Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), and Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), came together for a live conference on Wednesday with three other trade association heads to talk about how the industry can move forward.
The other guests were Eric Dresin, secretary general of The European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association (ECTAA); Graeme Buck, director of communications of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA); and Vanessa Ladesma, acting CEO and director general of The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA).
While each represent different groups with their own unique situations, the message from the panel was clear: the travel industry, which is running out of financial support from governments across the world, needs to either be further supported by aid or allowed to fully reopen to support itself.
“It’s been ASTA’s job the last 18 months to represent the interests of our members at all levels of government,” Kerby said. “That work continues today.”
Kerby spoke about two main missions for ASTA right now—the first is to represent the interest of its advisor members at “all levels of government,” while the second is to “promote a safe return, resumption of international travel.”
“Without the safe resumption [of travel] it’s going to prolong any kind of recovery our industry can have,” Kerby said.
While rising vaccination rates in the U.S. have long been seen as a panacea for travel restrictions, that hasn’t been the case of late. TSA numbers, after rising significantly since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, have stalled and remain consistently behind 2019 levels, with most the travel taking place now being strictly domestic.
That has slowed down the industry’s recovery, Kerby said, along with a patchwork of “constantly changing rules and regulations” that are still depressing travel numbers across the U.S.
In Canada, hope started to come when the government decided to loosen travel restrictions that, at one point, were seen as the tightest in the world with a mandatory hotel quarantine.
But travel agency revenue remains down 90% down compared to 2019 and while bookings have picked up for the winter 2022, “we do have a concern of whether or not these bookings are actually going to take place as the Delta variant picks up,” Paradis said.
One of the biggest reasons why Canada has been held back is a blanket travel policy that warns Canadian travelers to avoid all non-essential travel outside fo the country.
“This needs to change,” Paradis said. “We are very hopeful for the future but until international travel resumes our industry cannot recover, our workers cannot return to work.”
For ABTA and the U.K., it is also a struggle to push for a quicker reopening.
“We always said we should open up safely but we’ve been opening far less quickly than most of Europe,” Buck said. It’s been more than just the sluggish pace of the reopening for the U.K., it’s also been a constant changing to travel regulations that have caused confusion.
"We’ve also had in the past year around 50 changes to travel regulations by the government. That sort of level of change is really unwieldy and untenable,” he said.
For the rest of Europe, COVID has been catastrophic for the industry—Dresin from ECTAA said that the pandemic has caused “up to 95% of loss of turnover and even sometimes 100% when tour operators were focusing on segments like long haul MICE or group travel."
“We estimated that the loss for the whole European travel agent and tour operator industry for 2020 was about 130 billion euros, it’s a huge amount,” he added.
The travel taken place in Europe right now, much like in Canada and the U.S., is strictly domestic or Intra-Europe, with travelers turning to road trips instead of air travel. And while there is a demand for tourism, the “ever-changing pattern of national legislation” has made it difficult for people to confidently plan a trip.
In the Caribbean, the pandemic has brought an end to 10 years of growth. “Tourism is a critical economic drive the Caribbean,” Ledesma said, “Nine out of ten countries most dependent on tourism for employment are in the Caribbean,” with one in four jobs lost and a 58% decrease with small and medium enterprises since March 2020.
What can be done?
For the U.S., the most important thing right now is for the government “to provide direct grant like relief to the industry and businesses like ours that have been directly impacted,” Kerby said. That, along with a dedication to follow the science behind vaccines, would go a long way to open up travel and allow agencies to support themselves.
In Canada, aid programs that are set to expire in October cannot be reduced until travel comes back, Paradis said. “We are looking for grants,” she said. “Our industry is so in debt we cannot take on any more debt.”
Paradis mentioned that a general acceptance of the same COVID rules internationally would also improve the situation—Canada allowed citizens to “mix-and-match” vaccines during their rollout, which lead to some people being vaccinated with one dose of one vaccine, and one of another. While that is accepted in Canada, not every country is recognizing that as being fully vaccinated.
“I think that having some standard protocol based on science and arts is really a key step forward,” Paradis said.
That same notion is reflected outside of North America.
“In Europe, domestic tourist and travel was not that bad but what we absolutely need to do is to restart international travel and put all the elements in our hands to do that,” Dresin said. “Clearly using the vaccine as one of the key elements there is crucial.”
“The other way to help the sector financially is allowing more destinations to open up and more people travel and therefore the industry can support itself,” Buck said of the U.K., adding that travel and tourism has to be treated differently than other sectors that have been allowed to open and support themselves.