The resumption of international travel is key to the recovery of the industry, according to representatives of international trade associations from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Europe and the Caribbean speaking on a virtual panel recently.
During the event, organized by the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), panelists agreed that the confusion around rules and regulations and constantly changing government policies – often not driven by data and science – continue to cripple the travel adviser business. All called for continuing government assistance.
Government actions and inaction, said Zane Kerby, CEO of ASTA, caused “tremendous harm” to the industry and the traveling public. As a result, the association, along with other organizations, continues to fight for government assistance in the form of grants and legislation.
The international travel landscape, Kerby said, is “unwieldy and untenable.” He said that the patchwork of regulations suppresses demand and confuses the public.
Vaccinated Americans, are being treated the same as the unvaccinated, he added. “We think that needs to change,” said Kerby, “because the threat level among vaccinated travelers is far lower.”
The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the travel adviser industry in Canada, said Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA). She said Canada has had some of the tightest restrictions in the world, including mandatory quarantine until August. As a result, industry revenues remain down more than 90% compared with 2019, with most advisers still furloughed. Bookings have picked up for the winter, she said, but there is concern about whether these trips will happen.
Although 78% of Canadians over 12 are fully vaccinated, Paradis said, there is still a blanket policy for Canadians to avoid all nonessential travel outside the country. Unless that changes, she said , “our industry cannot recover and our workers cannot return to work.”
Graeme Buck, director of communications for the Association of British Travel Agents, said travel is opening less quickly in the U.K. than elsewhere in Europe, although the country’s vaccination program is ahead of others. He said there has been an 85% to 90% reduction in revenue for travel advisers, making them the most affected business sector, along with aviation.
Buck said the travel sector needs short- to medium-term support, but that it hasn’t had government recognition of the unique circumstances of the travel industry.
Eric Drésin, secretary general of the European Travel Agents and Tour Operators Association, said the main issue in the past year has been refunds because of stringent rules in the European Union requiring refunds in many circumstances. While the industry was able to offer an opportunity to customers to postpone travel, the maturity date for many of those postponements is coming due.
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He called for member states of the European Union to work together to provide a single voice to prevail on governments to change their policies around quarantine, vaccinations and testing.
“We do see a demand for travel and tourism and it is doing well domestically,” said Drésin, but it is mostly people driving within their countries or to neighboring countries. And even when travel resumes, he said, staffing will be an issue.
Vanessa Ledesma, acting CEO of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, which represents the hospitality sector, said that after 10 record-breaking years, the industry has been devastated although the Caribbean’s incidence of COVID-19 infection is among the lowest in the world. The association, she said, continues to lobby governments to ease entry requirements, adding, “We know travel advisers find it challenging to deal with the requirements because they change daily.”
The CHTA has developed a grid that summarizes the requirements for the 33 member countries.
On the positive side, Ledesma said, demand is high, particularly from the U.S., because of the region’s accessibility, brand identification and good management of the pandemic.
All panelists agreed that governments have to do more to help the industry. Kerby said that the U.S. government has said for months that vacations will make life better but has not followed through with appropriate policies. He said “broadbrush” policies like green lights for certain countries are “too blunt an instrument.
“There should simply be a two-tiered system,” said Kerby, “one for the vaccinated, and one for the unvaccinated.”
Canadian travel advisers are in critical need of help, said Paradis. She said the industry is so in debt it cannot take on any more. Unfortunately, much of the aid that has been in place is ending, which she called “unacceptable,” adding “we need to survive so we can recover.”
In the U.K., said Buck, there is no recognition of the differences among businesses. For instance, there are no restrictions on going to a hairstylist. Recognition is necessary, he said, that different sectors have different needs and that financial assistance is needed until restrictions are lifted at which point the industry can support itself.
Confusion can drive odd situations, said Paradis. She noted that when Bruce Springsteen’s show reopened on Broadway, those with AstraZeneca vaccinations could not attend. Although that was changed, she said, it shows what happens with mixed messages.
“COVID will be with us for years to come,” said Paradis, adding that some governments seem to be aiming for zero risk and others try to do their best. She said it is important for governments to recognize the difference between those who are vaccinated and those who are not.
The panel ended on positive notes. Drésin said that 18 months ago “the world changed completely.” Today, he said “we have solutions and I think we will work it out – maybe quicker than we think.”
And Buck said international travel into the U.K. was illegal at the beginning of 2021 and “we’ve come a long way from that.” People are social animals he said, adding, “they want to travel and will learn to live with COVID.”
This story was originally published September 13, 2021 5:00 AM.