Leading figures in travel have responded angrily to the non-appearance of the aviation minister at the most important industry event of the year.
But a diary clash meant the minister had to pull out. His place was taken by his Conservative colleague, Huw Merriman, who is chair of the Transport Select Committee.
Other speakers at the event lamented the non-appearance.
The UK managing director of Tui, Britain’s biggest holiday company, called the news “incredibly disappointing”.
Andrew Flintham said: “The government needs to hear what we have to say as an industry, and this once again feels like a sign that they’re not.”
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, said: “His absence today – necessary as I’m sure it is – is nonetheless symbolic of a wide, in fact widening, gap between government and the outbound travel sector.”
Comments on social media were less diplomatic. Derek Jones, chief executive of Kuoni’s parent company, tweeted: “So to be absolutely clear, due to a ‘diary clash’, Robert Courts,. the aviation minister, no showed this morning for a virtual conference to discuss the crisis in travel.
“This government’s lack of respect for the travel industry is staggering!”
The editor of Travel Trade Gazette, Sophie Griffiths, tweeted: “Would love to know which diary appointment was more important than showing up to a conference to speak to a sector you represent that has never been more desperate to hear from you.
“The fact this wasn’t a priority for you speaks volumes, Robert Courts. Shame on you.”
Ashley Quint, who runs the luxury travel agent TravelTime World, tweeted: “Is it really acceptable that the aviation minister ducks out of an important travel conference without even making a statement?”
In a Commons debate a week ago, Mr Courts said: “We are taking a cautious, robust, sustainable approach to opening up international travel at a time when the vaccine roll-out is ongoing and infection rates are low.
“Everyone in this House wants to see international travel reopen fully as soon as it is safe for it to do so.”
The minister’s replacement at the Abta event, Huw Merriman, told the audience that the government, Labour and the SNP are engaged in a “political arms race to the bottom” over restrictions on international travel.
The Opposition and the Scottish government have long called for even tighter travel restrictions – with Labour demanding that all “amber list” countries be moved to the “red list,” with mandatory hotel quarantine from all but a handful of countries.
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 aroundâ £7bn of support benefiting the air transport sector.”