As bad as 2021 has been for tour operators, 2022 could be worse — especially if new variants emerge, which could spark a wave of even more travel restrictions that would cripple so many struggling companies.
The end of 2021 was shaping up to be enormously lucrative for many tour operators as numerous destinations worldwide had reopened to vaccinated visitors, providing a much needed boon for companies unable to conduct trips during a significant portion of the pandemic.
But the emergence of Omicron has thrown an enormous monkey wrench into the recovery of companies still struggling from damage brought forth by the Delta variant. The new variant has not only forced numerous trip cancellations but halted last-minute bookings many tour operators were expecting.
For those limping along, Omicron and the prospect of any new variants may prove too much for some operators to hang on.
“We had to ask friends and relatives for loans to sustain our business,” said Jagpal Singh, the director of India-based Honey Tour & Travels, about the additional struggles inflected by the new variant.
“Don’t ask me about the Covid impact. The pain we went through in the last two years can’t be expressed in words. The pandemic has broken the back of the travel industry, particularly the small and regional operators like us.”
Singh’s dejection is shared by other tour operator executives. “Prior to (Omicron), it felt like we were moving in a steady, linear trajectory towards a return to travel and greater freedom to explore,” said Jim Eite, the U.K.-based global commercial director of Exodus Travels. “But (the new variant) has delayed that.”
“It has created uncertainty in all markets — will there be more lockdowns, change in entry, will I not be able to travel, etc. Our feeling is that it has pushed the market back two to three months.”
The current uncertainty many prospective travelers feel is not dissimilar to that felt after the emergence of the Delta variant, which Tom Jenkins, the CEO of the European Tour Operators Association, said would deter many from traveling. Indeed, the Delta variant contributed mightily to a major drop in bookings that many travel companies experienced over the summer.
And the Omicron variant sparked new travel curbs that are battering tour operators. France enacted a ban on nonessential travel from the country earlier this month while Germany imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers coming from the U.K., a decision that went into effect on December 20.
“When entry quarantine makes trips impossible to operate as scheduled, we sadly have to cancel,” Eite said, adding that the travel ban enacted by the French government resulted in late cancellations. “It is not a holiday if you are in quarantine.”
While Eite said France’s ban on UK visitors wasn’t a major blow for Exodus as it isn’t the company’s biggest winter destination, it was for Hotelplan, the parent company of tour operators Inghams and Esprit Ski, both of which run ski holidays. Hotelplan decided on December 17 to suspend all Inghams and Esprit departures to France until January 4.
G Adventures is another tour operator impacted by the measures reimplemented to combat Omicron’s spread. “Before you come back to the U.K., you have to have a PCR test in the destination,” said Brian Young, the company’s U.K.-based managing director.
“The problem with that is if you test positive, then you have to isolate in the destination with all the incumbent costs. That is a factor that puts people off of booking immediate departures at the moment.”
While Young said the recently enacted measures have significantly limited the number of short-term departures over the Christmas period, over developments have hit G Adventures hard. Morocco’s decision to ban all inbound international flights until December 31 forced the company to cancel 19 departures between November and the end of the year. In addition, G Adventures decided on Wednesday to suspend four trips to Thailand after the country’s government paused its quarantine-free entry scheme.
What is the biggest concern tour operators have about Omicron moving forward? When asked that question, Eite responded with a critical issue facing the travel industry. “Vaccine inequality,” he said.
“I strongly believe that vaccines are the solution, but (they) are not just for the UK or North America source markets. Vaccine rollouts need to be just as strong in destination countries to help control the spread and severity of impact.”