‘My agency has sent two people abroad this year’: Travel industry despair as it lobbies government for action

·5-min read
Desperate times: Nathalie, a travel agent from Holidays by Design of  Leeds (Simon Calder)
Desperate times: Nathalie, a travel agent from Holidays by Design of Leeds (Simon Calder)

“From January to June this year, from my agency, we have had two people travel abroad.”

Like the hundreds of other travel agents who gathered opposite parliament for the industry’s day of action, Jill Waite has endured 15 months of no income.

The director of Pole Travel in Manchester said: “It’s been absolutely horrendous. I don’t think you could imagine. We’ve gone from very successful businesses to having no revenue. We don’t earn any money unless people travel.

“The government have basically stopped travel, and we’ve earned nothing.

“They’ve supported a lot of industries such as hospitality, but they’ve missed out travel. They class us as non-essential retail, but we’re not, because we haven’t got anything to sell.”

On the patch of grass known as College Green, Ms Waite and her colleagues were joined by dozens of pilots who would, in a normal summer, be working flat-out flying British holidaymakers to the Mediterranean and beyond.

In 2021, the only feasible “green list” destinations for most British travellers are Gibraltar and Iceland.

One poster read: “Woah, we’re going to Ibiza,” with the destination crossed out and “lose our businesses” added.

Niamh Viana, a first officer for easyJet at its Luton base, said: “I’m passionate about aviation – I’d love to be flying our passengers across Europe, not only for holidays but for businesses and for people to be reunited with their families.

“We’re here today in Westminster to ask the government to rethink their travel restrictions. We do believe it’s safe for travel to reopen, so we’d ask them to reconsider their traffic light system.”

On Thursday ministers will decide whether any countries should be shuffled between the “red list” (requiring hotel quarantine), “amber list” (self-isolation) and “green list”.

A few MPs attended the event, including the senior Tory backbencher Huw Merriman. He is chair of the Transport Select Committee, and told The Independent: “The Conservative government – the government that looks after businesses and stands for individual freedom – needs to do a lot more when it comes to the international travel sector, to keep people in their jobs, allow people to go and see their loved ones abroad.

“I will not just reserve my ire for the Conservative government; also Labour and the SNP front benches need to stop with this race to the bottom in destroying this industry.”

Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter and another member of the Transport Select Committee, said: “We’re all still incarcerated in Boris Johnson’s prison island. We’re supposed to have a vaccine dividend. Where is it?

“There’s absolutely no scientific basis to the government continuing travel restrictions.

“We now have the highest Covid rate in Europe. We’re still forcing people coming here from countries with a fraction of our Covid rates to quarantine for 10 days – absolutely no scientific basis for that.

“In the process we’re killing hundreds of thousands more jobs.”

While most attention was focused on travel to and from Europe, there were representatives of tourism to Africa. Every nation on the continent is on either the red or amber list, despite very low infection rates in countries such as Morocco.

“Where is the data on that?” asked Kate Kenward of the African Travel and Tourism Association.

“They desperately need our support. There’s people out there that are just existing now. They’ve been laid off work. They really, really need tourism back.”

Paul Goldstein, co-owner of Kicheche Safari Camps in Kenya, criticised ministers in the Department for Transport (DfT), the aviation minister, Robert Courts – who was expected to speak at an Abta conference on Tuesday but had a late-notice diary clash – and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps.

“When Mr Courts doesn’t even bother to show up for the Abta meeting, it gives you some sort of idea of what the senior members of this government think about the travel industry.

“They have not thrown us a bone for 15 months. Mr Shapps has said travel agents are a thing of the past.

“But he does care about the railway workers. He’ll look after all their jobs. Meanwhile trains run empty while our coffers are empty.”

While British travellers are effectively excluded from travelling abroad, the vacuum is being filled by other nationalities.

Noel Josephides, chairman of Greece and Cyprus specialist Sunvil, said: “We’re finding that we’re losing beds in August for people who have already been confirmed because hoteliers are saying to us, ‘Well, you cancelled May, June and July, now you’re going to cancel August. We know the Germans are coming, the French, the Italians.

“Our programme is being decimated. Our ability to actually function as a business is being eroded.”

He said it was the worse of times since he began working in the travel industry in 1970.

“It’s extremely dispiriting. The whole thing is rudderless. There’s no end in sight. And that’s the most depressing thing about it.”

A government spokesperson said: “We continue to engage extensively with the industry to explore how we can open international travel safely, whilst ensuring we protect public health.

“We recognise the challenging times facing all sectors of transport as a result of Covid-19, which is why we have put in place an economy-wide support package, including around​ £7bn of support benefitting the air transport sector.”

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