Stand in our shoes – a travel industry view of the pandemic

Whilst Britain is set to ‘take its foot off the accelerator to save lives’, the real irony for many businesses is this move accelerates the likelihood they’ll face further problems in their fight for survival. The pandemic has taken its toll on many businesses, across a wide range of sectors, but none I believe as hard hit as the travel industry. We are not a business built on domestic recovery, our lifeblood is international travel and until a ‘near normal’ resumes, our businesses will struggle.

We have seen nearly 18 months of travel chaos, with no clarity on when and how overseas travel will resume. A further 4-week delay now places serious doubt on whether any meaningful international travel will resume this year and the extremely high probability of losing a second summer, with no significant business revenue until Spring 2022.

The impact of government indecision around the safe return of international travel cannot be underestimated. It is devastating the travel industry and creating chaos for customers and businesses alike.

As CEO of a successful tour operating business, I can find no logic and consistency to government decisions, feeling angry and let down by our Government’s complete lack of recognition and support for an industry that collectively employs over 221,000 people and contributes over £37bn to our economy. In reality the travel industry is fighting a lone battle to provide the very best service for customers and keep committed talented people employed.

From where I stand, here’s what I see.

Compromises being made to win the popular vote with 45,000 footie fans heading to Wembley for the Euros final on 11th July, whilst tennis lovers will enjoy a full capacity crowd for the Wimbledon finals. The government has confirmed plans for around 20 ‘pilot’ sports and entertainment events yet are unable to articulate how and when a safe and carefully orchestrated re-start to overseas travel can happen. This is at a time when UK infection rates are the highest in Europe and growing rapidly, yet we open up events on home turf and restrict travel to lower risk countries. The average British citizen is safer being on holiday in Europe than being corralled into staying in the UK.

The indecision to close down arrivals from India brought the Delta variant to our doors, attracting much criticism, which we are now paying the price for. The knee-jerk reaction to remove Portugal from the green list counters the Government’s very own Travel Taskforce Review, which had committed to the introduction of a green ‘watchlist’ as an early indicator a country could change from green to amber. They quite rightly recognised the holiday turmoil created last summer, with a promise not to repeat. A promise that has been thrown away as quickly as it was made, on the basis of speculative data, which by the day looks less and less meaningful.

The UK proudly led the way with its vaccination programme, boasting of its success as Europe lagged behind on vaccination rates and their infection rates increased. Now the tables have turned, and it is the UK being left behind, as Europe and other countries recognise vaccination as the key to unlocking safe tourism. We are failing to take advantage of our strong position, instead being overly cautious, insisting on a complex and costly testing regime that is acting as a real disincentive to holiday overseas.

Is it any surprise that consumer confidence when it comes to overseas holidays has been knocked for six? Customers have seen significant levels of disruption to any holiday plans they had made and are rapidly losing confidence in booking new holidays because there is absolutely no guidance from government on when overseas travel can resume. This running alongside a series of government ministers broadcasting a view that international travel should not re-open, leaves them looking out onto the great unknown.

At Great Rail Journeys we have always prided ourselves on doing the right thing for our customers, but with this level of uncertainty and lack of transparency, it is getting harder and harder to navigate a path for both our business and our customers. New bookings for European holidays currently stand at under 20% of 2019 booking levels. Put simply, this is not sustainable.

The travel sector and customers alike need a travel policy that gives certainty, a clear and navigable pathway back to international travel, so we can start to rebuild our future.  We need the Government to start keeping their promises, using data, consistency, and logic to make transparent decisions and, in line with other countries, recognition of vaccinated status to simplify the need for testing for arrivals back into our country.

Where I stand right now, the future looks bleak. As a CEO with a responsibility to my team and my customers, I am facing into to some of the most difficult decisions in my career, trying to balance protecting a much-loved business with making further cost reductions to ensure our survival. We need our Government to act now and support the travel sector back towards prosperity before it is too late.

Peter Liney
CEO Great Rail Journeys