If you work in the travel industry – or, indeed, have more than a passing interest in ever getting the heck off this sceptred isle – you likely waited for the transport secretary’s announcement last Friday with bated breath.
Grant Shapps was finally going to reveal the hallowed “green list”, consisting of the countries deemed safe enough that travellers returning from them would not be required to quarantine from 17 May. They would still have to jump through a couple of hoops – a pre-departure test and a post-arrival one – but, provided both were negative, they’d be home and dry.
Countries classified as amber or red under the UK’s new traffic light system for travel, meanwhile, would be afforded no such luxuries. In addition to testing, arrivals into the UK would be forced to quarantine for 10 days, either at home or in a government-designated hotel, depending on the colour (amber triggers the former, red the latter).
Moreover, while international leisure travel will no longer be illegal in England from 17 May – and travellers won’t need to prove any kind of “essential reason” for skipping the country – the Department for Transport has discouraging words for those heading anywhere not given the green go-ahead: Brits are advised they “should not be travelling to ‘amber’ and ‘red’ countries for leisure”.
So, back to that much-anticipated green list unveiling: just 12 destinations made the cut. And, of those, only four were flagged as potential holiday contenders for people in the UK (should they ease their own restrictions and let us in): Portugal, Gibraltar, Iceland and Israel.
After the initial crazy buzz following the announcement, during which I was too busy writing and editing a million and one pieces to consider the personal implications of it all, I watched as travel editors and tour ops and travel agents and airlines steadily grumbled about the lack of choice. There were so few destinations, they said! What kind of a travel restart was this, anyway?
Well, they could carp all they wanted, but I couldn’t help feeling wild with envy. There might not be much choice, but at least there was choice. For those of us who have committed to going flight-free, the green list simply doesn’t exist. There is not one viable destination.
I first decided to try giving up flying for a year in 2020, as a kind of radical new year’s resolution. Inspired by Greta Thunberg and her ilk, I thought it would be an exciting challenge as a travel journalist to commit to 12 months of staying grounded while still jamming in as many trips as possible. Then along came the pandemic, scuppering all my plans – along with everyone else’s. There were so few opportunities for any kind of travel in 2020 that my “resolution” felt a little like cheating, and so I decided to extend it and make the Flight Free UK 2021 pledge too. I wasn’t the only one: about 4,000 have signed up to the campaign, which encourages people to take a year off flying to lower their carbon footprint.
I didn’t expect this year’s commitment to be harder than the last, but here, in Shapps’s pitiful green list, was the proof that it would be: there is not a single destination on it that can be reached without passing through an amber country, unless you take a plane. Believe me, I looked into it.
Of course, any terrestrial journey by train or car necessitates passing through France, immediately triggering amber status. But what about the ocean? I naively assumed that, as an island, the UK would have myriad international ferry routes previously unbeknownst to me. Not so. The options are starkly limited: France, Spain, the Netherlands and, of course, Ireland – that’s it. There is no secret sea passage from Portsmouth to Portugal; no weekly sailing from Scotland to Iceland or the Faroe Islands.
On 17 May, the date of the “(not-so) Great Travel Restart”, my travel colleagues will be jetting off in a race to the sun, to Madeira, to Faro, to Gibraltar. I, meanwhile, will be cycling less than three miles to a London hotel. I know, I know – it’s a privilege to stay somewhere new, and I’m at risk of giving off a “my diamond shoes are too tight” energy I would normally thoroughly disapprove of. But still, it’s hard not to find the whole thing dispiriting.
The situation puts the flight-free traveller in a moral quandary: should I say f*** it, ignore the Department for Transport guidance, and head off for amber pastures? Or should I accept my lot of being imprisoned for at least another month, and probably well beyond, battling the thousands of competing holidaymakers looking to book a domestic break here in the UK?
Responsible travel – and travelling responsibly – may have never been more critical, but it’s never felt more of a challenge. I’m resisting the urge to cut my losses and hop on a plane – just – but I’ve yet to master the necessary levels of zen to wait all this out with good grace. So, if you’ve got any amazing flight-free travel ideas, do let this grumpy travel writer know. Better yet, if you happen to be chartering a boat to the Algarve, I’ll happily sub in as resident deck scrubber…
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