Tour operator counts cost of pandemic as income plummets by 95% 

Jim O'Brien of Native Eye Travel

Jim O'Brien of Native Eye Travel whose company has been severely hit by the pandemic - Credit: Jim O'Brien

An Ipswich travel operator has called for “meaningful” government support for the industry while it continues to impose widespread travel restrictions.

Jim O’Brien, director of the Native Eye travel company in Brantham on the Suffolk/Essex border said with the exception of nightclubs no sector had been more affected by the pandemic.

In the 12 months from the start of the pandemic he saw his turnover of £2m in 2019 plummet by 95%.

It’s had an enormous impact on us,” he said. “We’re now starting to see more interest from our overseas travellers which in the absence of UK travellers is helping us limp along at the moment. 

“We’re lucky that we went into 2020 in a strong position, and we plan for problems shutting down some of our destinations from time to time — but never planned for the whole world to be closed, and certainly not for such an extended period of time.”

The company employs three staff all of whom are being supported by the furlough scheme.

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“This is about to end, without us yet being able to trade. Unless there are changes in either government support or travel opening up again, there’s going to be a huge wave of redundancies within the travel industry within the next couple of months,” he said.

“From March 2020, we’ve effectively been shut down and restrictions have prevented us from earning any income.”

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As a travel business he can’t realise income until people travel so even if he receives bookings — which have been few and far between since the pandemic started — that doesn’t translate into income, he explained.

As a tour operator with a mainly online focus his business didn’t qualify for grants which high street travel agents could access, he added.

“While retail outlets, hairdressers, beauty salons and many others have been eligible for grants, they have been able to open and start earning immediately and have in many cases enjoyed a boom in demand. We’re denied restart grants — and denied the ability to trade,” he said.

While furlough has been great for employees it doesn’t sustain the business, he said, and companies which took out loans are now having to repay them without an income stream.

“If our borders continue to effectively remain closed, targeted support is needed in the form of grants to sustain the travel industry if this industry is to survive,” he said.

“For the majority of travel businesses, summer is their key season, which sustains them through the low winter months. We’ve already gone a year with no income – very few of those businesses that have made it this far will survive another summer.”

No one wanted to be reliant on support — but while the government prevented them from trading the sector needed it, he said.

He called for international travel to open up “in a safe manner”. The traffic light system hadn’t worked and there were countries which should be on the green list as their infection rates were lower than in the UK, he argued.

“We should be adopting a risk-based rather than zero tolerance approach here. It seems odd that large crowds can attend football matches and horse racing without any concerns about safety, yet international travel to countries with far lower rates of infection than the UK is prohibited.

“Many European countries are allowing double vaccinated travellers to travel without needing to quarantine on return — we should be doing the same.”

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