Published: 06:00, 01 October 2021
| Updated: 17:22, 01 October 2021
A new post-Brexit policy coming into effect today requires all EU visitors to hold a valid passport when travelling to the UK.
Business people from Kent's huge tourism sector have spoken of their concerns about the "enormous economic impact" the move will have...
Each year, millions of people from across Europe visit the Garden of England.
They enjoy strolling atop the white cliffs of Dover, exploring sites such as Hever Castle and Canterbury Cathedral, and spending money at the county's shops and eateries.
As they do so, they help prop up Kent's huge tourism industry - which provides 67,000 jobs and contributes more than £1.4 billion to the county's economy.
Until today, visitors from EU members states, the European Economic Area (EEA), and Switzerland, have been able to use national ID cards to access the UK.
But now they will need to hold a valid passport.
This is thanks to a new post-Brexit policy, which is causing consternation amid Kent's tourism sector.
It is feared the move will lead to a sharp drop in visitors, particularly the coachloads of overseas pupils that make a beeline for the county each year on school trips.
Walk through Canterbury city centre on a sunny afternoon - when the world is not in the throes of a viral pandemic - and you're bound to encounter several large gaggles of German or French students being guided through the streets.
Canterbury Tour Guides Ltd has been running since 2008 and each year steers hundreds of groups through the city, with the majority of its bookings coming from schools in the EU.
But company director Katie Lester fears the new passport policy will put off such schools from organising trips to the UK.
"It would have an enormous economic impact on our small business," she said.
"In the past, our business has relied on the income from foreign school trips.
"But the general message that we're getting is these trips will be severely reduced because these schools will go to other countries."
Ms Lester says the concern is that having to provide passports will spell "extra money and extra hassle" for parents, meaning schools will opt for other more straightforward, cheaper options.
She says all her firm's tour guides, who work on a part-time basis, will be implicated if booking figures drop.
"We predict it to reduce our income by huge amounts," she added.
"It is a major impact."
Canterbury district has the highest number of tourism jobs in Kent, at approximately 8,000.
Among the city's plethora of attractions is Canterbury Historic River Tours, which offers visitors the chance to be rowed along the River Stour by expert guides who provide an engrossing insight into the area's rich history.
Managing director of the company Adrian Mills is also anxious about the effects of the new passport requirement.
"I am very concerned about the impact that fewer visitors from continental Europe could have upon my business," he said.
"Before the pandemic, we were accustomed to working with many large European school groups and thousands of tourists from overseas.
"A significant reduction in those numbers would be very challenging for my business to deal with, particularly if overseas travel restrictions continue to be relaxed by the government, which would probably lead to less staycationers visiting Canterbury next year and beyond."
Canterbury Cathedral is also likely to be affected if tourist numbers fall.
It could spell a major blow for the city's most famous landmark, which suffered losses of at least £3 million during the pandemic when it had to close to visitors.
A spokesman said: "Historically, the Cathedral has benefited significantly from visitors from the EU and EEA, including school trips, so we will watch closely for any impacts that result from the October 1 rule change. "
Tourism firm Visit Kent, which promotes the county's attractions to a global audience, has also expressed concerns about the new passport requirement.
Chief Executive, Deirdre Wells OBE, said: "International tourists are vital for many of Kent’s tourism businesses and we want to do all we can to send a message that we are an open and welcoming destination.
"The introduction of mandatory passports for all members of groups will have a particular impact on incoming school groups - a vital part of this sector.
"We urge the Government to look at what can be done to support this vital industry as we recover from the pandemic."
This was echoed by Canterbury Business Improvement District.
Chief executive, Lisa Carlson, said: "We share the concerns expressed by Canterbury Tour Guides and Canterbury Historic River Tours, and our focus now is on maximising the impact of the tourists we have and working towards the return of more inbound tourists."
For more information on the new policy, visit the Government's website.