Aito has added its call for government clarity over essential shop status for travel agents and tour operators after an apparent U-turn.
It comes after confusion around whether agents count as an “essential” shop, and therefore their access to grants.
An Abta spokesperson confirmed this morning: “When the government first published its guidance on the non-essential shops that had to close under the latest lockdown in England, travel agents were specifically mentioned on the list – and were also referenced by the Chancellor as eligible for grants.
“However, it appears that they have since been removed.”
Abta said it raised this as an urgent matter with government officials on 16 November and followed up the following day “to try to understand what has happened and why”.
“If agents aren’t classified as a closed business then local authorities would not automatically consider them for a Local Restriction Support Grants, although they may be eligible for an Additional Restrictions Grant which is discretionary,” the spokesperson continued.
“We appreciate how concerning this is for members and we are working to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible, as well as arguing the importance of grant funding for our members.”
Agent Julie Croucher of Travel With Jules told TTG she had been in contact with Aito on the issue.
Bharat Gadhoke, head of commercial at Aito, explained: “The original business grants launched by the Treasury months ago – in the spring – did have travel agents in the initial release of funds made by the Treasury to local councils.
“Back in spring, we lobbied extensively for tour operators to be added to the list to receive financial support. Tour operators were duly agreed by local government also to be eligible but, two weeks later, the two types of business (travel agents and tour operators) were withdrawn, and it became a simple – but totally inequitable – postcode lottery, depending on where travel businesses were based.
“Some local authorities were amenable, and some weren’t – a very unsatisfactory state of affairs all round.
“Going forward, the guidance clearly needs to include both tour operators and travel agents. We need urgent clarity from the Treasury that both tour operator and travel agents, neither of which can currently trade, will have access to these grants.
“Hospitality and leisure is – rightly – receiving huge amounts, but these support packages seem to exclude us although we are generally seen to be part of the same industry.
“Subsequently, as a result of our extensive lobbying, new grants became available to try to capture those businesses erroneously missed off first time around.
“These grants still didn’t recognise tour operators, but travel agents tended to fare better, except for high street travel agents which had offices upstairs, which were turned down; this would be quite laughable but for the fact that it leaves businesses in need of support, high and dry without help.
“How can local government use such ridiculous tick boxes as “offices downstairs” or “offices upstairs” to decide such a key issue as survival funding? It is beyond us all to comprehend why this is being handled so appallingly badly.
“Some tour operators have argued successfully that they have office space available for client meetings should clients wish to meet, and have gained these business grants as a result, but they needed to have a specific website reference to the meeting facility to gain the grant.
“Now the latest business grant scheme has been announced, due to the current tiered status of regions and the overall lockdown – and we face the same problem yet again.
“In Aito’s eyes, the responsibility lies firmly with the Treasury, which has devolved the issue of grants to local authorities; the local authorities need to understand the businesses in our sector before dismissing them; we’d be more than delighted to provide them with a short briefing on request.”
Noel Josephides, director of Aito, added: “Yet again, it is outbound travel that is being pilloried simply because none of the government departments to which we report understands our business models.”
Derek Moore, deputy chair of Aito, said: “The news that the government sees travel agents as non-essential is, on the face of it, entirely logical and not surprising.
“Throughout the pandemic the government has misunderstood the travel industry, seeming to think that we are somehow part of ‘aviation’ and not understanding how agents – and operators – work and why they are being strangled by the government’s ignorance of – and the fact that they therefore ignore – our sector.
"Frankly, I think that government ministers won’t notice the plight of travel agents and operators until they want to book a holiday next year and find their choice of agents and operators is vastly reduced."