PSA: International travel isn't just about holidays

International travel restrictions stop a lot more than holidays. Millions have been separated from loved ones abroad for a year or more. Episode 27.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

I cheered at my TV when I heard a BBC anchor say the words, at the top of her news bulletin: “It’s not just holidays, it’s people who have a parent abroad, a sibling abroad…” Finally. For months the British media had been framing international travel restrictions as a disaster for airlines and the tourism industry. The only thing the public wanted to know, according to them, was “When can I book a foreign holiday?”

The narrative missed millions of people who have been separated from loved ones abroad for months or years and are missing a lot more than a tan and a poolside cocktail. Lockdown ends this week in the UK, but not for them. When keeping your family or relationship together means crossing borders as commonly as others commute, travel restrictions are lockdown in a bigger box.

While holidays remain the most frequent reason for foreign travel from the UK, visiting friends or relatives abroad is the second, accounting for about a quarter of international trips in 2019, more than twice the volume of business travel. The distinction matters. It’s not holidays; it’s simple days when the bonds of family are renewed around a kitchen table. It’s catching a few more memories with an ageing parent, putting in the time to make a long-distance romantic relationship work or throwing a ball around with your children. Some of us travel five miles to help mum fix the WiFi. For others, it takes two planes and a long bus ride.

The government wasn’t doing much better than media. When the question was put to Boris Johnson at a press conference on 29 March, he couldn’t muster a word of compassion. Finally last week Transport Secretary Grant Shapps acknowledged our existence for the first time.

That’s largely thanks to a global and vocal movement of transnational families and couples that have coalesced under the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism. Their petition to the British government has just reached the 100,000 signatures needed to be considered for debate by Parliament. This week I bring you five of those voices, from Uganda to the US, Scotland to Switzerland. Their stories stand for millions more.

We know now a bit more of what the future will look like here. The UK will reallow travel under a traffic light system: Have at it with green countries, quarantine when returning from amber countries, avoid red countries at all costs. We do not yet know how each country will be colored or when travel will resume (May 17 at the earliest). So the pressure remains on.

The rules still will not differentiate between holidaymakers and family reunions. I can see why. Allowing exemptions for such a large group of people would blow a massive hole in the safety net. But maybe now at least transnational families will be part of the conversation.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.