Every UK tour operator has suffered this year as global travel restrictions put much of the world out of reach. Even today, nine months after the start of the Covid pandemic, a quarter of countries – 59 in total – have still not reopened their borders. But for long-haul specialists like Africa Expertfounded by Chris McIntyre 26 years ago, the situation is particularly dire.
The government’s list of travel corridors dictates where Britons can go without needing to self-quarantine on their return home, and, until the addition of Namibia and Rwanda last month, all of Africa was snubbed. Moreover, thanks to the general non-essential travel advisory from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tour operators are not even allowed to offer trips to countries outside the corridor.
“It’s been a tough year, to say the least,” McIntyre told Telegraph Travel. “Each year we typically take around 1,200 guests on premium safaris, with around half of our guests coming from the UK, a quarter from the US and the rest from various other countries. As of March, this figure dropped by about 80%.
So far in 2020, 27 holiday companies protected by Atol have gone bankrupt – with STA Travel and Shearings the most high-profile losses – but McIntyre believes many more are on the brink. “Over the years we’ve tried to save money for a rainy day, and we’re currently surviving on that,” he says. “I think other cautious companies have done the same, which might explain why we’ve seen relatively few failures so far. But if it doesn’t stop raining…if people can’t not travel properly by next summer, there won’t be many travel agencies.
McIntyre acknowledges the government has had to face tough decisions during the Covid crisis, but is scathing about its lack of support for an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of Britons.
“I just don’t think the government cares about travel – they canceled it from the start,” he says. ‘They think it’s just foreign currency going out and prefer people to go on holiday to Cornwall… let alone businesses going bankrupt and jobs being lost.’
McIntyre is particularly damning about the lack of any engagement with his industry, pointing out that no business leaders have been invited to join the Global Travel Taskforce, created in October with the aim of revitalizing holidays abroad. .
He adds: “There are other fundamental ways they could have helped. For example, they have hammered tour operators when it comes to offering refunds instead of credit notes, but airlines have not been under the same pressure. So tour operators are being ordered to refund customers when much of their money is sitting in airline bank accounts, not being returned, so they simply can’t.