Lockdowns, the trans-Tasman bubble suspension and 18 months of continued border closures and restrictions without a road map for recovery minus JobKeeper make the need for more government support for travel agents and the industry at large more critical than ever.
As it stands today, over half of Australia remains in lockdown across Greater Sydney and parts of regional NSW and Victoria and South Australia.
This is week five of the latest lockdown for the people of Greater Sydney, which now looks certain to be extended beyond Friday for who knows how long yet.
Meanwhile, residents of Greater Melbourne and parts of Victoria have today notched up the unenviable claim of enduring 184 days of being in lockdown since the pandemic began, close to 18 months ago.
That’s over six months of lives being lived virtually in house arrest. Thankfully, there’s a good chance tomorrow may bring some good news, for Victorians at least.
In a nod to the pandemic pace of change in 2021, it was only five weeks ago, on June 22 at the start of the school holidays, that NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet optimistically declared as part of this year’s state budget, “Our goal has always been to lock down the virus, not lock down the state,” announcing that NSW was “open for business.”
At that point in June, many in the travel industry were starting to see some positive signs of coming out of the other side with consumer confidence building again and a commitment to planning travel back on the agenda.
Then, just a couple of days later, the closed signs were crushingly back up, and Greater Sydney was back in lockdown thanks to the Delta variant outbreak.
Consequently, state and territory-wide panic buttons were pressed, and the trans-Tasman bubble was paused with the entire state of NSW before being closed late last week to all of Australia until October.
For travel agents, tour operators, airlines and the industry at large, the sum of this most recent five weeks of pain since has, of course, meant more devastating school holiday cancellations, rerouting, repatriations, refunds, and credits to be fought for with revenue loss and a lack of understanding nor empathy from many customers and minimal financial support to ensure livelihoods can continue.
It goes without saying that the lockdowns have inflicted incredible hardships on so many individuals and industries, including construction, who have publicly bemoaned being forced to down tools for a few weeks.
But hammers with hammers? Let’s not get divisive here, but try having your hands tied for nigh on eighteen months with another six or more at least to go with minimal revenue or a plan to work towards.
While the travel industry is no doubt sympathetic to any other affected industry, it’s a fact that the construction game will not only be back at work imminently but making up for lost time and revenue in the process.
If only the hammer blows would be as soft for the travel industry.
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) says that with an estimated 15,000 plus jobs already lost in Australia’s travel sector, support measures anchored to jobs like JobKeeper are needed now more than ever, given recovery is only going to happen when international travel again becomes possible for most Australians.
‘When’ being the word the travel industry is so sick of hearing. When, when, when?
AFTA chair Tom Manwaring says of the current situation, “Whichever way you dice it, Australia’s travel agents and businesses are doing it tough, and it’s definitely tougher than this time last year when JobKeeper provided structural support in protecting jobs.”
“We are a people business. Right now, every agent is 18 months into near-zero income and the lack of cash flow clashes with the ongoing business and payroll costs. We were the first hit and will be the last to recover and, without support, a tipping point on massive job losses is looming. JobKeeper provided a simple, equitable and meaningful solution to protect jobs.”
Glenn Checkley, Managing Director of Travelonline in Brisbane, says he has seen his business again take a massive hit due to the latest round of restrictions. Without JobKeeper this time, he has no support to call on.
“We have 25 staff and have been in business for over 25 years. Since the lockdowns in Sydney were announced, our weekly turnover has fallen by over 80%, and the seasonally important June/July school holiday period was totally wiped out. Hundreds of bookings for families from Sydney and Melbourne heading to the Whitsundays, Port Douglas and Queenstown NZ were cancelled.
“I’m sure we are not the only business based in a non-lockdown area who are severely impacted and not receiving support. We need JobKeeper and rent support back, even if it requires strict turnover reduction tests to ensure the waste of Jobkeeper 1.0 isn’t repeated. At the moment, businesses like ours are the forgotten businesses,” he says.
Bring back Jobkeeper
Carole Smethurst, Managing Director of multi-award-winning Bicton Travel in East Fremantle, Western Australia, says the need for a return of JobKeeper is critical.
”At least this time last year, we were able to sell domestic travel, but now, with the yo-yoing of state border closures, consumers aren’t confident in booking travel. We are in a worse state now than we were at this time last year – at least then, we were receiving some government assistance.
“Consumers were happy to shift bookings for 2020 travel forward to 2021, but now they no longer want to do that. They want to cancel because they’re not confident that they will be able to travel.
“I had 29 staff pre-COVID. I’m now down to five Full Time and 3 Casuals, and I will do whatever is necessary to keep my team together. JobKeeper would allow me to breathe,” she says.
AFTA says that to date, Australia’s travel agents have secured an estimated $8 billion worth of credits and refunds for COVID-impacted travel back from hotels, airlines, cruise liners and tour operators for their clients, but there’s still an estimated $2 billion outstanding.
While there has been welcome government support for some travel agents as part of the Consumer Travel Support program since JobKeeper ended in March, most agents are still committed to providing time-consuming support to clients with little to no income due to revenue falls of 95% plus as a result of the international travel ban.
“Consumers need us now more than ever to help, and we need wider and ongoing government support to be able to support the massive effort being put in right around this country by our travel agents and businesses,” says Tom Manwaring.
So will support come? Once again, the calls for government support and assistance to get the travel industry through to the other side are sounding like a stuck record right now.
Ultimately, it’s ‘breathing space’ that is all the travel industry is asking for, and perhaps some recognition that it’s an industry that continues to be largely ignored.
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