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Shakespeare’s isle is hoist by its own Brexit petard as language students turn away

Brought to its knees by Covid, the UK’s travel and tourism industry is now beginning to feel the full force of Brexit as border restrictions and the end of the VAT reclaim scheme look set to deter thousands of Europeans and others

Image: The New European

Despite Boris Johnson’s promise not to pull up the drawbridge after Brexit, that is effectively what is happening as European students wanting to study English on Shakespeare’s sceptered isle find themselves standing on the other side of a red-taped filled moat. 

Since the UK’s departure from the European Union, all students must show a passport, rather than travelling on their national ID cards, a costly and burdensome requirement that has led many trip organisers to take their business to Ireland and Malta. 

Before Brexit, around 1.5 million school students came from Europe to the UK to study English at language schools or as part of educational school trips to visit historical and cultural attractions. They usually stayed with host families and spent around £3.2bn, or more than 11% of the UK’s total annual tourism earnings.

“It used to be very simple for groups to come across from the EU, even though the UK was outside the Schengen area, because there was the List of Travellers scheme whereby if you were a teacher responsible for a group of students, you could list the names and national ID cards, and they could travel on those ID cards,” said Kurt Janson, director of the Tourism Alliance. 

Foreign nationals – who had the right to live in Europe but were not EU citizens – could also travel on their national ID cards. 

But since Britain has taken back control of its borders, that whole smooth, simple and mutually beneficial process has been derailed and the effect has been brutal, coming as it does after two years of global travel restrictions because of the pandemic.

“We would expect forward bookings to be recovering but they are still 80 to 90% down. There has still been no pickup,” says Janson. “Our long-term fear is that once you get schools taking classes to Ireland or Malta, and operators introducing products from these markets, it’s going to be difficult to win them back again because they will have established those relations with the other countries.”

English UK, the national association of English language centres, says its members will only receive 100,000 students this year, rather than the usual 550,000, and all but 40,000 of these will come from markets outside Europe. 

“This decrease in EU student groups suggests the loss of around £2.6bn in export earnings and over 40,000 jobs if it is not resolved,” the Tourism Alliance said in a statement. 

That’s a serious worry for places like Hastings, the second most deprived seaside town in the UK, where the language school business brings in around £35m a year. The kind of place this Tory government promised to level up. 

One problem with the new rules is that many European children do not have passports. Afterall, they don’t need them to travel in the Schengen Area of free movement. For example, the Tourism Alliance says only 35% of Italian school children have a passport. Foreign nationals living in European countries – for example, Turkish nationals with residency rights in Germany – now need to get both a passport and a visa to enter the UK, making school trips more expensive.

Apart from the financial cost, the drop in business is dealing a blow to Britain’s soft power – already bludgeoned by development aid cuts, rows over the Northern Irish protocol and understandable overseas eyebrow-raising over Partygate. 

“The education industry as a whole in the UK – from the English language students right up to post-grad students – is all part of the UK’s soft power and projection of the UK overseas. We’re losing people at the bottom rung of that ladder,” says Janson. “If the students have a good time, they’re likely to get a degree in the UK, and if they do that research shows that when they enter a job they’re more likely to do business with the UK, or invest in the UK. So there are all these added benefits that come as part of the UK’s soft power, by getting students to understand British culture and way of life and getting them to be engaged with the country.”

Janson wants the government to look for an innovative solution that satisfies its border-obsessedTory base but also allows students to come here, learn English and spend their valuable money. It’s not rocket science, he insists. 

“You just reintroduce a group scheme, you call it a group passport scheme so the government can sell it to people who voted for Brexit. It’s so easily solvable with a little bit of flexibility and a little bit of ingenuity on how we name things because that affects how things are perceived,” he says. 

“Because at the end of the day these kids are not a problem. They’re not going to suddenly drive Uber cabs and join the black economy. They’re not going to suddenly become jihadis.” 

If the current situation continues, it could also have a knock-on effect on wider tourism, with European family groups also deciding to skip the UK in favour of places that will accept their children’s national ID cards for entry. 

The post-Brexit border regime is also causing headaches in Northern Ireland with a proposal in the draft Nationality and Borders Bill to require international visitors from third countries (ie not Ireland or Britain, which are in a Common Travel Area) to get an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) to enter Northern Ireland from the Republic. 

On April 20, the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance (NITA) told the House of Commons the measure could cost £160m a year, or an estimated 15% of the total tourism spend in 2019. Joanne Stuart, CEO of NITA, said the proposal was unworkable and failed to take into account the need for seamless travel across the island of Ireland. 

“Our border has over 300 crossings, it runs through fields and houses. Many tour groups and independent travellers cross the border multiple times, even in the same day, often without realising. To have a charge and administrative process for each crossing would be totally unworkable. Another issue is that of implementation, which would be a logistical nightmare for both tourists and enforcement agencies,” she said.

And these are not the only post-Brexit headaches for Britain’s tourism industry. Janson is worried about how the queues on the motorways around Dover will affect domestic tourism to Kent and the south of England, and the possibility of politically-motivated disruption at European or UK airports over the summer. For example, if there is a particular wave of bad feeling because of a political spat, then countries might decide to check passports more thoroughly at national borders, leading to delays and more rancour. 

There is also potentially an even bigger self-inflicted wound to deal with in the form of the UK’s decision last year to scrap the VAT retail export scheme, which allows overseas visitors to obtain refunds on goods bought here. 

Executives in the tourism industry say the UK could have become the shopping capital of Europe if the scheme had continued after Brexit but the government said it would be too costly to administer and abolished the scheme for everyone, including rich Chinese and Middle Eastern visitors who are now taking their business elsewhere.

“So suddenly we’ve blocked off not only what would have been a brilliant boost to the industry but we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by telling people to go to Paris or Milan where they’ll get their shopping 20% cheaper,” Janson says. “With 65 to 70% of all visitors to the UK coming from Europe, they thought we can’t deal with a threefold increase in this so we’ll just close down the whole scheme. They basically just panicked.” 

Because of Covid travel restrictions, the effect of this decision has yet to be fully measured but it’s definitely hurting. Around 46% of international visitor expenditure in the UK goes on shopping and it totalled more than £7bn in 2019. In testimony to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in March, Paul Barnes, chief executive of the Association of International Retail, said that the UK was now “lagging severely behind” its European competitors in terms of recovering from the pandemic.

“Global Blue, which does VAT refunds around the world, monitored 11 major brands and stores that have presence in the UK and in the European Union, predominantly in France and Italy, so our major competitors… When you look at Americans visiting and spending, the amount that they spent in that last quarter of 2021 was back up to 91% of the 2019 figures. So they had nearly recovered, quarter by quarter. In the UK, 49%. So we are not even at half of what it was in 2019,” he said. 

For visitors from Gulf states, their spending was 153% of 2019 levels in the EU, but only 60% in the UK.

Kevin Brennan, Labour MP for Cardiff West and a member of the committee, concluded: “So basically what was supposed to be a Brexit opportunity turns out to be a Brexit calamity.”

Or to coin a phrase: for the tourism industry, Brexit is the petard that keeps on hoisting. 

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