News from around the world over the weekend of a new “variant of concern” originating from Africa called Omicron brought with it a familiar fear and new level of uncertainty for the travel industry. We asked our travel advisor community to share how they and their clients have responded since the news broke.
The emergence, seemingly out of nowhere, of a new COVID strain named Omicron, was not the news anyone wanted to hear.
However, while the initial headlines looked ominous, the sentiment since has been that while investigations continue into the effects of Omicron, “attention, not panic” is the message of paramount importance with PM Scott Morrison saying, “There’s no evidence to suggest that this leads to any more severe disease.”
“If anything, it’s suggesting a lesser form of disease, particularly for those who are vaccinated.”
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said authorities were looking closely at what Omicron meant for viral transmission and the efficacy of vaccines.
“In terms of the vaccines, there is no solid evidence at the moment that there is a problem with that. Although we will wait for further advice and laboratory studies in coming days and weeks.”
“There are a lot of things we don’t know yet about this virus,” Dr Kelly said.
“As that information comes, then that will guide the decision-making.”
Regardless, the very mention of a new, unknown strain and potential ‘worldwide travel disruptor’ has left the already burned travel industry and their clients reeling at the prospect of more changes, cancellations and refunds in the coming weeks as we head towards the festive season.
What’s been the response so far for travel advisors?
While new bookings have naturally gone quiet since the news broke, most of the travel advisors we spoke to reported a “wait and see” approach from their clients regarding existing bookings for travel between now and Christmas and into early 2022.
However, for travel advisors with leisure and corporate clients already overseas, some nervousness had already kicked in with many fearful that borders may close again, leaving them stranded, potentially into the Christmas period.
Matt Castell from Curated Travel in Bulli, NSW said, “I’ve had about a dozen customers so far change their flights to come home in the next three days. Only one customer has paid for a new trip, and everyone else has decided to wait and see. The sentiment is that they’re scared the borders will close again.”
“It will take weeks before we know more about the virus, and that alone is enough uncertainty to put a stop to most travel plans.
“If the customer is very flexible, then they’ll still go. But most people with work and family commitments will most likely either cancel plans or come home early,” he said.
Vanessa Tokatly from Travel Associates on the Gold Coast said, “I’m almost too nervous to say no one has cancelled yet in case the universe hears me. The only cancellation I’ve had was my sister paying for flights to Italy today, but she’s now decided to wait and see.
“I’m on the edge of my seat. The past two months have been, I would say, some of my top months of sales in my 12-year career.
“I’m now holding my breath that they don’t all cancel.”
The knock-on effect of more uncertainty
After 20 exhaustive months of unbearable mental stress in dealing with the minefield that is “working in travel through a pandemic,” many travel advisors said their overwhelming response to the latest concern was another punch in the gut, just when they thought the worst was over.
Andy Buerckner, a director of Platinum Travel in Melbourne, said that “Whilst the level of enquiry and subsequent bookings has largely been unaffected so far, it’s the battered confidence of my team and industry I fear most.
“Regardless of the severity of this new strain, it’s a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to media announcements and subsequent Government restrictions.
“The worst feeling I can have is to be out of control, and at the moment, I continue to feel like I have little control as it is ultimately consumer and business confidence that we rely on to be successful.
Since the onset of Australia’s international border reopening on 1 November, the travel industry has been scrambling to rebuild its supply chain and retail services, with many travel agencies starting from scratch again and looking to speedily recruit to meet the booming demand for the rebound of travel.
Until Omicron came onto our radars at the weekend, the most pressing challenge was finding and attracting experienced travel advisors to come back into the industry.
“When the majority of us have been actively recruiting and working tirelessly on rebuilding our businesses and industry, this news once again sends us into Christmas with far too many question marks,” says Buerckner.
“It’s an incredibly difficult course to navigate. I haven’t experienced aircraft turbulence for near on two years now, but my emotions certainly have.”
Skroo Turner, Flight Centre Travel Group’s chief said he is urging travellers not to panic, predicting there will be no further restrictions on international arrivals than the 72-hour isolation introduced in NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
Turner said he thought even the home isolation requirement would be in place for no more than a few weeks.
“I’ve been talking to our MD in South Africa, and generally, he feels, from what we’ve seen, there’s been a lot of overreaction globally,” Mr Turner said on Channel Nine’s Today show this morning.
“But the seriousness of it in South Africa seems to have been overstated.
“I think it’s a really important thing that we just don’t get carried away. We look at it on the science, on the facts, not on emotion.”
Australia will review plans to re-open from December 1 to skilled migrants and students, PM Scott Morrison said on Monday, adding it was a “bit too early” to reinstate two-week hotel quarantine for foreign travellers.
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