The Irish travel industry was one of the worst-hit sectors during the darkest days of the pandemic. Ireland was one of the slowest countries to reopen its borders and to adopt the European Union digital cert. This delay meant that three critical weeks of summer business were lost, adding to the woes of struggling travel agents and airlines. Fortunately, a fresh confidence is coming back into the market as vaccinations reach the 90 per cent mark in the population.
Autumn and winter holidays are flying high again thanks to the easing of travel restrictions and the EU digital cert. Last-minute breaks to the Canary islands, along with family trips to Lapland in December as well as shopping sprees to fashionable cities such as Paris, London and Barcelona are some of the popular destinations. Irish people are travelling in greater numbers to link up with friends, to meet family or just to have a sunny break after a stressful year. Queues are back in Dublin Airport as passengers seek the last of the summer sunshine before the colder days descend.
Ryanair kept their air fares admirably low over the summer months and made flying as safe as possible by insisting on mask-wearing as far back as June 2020 and ensuring a top-grade air-filtering system onboard. Fares were as low as €14.99 to cities such as Faro in Portugal and you can still book a flight to Malaga for €52 this September.
Pat Dawson, chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents' Association, has been an influential and vocal advocate for rebooting the travel industry and getting proverbial bums back on seats.
“The digital cert improved things when it was introduced on July 19th. Booking went up to about 25 per cent of normal capacity from a low of 10 per cent. However, there was still a lot of confusion over vaccination requirements and the digital cert was late coming into force,” says Dawson.
There was also the added expense of PCR testing, adding an extra €120 or so to each individual traveller’s outlay – or a whopping €240 for return flights.
"Many of the tourists going abroad initially were those with properties or holiday homes in Europe, " Dawson says. "However, there is a general increase in bookings for September and October as the winter sun destinations gain popularity. We would really benefit with the US market opening up its airports to Irish visitors as many of them are longing to see family and relations living over there."
What they also hope for winter is the resumption of flights to Orlando and Las Vegas as well as Canada – another popular destination promoting skiing holidays.
John Spollen, director of Cassidy Travel along with John Cassidy, is also ready for the challenge ahead. "Survival is in our blood. We have always kept our lines open even when our shops were shut. The key is to have empathy with our clients and customers – we are always there whether it's at the end of the phone or on email."
Covid took them all by surprise. “There was no precedent for this scenario. I think corporate travel will remain low due to remote working and people cutting back on unnecessary travel. However, short trips to the UK and Europe are popular right now and we are coming across a lot of clients who are booking for Lapland, skiing trips as well as the shopping breaks in cities.”
So, what will 2022 bring for the globetrotter? “For the winter ahead we are seeing a real interest in cruise ships,” says Dawson. “It’s quite a surprise to see how popular the cruise holidays are. They have the added advantage of having an all-inclusive price and lots of activities for children as well as plenty of entertainment for the adults.”
Mary Denton is the chief executive of Sunway travel. According to her statistics, business is at 60 per cent of 2019 levels and there is a definite confidence returning. Long-haul flights are on sale now for 2022 and enquiries are converting into sales once again. "Cruises are back in popularity and returning to pre-Covid norms. We find that customers are treating themselves to extra luxuries – paying that bit more for an upgrade in their hotel accommodation or choosing a five-star resort."
"This is probably because they haven't been away in two years and feel they deserve a bonus. The Canary islands are Sunway's top-selling country for winter, followed by Spain and Portugal. Lapland proved so popular this Christmas that we have added extra dates in December to meet the demand," says Denton.
Thousands of Irish students and couples have enjoyed the sunnier climes of Portugal, Greece and France in July and August and bookings are remaining strong for the autumn too. Cork airport is expecting a much-needed boost when its new runway is reconstructed, serving many family reunions for Christmas, and there is going to be a strong rebound for summer holidays in 2022.
Irish travel agents have provided much-needed reassurance and assistance for holidaymakers who want to go to safe destinations and also be fully briefed on any restrictions. “There is a lot more paperwork required by airlines and at airports. Uploading documentation online is tricky for those not technically minded from PCR results to digital certs,” says Dawson. “A good travel agent who will take the added hassle out of your holiday. Passenger locator forms, digital certs and more complex check-ins can prove burdensome to post-pandemic tourists.
“I have seen Irish tourists being turned away at the airport check-in desk because they don’t have the right paperwork or else they can’t find their digital cert or their PCR test is out of date,” Dawson advises. “It’s very frustrating for them.”
The overall feedback from customers is that travelling requires plenty of planning and this is where a travel agent helps. The digital Covid cert has simplified entry and exit requirements. The passenger locator forms should be completed in advance for the destination they are travelling to. Families travelling with children over 12 need to show a negative PCR test for returning to Ireland. There are lots of PCR travel and antigen clinics readily available abroad. The top holiday resorts are strictly adhering to all health-and-safety protocols so you can enjoy your break in a very well-managed and controlled environment. However, Sunway Travel, along with the likes of Cassidy Travel, Abbey and Budget staff, are always at the end of a phone call so customers and feel confident for a seamless journey.
Ryanair has stated that demand is strong among Irish holidaymakers to fly to favourite resorts and cities this autumn. With low-budget deals abroad and the high prices of staying at home – return flights to hotspots such as Athens, Faro, Malaga, Porto and Nice are being snapped up for this September and October as many Irish have given up waiting for the sun to come out. The grim wet weather made the summer months more of a greycation than a staycation for many stoic citizens. The high costs of eating and drinking out every night in Ireland also curtailed the enthusiasm for hotel breaks and dining.
"Our capacity increased over the summer from carrying five million passengers in June to a total of 10 million in August," says Dara Brady, Ryanair's director of marketing and digital. "However, we need the Government to implement the guidelines of the aviation task force, particularly in relation to reducing airport charges. They need to be either substantially reduced or suspended altogether until airlines like Ryanair can regain their feet."
Other key carriers such as TAP in Portugal is benefitting from an increase in EU state aid and other competitors are also receiving millions in compensation such as SAS and Finnair. If Ryanair is to continue operating out of Irish airports, they will need more supports to reach a similar load level to 2019, Brady says. "We had to pull our planes out of Cork as it's not commercially viable to have to transport a plane from Stansted to take off from Cork as a base for flyers," he says.
Pre-planning is essential in the airline industry in order to stay competitive. Brady says they need Government assistance as soon as possible. “We have already worked out our winter schedules and we are launching our summer 2022 plans. So decisions have to be made to sustain these routes and fares.”
Pat Dawson agrees that the travel industry is looking up for 2022. Many family package holidays include all the meals and entertainment. Trips to Europe are cost-effective and sometimes cheaper than a staycation when you look at the cost of hotel accommodation plus the average price of a bottle of wine back home. A typical bottle of wine with your meal here costs €30 while the same one in Spain is about €10. “The hospitality sector has to improve this competition. It’s not all to do with excise duty,” Dawson adds.
“Since 1985 we’ve gone through several scenarios from swine flu, to foot-and-mouth disease and then to ash clouds,” says John Spollen of Cassidy Travel. “But we are encouraging our clients to come in and plan a relaxing holiday with us. Leave the paperwork and documentation to our reliable staff. We will ensure a hassle-free trip to your favourite destination and in this post-pandemic world all of us could do with a well-deserved holiday break.”