At the top of Calton Hill, the views of Edinburgh are breathtaking, under gray clouds pierced by sunbeams, the North Sea in the distance. “Amazing!” (magnificent) exclaims one of Sarah Lepioufle’s students in English.
The group of about fifty university students from Colmar in Alsace (eastern France), who arrived in Scotland a few days earlier, are one of the first to set foot on British soil since the start of the pandemic.
But the new post-Brexit formalities at the border, which came into force in October, have turned the organization of the language journey into a real “obstacle course”, says the English teacher.
The passport is now mandatory, and for some students with non-European nationalities, a visa costing as little as £ 100 (almost € 120) has become crucial even though they live in the EU.
The college traveled “almost every year before Brexit. There it will be more complicated”, sums up Mrs Lepioufle, who struggled to ensure students had their papers on time.
Not all teachers have the same tenacity.
And if the demand for language school travel picks up again after the Covid shutdown, companies will leave the UK in favor of Ireland, Malta or even language stays in France.
Autumn is “dizzying”, according to Edward Hisbergues, the group’s tour operator from Colmar, who once saw 80% of requests from English teachers go to the UK. It is less than 10% this year, mostly due to administrative restrictions.
– “Disappointed to miss everything” –
On the British side, it is an entire sector and its armies of guides or host families already damaged by the pandemic that are despairing of seeing the return of groups of students from France but also from Germany, Italy or Spain.
The sector organization Beta UK fears a deficit of at least two to three billion pounds annually and this year counts 60 to 70% fewer trips than before the pandemic.
For the organization’s president, Steve Lowy, it’s also a matter of image, while “well over a million students” visited the country each year and developed “a long-term affinity” with Britain, he said.
“There is a perception that we are not accommodating and not open to people from Europe,” which could cause long-term damage to the countryside, he laments.
Aaron Schaetzel, 13, is happy to have been able to leave. “Since sixth grade, there have been no trips, everything has been canceled due to Covid, incarceration,” blows this fourth grade student.
In Colmar, some parents of students have contacted the local town halls to make sure they have taken care before departure.
Others have given up the price of the identity document – 17 to 42 euros for teenagers – or the complications of the visa. This is the case with Elisabeth Shpak, of Russian nationality, whose parents have been in France for 25 years.
In EU times, she could have left with her comrades thanks to a collective travel document. “I had to give up because I’m Russian,” she says, visibly disappointed to “miss everything”.
– Security –
The sector hopes the UK government will return to more flexibility, arguing that a group of students does not pose a high security risk.
According to a study recently published by Beta UK, the majority of Britons are in favor of reduced formalities for school trips.
London replies that there is another collective passport, provided for by a 1961 treaty signed in the framework of the Council of Europe, which remains valid despite Brexit.
But it is far from solving all problems: French tour operators, for example, have never used it and are waiting for the French government to define the procedure for getting it.
Other countries, such as Germany, have not signed this treaty, which in any case only gives nationals of the country of departure the right to travel.
From the top of Calton Hill, the guide Marilyn Hunter passionately tells the students of Colmar about Scotland’s landscapes, its history, the world fame of its whiskey and salmon.
Brexit destroys his joy at seeing school trips return after the pandemic. A group from Germany the previous week had also left behind four students who had not received their visas in time.