Post-Brexit changes to Britain’s immigration rules have triggered an unprecedented collapse in bookings for school trips from the continent, organisers say, with countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands now more popular than the UK.
While the pandemic has depressed European school travel in general, the number of short-stay educational visits planned in 2022 to alternative EU destinations where English is widely spoken is significantly higher than inquiries for UK visits.
Operators say that while Britain’s day two Covid test requirement is a factor, by far the most significant is the UK’s decision not to accept EU group passports or identity cards from 1 October, instead requiring full passports – plus expensive individual visas for non-EU pupils.
The British government has said the collapse is because of the pandemic and that the measures are needed “to strengthen the security of our border”, but critics say they are unnecessary for under-18s on short, organised trips with teachers.
They argue the slump will deprive UK host families, hostels and attractions of valuable income, and also inflict longer-term damage since school trips can prove formative experiences, promoting intercultural exchange and forging greater mutual understanding.
Eurovoyages, a big French school trips operator, said that as of last month it had received 53 requests for short-stay visits to Ireland next year, as well as others for the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.
“We have received precisely two requests for the UK, one of which has already changed its mind and decided to visit Ireland,” said Monique Tissot Martel, the company’s general manager. “Schools have forgotten the UK was a destination.”
Tissot Martel said that French schools wanting an English-speaking environment were even considering going to Normandy, where British host families and youth hostels with native speakers were offering immersive English stays.
“It is really a shame, as trips to the UK were very popular,” she said. “In 2019 we sent more than 11,000 students to the UK. Next year it will be between zero and 100.”
Peter Adam said his company, CTS Reisen in Lemgo, Germany, had sent more than 1,200 school groups and 37,000 pupils to the UK in 2019 but had had no firm bookings for 2022. About 80% of the company’s customers that regularly booked trips to the UK were choosing alternative destinations, he said.
“The majority see the UK as too difficult now,” Adam said. Covid-19 restrictions were not the problem, he added, “even if they are tougher in the UK than in other European countries”, and parents were “often prepared to pay the extra cost of obtaining a full passport instead of an EU identity card”.
The biggest issue was “the EU ‘list of travellers’ group passport, which is no longer valid for travelling to the UK”, he said. “About 4% of all pupils in Germany are not EU nationals. They can’t afford a visa. Teachers don’t like to leave them at home so are choosing other destinations”, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, he said.
In the UK, Susan Jones of LinguaStay, a UK homestay accommodation provider that usually welcomes 10,000 continental schoolchildren a year into about 300 host families in Chester, said the slump was “absolutely dramatic”.
Continental schools typically sent about a million pupils to the UK each year on organised trips, Jones said, with France and Germany alone accounting for 850,000. But for the February to June season, it was now clear that schools across the continent had “completely abandoned the UK for other countries”, she said.
“These children learn English staying in host families,” she said. “They mix with the local community, take part in workshops such as drama and cookery, have integration days at local schools and guided tours of cities and tourist attractions. They travel off peak, which helps many smaller UK towns and businesses outside peak season.”
Verdié Voyages, a French company that in 2019 sent 800 coachloads of schoolchildren to England, said it had received just 146 inquiries for UK trips next year, a fall of 80%. By contrast, inquiries for trips to Ireland were down only 40%.
“Requests are down for all destinations because of Covid,” said Marie Bayol, the company’s accommodation manager. The slump in interest for the UK “is due to Brexit, a second impact that makes our main destination almost unsaleable”, she said.
Edward Hisbergues of PG Trips, a French operator specialising in English-speaking countries, said that besides the passport and visa issue, business to the UK had fallen more sharply than elsewhere because of Britain’s day two test requirement.
His company normally books 80% of school trips to the UK and 20% to Ireland. “For next year it is more like 10% of requests for the UK and everything else is focused on Ireland, even though it is more expensive,” he said.
“You only need an EU identity card to travel there, for non-EU students the ‘list of travellers’ is still accepted, and as far as Covid is concerned the EU health pass is sufficient. People much prefer to pay a little more but not have all the UK constraints.”
Jones said the sector was pushing for EU nationals coming to the UK on organised short school trips to be allowed to enter with an ID card, and for non-EU nationals travelling with them to enter with just a passport. “It just seems such a small gesture compared to the benefits,” she said. “Not just the economic benefit, but the soft power.”
Morag Anderson of ETSUK, another British homestay company, said the government’s stance was shortsighted. “Give me a child at 12 years old on a school trip to the UK,” Anderson said, “and I give you a future higher education student, employee, researcher, entrepreneur, tourist – with family and friends … And a future parent, encouraging a future child to travel, work and study in the UK. Once this cycle is interrupted, there is no going back.”