An overseas travel sector on its knees after almost a full year of Covid-19 related disruption and restrictions has reacted with dismay, confusion and anger at news that 2021 is shaping up to be as bleak as 2020.
With almost half a million people with summer holidays already booked as a result of roll-overs from 2020 cancellations, the level of upheaval likely to be faced by Irish consumers could be worse than last year if a slow rollout of widespread vaccinations is coupled with the continued spread of Covid-19 in Ireland and elsewhere.
Speaking at the Government press briefing on Tuesday evening which confirmed that Level 5 restrictions were being extended until March 5th at the earliest, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested international travel may be off the table for all of 2021.
“Maybe it will be the case that international travel is not possible this summer, this Christmas. I don’t want to close off that possibility today, but maybe we’ll have to,” he said.
In the wake of those comments, the head of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) Pat Dawson was bleak about the prospects for his this year sector in the months ahead.
“Right now it looks as if it is going to be the same again so it will be back to the drawing board,” he said.
He said more than 400,000 people had bookings made for 2020 moved to 2021 and travel agents and tour operators “are starting to move people again now. Even before Tuesday’s press conference was over travel agents were taking calls from people looking to cancel or rearrange their summer holidays,” he said.
“People really want to travel again but it is looking bleak and while I am not attributing blame it does seem as if there is no clear path there for any businesses.”
Mr Dawson criticised what he said was "a lack of engagement" from Eamon Ryan, the minister with responsibility for the sector and he said that no meetings had taken place with Mr Ryan despite multiple requests. "We have had one zoom meeting with junior minister Hildegarde Naughton and that has been it," he said.
A little bit of hope
Daly O’Brien of Eurocamp said staff had been fielding calls from concerned would-be campers since it became apparent that summer holidays might be at risk again this year. He said that if restrictions on travel remained in place this summer people who had rolled over bookings from last year would be able to do so again.
He pointed out that no-one has to “make that decision just yet” as the campsite operator has changed its terms and conditions in the wake of the pandemic and now customers have until six weeks before their departure date to pay off any balances owed on holidays.
That means a family with a holiday booked for the middle of July will not have to make any final decisions until the end of May or early June.
Dublin-based travel agent John Galligan was despondent at the comments from Mr Varadkar.
“You have a little bit of hope that a ray of sunshine might be on the horizon but all we got was doom, doom and more doom.”
He hailed the forbearance of his customers, some of whom have holidays repeatedly rescheduled as a result of the pandemic. "I had a group going to the Galápagos in June 2020 that was rescheduled to last October and then to June of this year". It now looks as if it may have to be rescheduled for a third time.
He said that last year people were happy to have holidays pushed into 2021 but since Christmas a trend has emerged which has seen more people seeking refunds.
“Last year people were more content to get vouchers or to rearrange but now I think people are wondering if they will ever get to travel again. There will be so much pent up demand when people believe it is safe to travel again but right now everything is still up in the air,” he said
Paul Hackett of online operator Click & Go described this week's developments as "very depressing" and said the current situation was "disgraceful".
He pointed to the number of cases of Covid-19 contracted in hospital and nursing home settings and questioned why Government was “obsessing about travel and treating it like the pariah”.
He said the numbers travelling now “are tiny and they will be tiny in the months ahead”. He pointed out how fast moving and fluid the situation remains and suggested that it was “far too early to make definitive statements about how 2021 sill shape up.”
He said new strains of Covid-19 from Brazil, South Africa and - before that - the UK were " a good reason to be worried but we are still not focusing on things we can control."
He pointed to Israel which has a vaccination level of around 40 per cent and the UK where the levels are around 10 per cent and said Ireland was far below such levels.
“And we have been calling for pre-departure testing at airports and a proper tracing system for months but very little has happened there. Instead of rolling out testing they argued for months about what type of testing was best.”
He said citing New Zealand and Australia as exemplars was pointless as they are geographically and politically very different to this part of the world. "New Zealand is not part of something like the EU as we are and it does not share a 500km boarder with another jurisdiction like we do."