The travel industry won't survive the coronavirus pandemic without a radical change of direction

Travel has therefore profoundly shaped the modern UK economy. Yet for many UK tour agents and operators, the situation could soon prove terminal

Ali Shah
Friday 28 August 2020 10:38
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The UK has a rich history as a global transport hub. While we all value our holidays as individuals, the value of travel to the UK economy cannot be overlooked. In 2019, the 40.9 million overseas visitors who came to the UK spent over £28bn.

While many of us don’t consider the UK economy to be as dependent on tourism as some of our European counterparts, in 2018 the UK ranked 8th in the UNWTO international tourist arrivals league and 11th in the international tourism earnings, accounting in total for 2.7 per cent of global arrivals. London is also the second most visited city in the world, behind only Hong Kong.

Travel has therefore profoundly shaped the modern UK economy. The industry accounts for 9.6 per cent of total UK jobs and 9 per cent of the UK’s GDP. Yet, the emergence of the pandemic has unquestionably provided us with our biggest challenges to date, and they are continuing to mount. The complete global shutdown of the travel industry was devastating, but as we have reopened, government strategy is now in real danger of causing irretrievable harm to every aspect of the sector.

France and Spain, the UK’s two biggest travel partners are now both under quarantine measures, and the latest game of travel musical chairs has seen restrictions placed on Croatia, Austria, Trinidad and Tobago. STA Travel, the pandemic’s latest travel victim, is testament to the struggles being endured by an industry practically starved of income since March, and now facing short notice changes to quarantine requirements and a cascade of new cancellations.

For many tour agents and operators, the situation could soon prove terminal. The international Air Transport Association has already revised its prediction for recovery by another year to 2024, and over 90,000 travel workers have lost their jobs or are at risk of redundancy. The stop-start quarantine rules, combined with the wind down of the furlough scheme, will inevitably generate tens of thousands more losses.

Of course, managing a pandemic is no easy task for the government, and the travel industry must take some responsibility in adapting to the new reality. Many companies have faced this task head on, drastically restructuring their businesses, and providing customers with more support and flexibility.

Yet so far this has not proved enough to safeguard the ailing travel industry. Many passengers are still experiencing frustrating refund delays, and travel agents have found themselves in a continual battle trying to get customers’ money back for cancelled flights. Over 100 airlines have prevented agents applying for refunds in the normal way – and introduced more difficult and time-consuming systems. Many of those more complicated refunds are still pending and remain at the mercy of airlines.

If we are to recover consumer confidence in travelling, it’s time passengers felt like the government, travel companies and airlines were on their side. Along with clearer warnings and guidance on quarantine rules and consumer rights, government ministers and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), need to consider a drastic rethink of the way the industry operates. We need to provide flexibility like never before and trust that people will keep faith with travel.

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That is why we’ve been proposing the CAA introduces a new system, in association with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), whereby money is only transferred to the relevant airline once the flight has departed. This would enable funds to be returned easily if the flight does not leave. This new system would replicate what happens in other areas of the industry, and similar schemes have been shown to work for travel consortia.

Arriving in the UK in 2002, I was bewitched by the opportunities offered by the UK’s rich travel industry. I have been enduringly impressed by the resilience and adaptability of the sector, so watching it falter under the weight of the pandemic has been agonising. While I am sure that my company can survive, many smaller businesses may not be so lucky unless more is done to safeguard the industry.

Lockdown has given every sector a chance to reassess how it operates with a moment of pause. When it comes to travel, we must continue campaigning for the change needed for us to adapt and learn to live with this virus, and perhaps leave some lasting positive change on the travel sector.

Ali Shah is CEO of online travel agent TravelUp

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