The new president of the Irish Travel Agents Association doesn’t mince his words on Ireland’s Covid restrictions. “We’d have more freedoms in Myanmar and more democracy in North Korea,” says Paul Hackett.
He’s fired up after a call with Ireland’s National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) the day after it vetoed the proposed reopening of indoor hospitality in Ireland on 5 July.
“We have one Covid case per day and fewer than 50 in hospital," he continues. "Yet Nphet is predicting 700,000 additional Covid cases in the next three months among a population of 4.6 million if we reopen indoor hospitality on 5 July. They are trumping reasonable data.”
Hackett is founder and chief executive of the OTA Click & Go, and was elected president of the ITAA last month.
His fear is travel will follow hospitality after 19 July – the provisional date for the lifting of travel restrictions. “Hospitality got it, in two weeks’ time, travel will get it,” he predicts.
Government support for Ireland’s travel agents ceased on 17 May when non-essential retail reopened. “We get a wage subsidy, but it is not as good as the UK scheme," says Hackett. "That ends on 30 September. The government don’t seem to connect that we are not retail.”
There is commercial rate relief until September, Hackett admits, but “few concessions from landlords”, which he says has made 2021 even more bleak than last year. “In 2020, there was a retail subsidy from January to May; there was an element of support.”
It remains illegal to leave Ireland without good reason until 19 July, and Hackett says uncertainty means “there are no forward bookings”. “Even if we get travelling on 19 July, it will be 20%-25% of 2019, yet supports are gone," says Hackett, with resignation.
Another issue once travel resumes is vaccines, with cheaper antigen tests “effectively banned”. Plus, there are wider issues for family travel. “We have no plan in Ireland to vaccinate anyone under 18; parents will be vaccinated, kids won’t. So, they’ll need negative tests and PCR on return," says Hackett.
"It’s not the cost, it’s the level of uncertainty. If one of your kids tests positive, you can’t leave them in the Canaries and say we’ll see you at the airport in two weeks.”
The ITAA also believes there is no need to test the fully vaccinated under the EU Digital Covid Certificate scheme, but Hackett acknowledges until rules are relaxed, travel’s target audience will be vaccinated adults travelling without children.
The association fears the Irish government regards travel as just “bucket and spade”, but argues the outbound industry is vital to facilitate inbound visits. “There is no understanding that what we do supports airlines and inbound tourism," Hackett says. "The government forgets routes don’t work one way.”
These air links power the corporate travel side, worth €600 million to the industry, plus the huge VFR market – particularly to the US.
Then there is the cruise industry, which has great potential, both for ship visits and outbound sales, Hackett believes. “We are probably only one-third of the market penetration of the UK.”
Hackett’s immediate ambitions are just to see his members, which account for turnover of €1.4 billion, flourish again. “The challenges getting out of this will be tougher than managing through it," he muses.
"We will have to deal with massive consumer uncertainty – the lack of bookings is purely down to consumer confidence. We’re not going to have proper income before 2022.”