By Luke Petherbridge

When the Scottish Tourism Recovery Taskforce (a Scottish Government-led taskforce in response to the impact of Covid-19) announced a plan including steps to “facilitate international travel” and provide “adequate compensation packages if evidence-based restrictions are required”, the Scottish travel industry breathed a sigh of relief. After nine long months, it seemed the calls of our industry had finally been heard. 

However, that proposal was published over one month ago (October 23), and we are yet to hear of any measures to rebuild international connectivity, nor any help going the way of the many Scottish travel agents, tour operators or business travel providers that have seen their businesses decimated.

Our industry was the first to be affected by coronavirus, with the pandemic closing off international travel, leaving travel agents and tour operators to face an avalanche of cancellations that wiped out the vast majority of their expected revenues across 2020. For travel agents, who are paid commission based on the departure of their clients, the situation is worse still, as they have been faced with refunding not only this year’s expected income, but also bookings taken the year before. ABTA’s recent Member Survey shows that more than nine in ten holidays were cancelled this summer, and trade over the final three months this year is expected to be 93 per cent lower than in the same period in 2019 .

Yet, we have seen no tailored support either from Holyrood or Westminster, in contrast with similarly affected sectors, such as hospitality. This is especially disappointing when we consider the huge contribution of outbound travel to the economy of Scotland, which amounts to nearly £2 billion every year in direct impact, even before taking account of the wider benefits that it brings to closely connected economic sectors, such as airport workers or the caterers that supply airlines. The industry employs close to 30,000 people across Scotland.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and Finance Cabinet Secretary, Kate Forbes, need to urgently clarify that grants made available to businesses forced to close their doors to trade in Level 4 areas will be extended to travel agents. Targeted financial support must be put in place, such as recovery grants, for tour operators and the wider travel sector too. The Scottish Government also needs to move away from the advice against non-essential travel that has been in place for many months now , which has exacerbated the crisis facing businesses in the sector.

Protecting public health does come first, so ABTA has been calling for the creation of a testing plan, as a mitigation measure ahead of any vaccine, since the start of the pandemic. The announcement of a Test to Release scheme in England is an important step forward, and we urge Ministers to introduce a similar regime in Scotland.

ABTA consumer studies show that 81% of Scottish residents are either slightly or extremely concerned about having to quarantine when returning to Scotland. Reducing the necessary time to self-isolate will help encourage people to travel again.

This will strike a balance between public health and recovery of a vital sector for the Scottish economy.

There is a demand among Scots to travel again and it is possible to enable travel to resume again safely, ensuring the safety of those travelling and the risk of importing the virus on return is mitigated effectively – but we need the Scottish Government to work with the industry to get testing in place. The recovery of the Scottish economy will be intertwined with that of the travel industry. This is because international connectivity and trade are largely dependent on the health of the travel sector. For example, the underbelly of passenger planes help to move Scottish goods globally.

Failing to support the travel industry through the crisis will slow economic recovery generally. The current situation is simply unsustainable, and the promised “adequate compensation packages” are now well overdue.

Luke Petherbridge is director of public affairs at ABTA