Off-beat travel firms ‘left on road to nowhere’ as government bans take their toll
PUBLISHED: 15:03 08 September 2020 | UPDATED: 15:03 08 September 2020
Native Eye Travel
Travel companies specialising in taking tourists off the beaten track say they have been left high and dry as they deal with the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.
East Anglia – and Suffolk in particular – is a hotspot for companies which take visitors to remoter parts of the world and between them they turn over millions of pounds.
But travel bans – either imposed by the UK government or the countries themselves – have put paid to vast swathes of their business, with many unable to take holidaymakers to any of their usual destinations.
Jim O’Brien, of Native Eye Travel in Brantham, north of Manningtree, feared the whole industry might die out – unless the government acts to save it.
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“With the furlough arrangements coming to an end next month, the travel industry as a whole faces a huge amount of redundancies and potential company failures, as long as current government advice remains in place and in the absence of any strategy to address this,” he said.
“Despite lobbying from various industry bodies, the government seems content to let the entire industry wither.”
While mainstream travel has staged a stuttering recovery over the summer, the government’s lifting of restrictions hasn’t extended to more off-beat locations to allow business to return there – even where infection rates appear to be low, companies say.
“For those companies which focus on the growing market of experiential travel, and who visit some of the more off the beaten track destinations, this means that we are essentially stopped from doing business, by virtue of government edict,” said Mr O’Brien, whose £2m turnover company was launched seven years ago and has furloughed its two to three-strong workforce.
Meanwhile, Liddy Pleasants, who runs £4.5 turnover Stubborn Mule, based in Wickham Market, said most of her 14-strong workforce was on furlough, with four retained to deal with cancellations and refunds and one brought back to deal with future bookings.
While she is optimistic that the fast-growing firm can be brought back on track she called for clearer government messaging over individual countries, and a timetable or criteria for lifting bans.
In the case of her family travel business – which specialises in slightly less off-the-beaten-track locations such as Vietnam, Japan and Cambodia, the problem at the moment was that those countries were imposing bans on UK travellers, rather than vice-versa. However, there were other low-disease rate countries where UK government criteria for imposing bans was unclear, she said.
“We have been enormously grateful for the furloughing – that has been brilliant,” she said. But while other mainstream travel firms enjoyed a “bit of bounce” when European travel opened up again, the reasoning behind some bans in more exotic locations was unclear, she said.
“At the moment, we are totally operating in the dark,” she said. “We have had no one travelling for six months and therefore we have made no money for six months.”
Before the crisis, the family travel industry had been on a “supersonic trajectory” she said, which had cushioned the blow from the crisis. She was “confident we’ll see this through to the other side” but there was a “potential impact” for staffing and for the business’s sub-contractors and service providers she said.
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Some calls from the travel industry had been unrealistic, she admitted, but revising how the Foreign Office advises on its bans to give more detail into the decision-making process would be one easy step to help the industry, she said.
Mr O’Brien, who specialises in holidays to some of the world’s least visited countries including Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and West Africa as well as parts of Central Asia and Europe, estimated that there were about half a dozen firms around the county which run non-mainstream holidays turning over about £15m to £20m between them.
“We run tours to some fairly pioneering destinations, spending time with remote tribal groups, seeing authentic traditions and customs that have died out in many other parts of the world. Some of our most popular destinations are the Sahara desert, the ‘stans’ of Central Asia, Eastern Europe and West Africa, and we normally carry about 1000 travellers a year,” he said.
Travel companies were legally obliged to refund clients whose trips were cancelled due to the pandemic, and they had done this “without hesitation”, he said.
“This is despite the fact that in many cases, overseas suppliers had already been paid - and retrieving funds from those destinations has not always been easy, or indeed possible, meaning that we’ve had to fund that ourselves,” he said.
But while other European countries had offered a variety of support mechanisms in recognition of this, the UK government had not – in spite of extensive lobbying, he said.
The reasons behind some of the travel bans were understandable, he added, but current Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice didn’t always take into account actual rates of infection or incidence of the virus in many of the countries where bans have been imposed, making it a very “broad brushstroke” approach.
“It is a massive blow to the industry. We’ve gone from taking four or five bookings a day to four or five a month if we’re lucky. And of course, these are all for the future - while we’re unable to run trips at the moment, as a business we’ve not had any income since March,” he said.
“Not only this, but of course all the previous time and effort we put into securing bookings and arranging trips to take place in 2020 has been lost. Of course, this sometimes happens when trips are cancelled, and it’s one of the risks of the industry, but never before on such a large and all encompassing scale.”
Out of the almost 70 destinations the company offers, none are currently available.
“The blanket travel advice issued by the FCO is a huge issue for the many companies that offer trips beyond the more mainstream destinations, and after almost six months I really feel it’s time for them to take a more pragmatic approach to this, based on what is actually happening on the ground in these countries, which they are not doing at the moment,” he said.
With the furlough scheme about to end, and no realistic prospect of international travel restarting in any meaningful way, the entire travel industry was about to experience “a tsunami of redundancies”, he warned.
While the hospitality industry had been offered help through initiatives such as the East Out to Help Out scheme, the travel sector had been “hung out to dry”, he said.
“We’ve been fortunate in that we started 2020 in a good place to be able to withstand a crisis - but the pandemic has evolved into something far greater than I think most people imagined,” he said.
“It very much feels like the entire travel industry has been abandoned, yet it contributes a huge amount to the economy.”
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