangladesh, 16% ahead; the UAE, 8% ahead and Portugal, 2% ahead.

“The list is dominated by long haul destinations, which offer beach holidays or have a relatively strong market for Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR), such as Pakistan,” says Olivier Ponti, VP of Insights at ForwardKeys.

“Entry restrictions continue to hamper recovery – despite the strong reactivation seen in the UK outbound market following the relaxation of entry requirements on return to Britain. British families still find it difficult to travel to short-haul popular winter sun destinations in Europe with unvaccinated children, prompting a strong preference for destinations afar such as Mexico, Maldives or Barbados,” he adds.

When looking at bookings further afield, for Easter and summer holidays, the number of issued tickets are relatively stronger than they are for the upcoming half-term break. Compared to this time last year, when the UK was in a state of limited lockdown, bookings are, unsurprisingly, much healthier, 59% ahead for Easter and 82% ahead for summer.

“The positive booking trends we are seeing for tickets issued for the Easter break and the Summer is a blatant sign of the recuperation of the travel and tourism sector as normal seasonal patterns as seen during the pre-pandemic return. Well, at least we can see these signs of recovery in Europe and the Americas for now.”

Currently, the top Easter destinations are led by Cyprus, for which bookings are 68% ahead of 2019 levels. It is followed by Nigeria, 35% ahead, Mexico, 28% ahead, Greece, 26% ahead and Spain 5% ahead.

UK Inbound Tourism: A Humble Re-Start

The recent surge in outbound bookings has been closely followed by a modest revival in inbound demand.

As of 31st January, the strongest origin markets (measured by flight tickets issued) were led by Nigeria at 73% of pre-pandemic (2019) levels. It was followed by Ireland, 47%; 3. The U.S.A, 47%; 4. Brazil, 47%; 5. Saudi Arabia, 45%; 6. the UAE, 44%; 7. South Africa, 40%; 8. Spain, 40%; 9. Kuwait, 37% and 10. Sweden, 36%.

Olivier Ponti, VP of Insights at ForwardKeys, concludes: “By withdrawing the impediment of testing and the risk of quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers, flight bookings are surging ahead.”

“What I find particularly interesting is the continued dominance of classic sea and sun destinations. A clear sign that the pandemic is still very much with us is the absence of a revival in city tourism or travel to airports strongly associated with skiing. However, if we see Continental European countries relaxing their travel restrictions in the way the UK has just done, I expect to see a flood of holiday bookings that could exceed pre-pandemic levels, thanks to a release of the huge pent-up demand.”


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