Ben Habib was speaking after organisers blamed post-Brexit changes to Britain’s immigration rules for a collapse in the number of bookings for school trips from the continent. Operators acknowledge the UK’s day two Covid test requirement is a factor – but insist the most important is the refusal to accept EU group passports or identity cards from October 1 in favour of a requirement for full passports.
Eurovoyages, a large French school trips operator, said last month it received 53 requests for short-stay visits to Ireland next year, compared with just two for the UK.
Monique Tissot Martel, the company’s general manager, told the Guardian: “Schools have forgotten the UK was a destination.”
She added: “It is really a shame, as trips to the UK were very popular.
“In 2019 we sent more than 11,000 students to the UK. Next year it will be between zero and 100.”
Graham Simpson, a founder member of the Whitstable Sceptics discussion group, tweeted: “Groups from the continent are going elsewhere, tour operators say, deterred more by passport and visa rules than the pandemic.”
Others agreed, with one tweet reading: “This is a fixable problem! Wholly unnecessary new rules are ultimately self-defeating.”
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He said: “For detractors of Brexit, the adverse impacts of Covid inspired lockdowns has been a God-send. They’ve been able to hijack these and blame Brexit.
“The apparent reduction in visitations from European schools is one such impact.”
Mr Habib explained: “Given the lockdowns these would have hit the UK more than many other European destinations even if we had still been in the EU.
“The reason: we were not part of the Schengen zone.
“International travel was hit hard by lockdowns and the UK was and still is an international destination.”
Freedom of movement ended with Brexit – but was also effectively ended by the pandemic, Mr Habib stressed.
He added: “Travel within the Schengen Zone recovered much faster.
“Nothing could easily diminish the attraction of the UK to European students looking for exposure to the English language.
“Certainly not the meagre impositions resulting from Brexit.
“Remainers need to cease trying to judge Brexit through Covid.
“It may be convenient to do so but it is wrong.”