The hard truth about soft power

The recent bank holiday weekend came with the usual sad faces of people queuing to cross into the European mainland at Dover and having to wait 18 hours for the pleasure. Why they haven’t yet realised that this is the fault of the French is anyone’s guess, but there you are.

After all the French chose to change their relationship with the EU so that everyone only got 90 days there at a time and therefore dated stamps had to go into passports to prove this. The UK is much more reasonable and doesn’t do this in reverse, even though it has amazing control over its borders. Lovely UK. Nasty French. 

So for many people the chance to eat a tomato was taken from them (there has been the most terrible weather affecting the tomato harvest, didn’t you know?) but the opinion of many government commentators was that, well, what were you doing leaving the country anyway? Is the UK not good enough for you? Aren’t you patriotic?

This is a fun new turn to take given that transport costs are now so expensive to leave the UK that only landed gentry can afford to do it. For everyone else, the chance to swim in seas not bobbing with faeces may be a price worth paying, although there is a certain retro 1970s cool to harking back to the days when one of NewDog’s parents successfully hid their inability to swim for more than a decade by avoiding the sea of Polzeath beach on floating-crap grounds. 

Away from this summer’s looming culture war and back to those coach loads of people living at Dover. Many of these were school trips, many of which turned back. But what caught the eye of, amongst others, the Financial Times, was the lack of school trips getting caught up on the other side: because they’re not coming at all. 

This has been a building problem since Brexit, which has become more apparent since Brexit got done and since the restrictions on travel after the pandemic were lifted. Last year the Tourism Alliance surveyed 235 European companies that organise trips to the UK for under-18s and found that, in 2019, the 235 companies sent 524,000 children to the UK. In 2022, they expected to send 82,000 children to the UK, an 84% fall. 

And this is why:

EU citizens do not need visas to visit the UK. Nor do British children need visas for short visits to the Schengen Area, which covers most of the EU plus several other countries. The UK has been added to the list of countries whose citizens are visa-exempt for 90 days.

But not all pupils will be covered by such waivers. For example, a German class considering a trip to the UK may have Turkish pupils who do require visas to enter the UK. Similarly, British schools may have non-European pupils who would need a Schengen visa to enter the EU.

That was not the situation before the UK left the EU. Children on a school trip from one EU country to another could travel without a visa or a passport no matter their nationality because of the ‘list of travellers’ scheme that forbids EU member countries to require visas for non-European children on a “school excursion”. It also allows a list of pupils to serve as a group travel document instead of individual passports.

The British Government ended the list of travellers scheme for EU-to-UK school trips from 1 October 2021. In addition, the Home Office now requires non-resident EU citizens to show a passport to enter the UK. Previously, they could use an ID card. ID cards are significantly more popular than passports within the EU: they’re free and you can use them to travel to a tonne of places.

The tourism and English language teaching sectors have warned that the change in passport requirements is having a negative effect on school trips to the UK. They say this is because:

the requirement that all children have a passport increases costs for parents
the possible requirement for some children to have a visa increases the administrative burden

The Tourism Alliance said these “organisational problems” mean that European schools are choosing to visit English-speaking countries in the EU. Parents do not need to buy their child a passport for a trip to Ireland or Malta, and non-European children can be included without visas.

Explaining why EU citizens now require passports to enter the UK, the Home Office said ID cards were “notoriously insecure”. As of 11 October 2022, the department had “no plans” to exempt school parties from passport or visa requirements. Even though it could.

This has not changed.

There is hope that, once the EU’s new external border process, made up of a new European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and a new Entry-Exit system (EES) comes in (it has been repeatedly pushed back) then passport processing times will become shorter.

The most similar process currently in place is ESTA in the US, and if anyone who has been through JFK lately thinks that has helped create seamless travel, then I have a divisive and pointless referendum to sell you. The EU’s version will a) cost and b) have to be renewed every three years and c) see JFK.

Some of us in the hotel sector may be thinking that fewer school trips is no harm to an industry all tied up in the joy of luxury hotels. What’s a few less school children? Fewer pencil sharpener sales at the Jorvik Viking Centre?

No. Fewer adult travellers returning to the fun scenes of childhood trips and staying in those luxury hotels. Fewer people thinking about how open and welcoming the UK is. Fewer people studying in the UK, living in the UK and enriching the UK. And extolling its delights to friends and family.

But that won’t matter, because anyone leaving these shores is a traitor anyway. Destination marketing is making a pretty exciting swerve.

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