THE bounce-back in the international travel sector has been fascinating to watch.

People’s horizons were narrowed so dramatically and swiftly by the coronavirus pandemic, in a hitherto unimaginable way. And in the darkest days of the pandemic, with airports virtually empty, it was at times almost difficult to conceive of a return to normality, let alone a fast one.

However, following an exceptional recovery fuelled by enormous pent-up demand for travel, the world in which the airports were deserted for so long feels on occasion like just a bad dream.

Of course, the resurgence of international travel was not without major short-term difficulties for some airlines and airports, with Brexit cited by senior figures in the industry as a key factor exacerbating labour shortages. In contrast to some of the chaos south of the Border, Scotland’s airports seemed to return to normality much more smoothly last year.

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Travelling through Glasgow and Edinburgh airports last spring, the degree to which things felt like they had returned to normal was truly heartening, especially given the huge numbers of people dependent on the international travel sector for their livelihoods.

Arriving at Edinburgh Airport only a few months before in early January last year – when travel restrictions were still the order of the day and a large amount of documentation and form-filling was required for overseas trips – there had been a glimmer of hope of recovery. The sense of excitement among those fortunate enough to be flying was palpable but things seemed a long way from normal.

The speed with which large-scale international travel returned through last spring was remarkable and, with the exception of the operational glitches that hit the headlines last summer, things have gone from strength to strength since.

Airline and package holiday operator easyJet has been among those to highlight the scale of demand for travel in recent weeks.

There have been fairly consistent reports from airlines, holiday companies and travel agents of buoyant demand, and this has been uplifting. It has been particularly encouraging given the degree to which the broader UK economy is struggling.

Reports from the retail and hospitality sectors have been mixed but there seems little doubt that people’s passion for travel has been reinvigorated.

easyJet revealed last week that it had enjoyed record turn-of-year bookings.

Commenting as the airline issued a trading update for the three months to December 31, chief executive Johan Lundgren said: “We have seen strong and sustained demand for travel over the first quarter, carrying almost 50% more customers compared with last year.”

He added: “Many returned to make bookings during the traditional turn-of-year sale where we filled five aircraft every minute in the peak hours, which culminated in three record-breaking weekends for sales revenue [in January].”

Glasgow-based Barrhead Travel reported this week that it had achieved its best-ever start to the year. It flagged a record-breaking January for holiday bookings, which were up by 25% from the previous record.

Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, said: “Demand for travel is higher than ever and we expect momentum will remain strong during February. There is a real confidence in the market: customers are decisive and determined to lock in their getaways as soon as possible and many are even booking multiple holidays at once.”

Barrhead Travel declared: “Despite cost-of-living challenges, consumers are prioritising holiday spend.”

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This certainly does look to be the case on prioritisation, given the contrast between the buoyancy of the international travel sector and the general pressures on consumer spending.

It was interesting to see Barrhead Travel highlight its view that getting value for money was a “top priority” for customers, with all-inclusive arrangements proving to be the most popular type of holiday.

Airline and package holiday operator Jet2 reported strong trading late last month, and it declared confidence in having the “right product for these tougher times”.

Jet2 was among the standout performers last year in terms of its great reliability and impressive customer service at a time when some others, including easyJet and British Airways, were hit hard by flight cancellations.

Updating on its most recent trading, Jet2 said on January 26: “Pleasingly, winter 2022/23 forward bookings have continued to strengthen throughout December 2022 and January 2023. Consequently, average load factors are now slightly ahead of winter 2018/19 at the same point (against a 24% increase in seat capacity) with pricing and margins significantly higher.”

And Edinburgh Airport last week hailed a “strong recovery” as it published passenger figures for 2022.

Its chief executive, Gordon Dewar, expressed hopes that inbound visitors to Scotland were boosting the nation’s tourism and hospitality sectors.

Edinburgh Airport reported that it handled a total of 11,261,873 passengers in 2022, up from 3,031,140 in 2021. In 2019, which it noted had been the busiest-ever year for a Scottish airport, it recorded 14.7 million passengers.

The figure for 2022 clearly remains a long way adrift of the previous record but we must bear in mind the coronavirus-related restrictions that were still in place at the start of last year.

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar expressed the hope of inbound visitors boosting Scotland's tourist and hospitality sectorsEdinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar expressed the hope of inbound visitors boosting Scotland's tourist and hospitality sectors (Image: Newsquest)

A spokesman for the airport said: “It is worth noting that, while the full-year numbers were 76% of 2019, Edinburgh Airport finished the year with 85% of 2019 monthly levels of demand.”

Mr Dewar said: “We are encouraged by the ongoing recovery in passenger numbers in 2022, which we hope in turn reflects more economic activity across the country, as inbound visitors to Scotland provide a much-needed shot in the arm for our tourism and hospitality industries.

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“There is little doubt that people want to travel – both from Scotland for holidays or business opportunities or those international tourists coming to experience the best of Scotland’s visitor attractions and beautiful places and landmarks.”

It is great to see so many people travelling again, and horizons widening after having been shut down by the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic.

The strong recovery in international travel is also crucial for huge numbers of people dependent on the sector for their jobs. Many who work in the sector found themselves sidelined for so long and facing great uncertainty over a protracted period. Many of these people were let down badly by Rishi Sunak’s refusal, when he was chancellor, to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme beyond September 2021 and his brinkmanship over continuation of support at times prior to that.

The rebound in international travel is important to economies around the world.

And, amid the economic malaise in the Conservatives’ insular Brexit Britain, the rebound in international travel really stands out as a positive on various levels.