“If I could just ask everybody for a little bit more patience,” the aviation and maritime minister told delegates at last week’s TTG Agenda 2021 seminar.
If I had any doubts as to whether the UK government understands – or is even concerned – by the pressures facing the UK travel industry, they were swiftly quashed during our interview with Robert Courts last week.
To be fair to Courts, it’s not really his fault. Boris Johnson’s government has always been more concerned with PR than facts – prioritising positive coverage from favoured newspapers rather than focusing on understanding the challenges facing the industries that have been battered by this crisis.
And to Courts’ credit, he calmly listened to TTG’s explanation of the frustrations facing the sector. He didn’t become defensive, agitated – or worse combative – as tourism minister Nigel Huddleston did when we interviewed him back in December.
What Courts did show though, was an ignorance and ultimate indifference, to the struggles that continue to be felt by the UK travel industry.
His call for patience was in response to our question asking if he could understand why some in the travel industry had accused the government of orchestrating a campaign to deter consumers from booking travel.
It was a fair question, coming in response to the slew of government advisors who dominated the news agenda last weekend as they warned international travel could be off the cards this summer.
Just as things were looking up for travel – consumers were starting to book breaks away and travel businesses were finally daring to hope they might see money starting to come in this summer – the government had decided in its infinite wisdom to remind consumers of the uncertainty around travel – and the costly fines they could incur if they break the rules.
It was also a question borne out of the further irritation felt by much of the industry when the UK woke to headlines on Tuesday detailing the introduction of £5,000 fines for anyone found to be holidaying illegally, alongside news that rules banning international travel were now nominally in force until the end of June.
Such fines are an unnecessary distraction several months too late – we all know it’s currently illegal to go on holiday. And the extension of the rules until the end of June have been cataclysmic for many travel agents who had spent the week prior taking a raft of bookings from consumers excited to have something to look forward to, only to see them now calling up to move bookings – and in many cases, cancel their plans all together.
Courts of course, could have little idea of any of this.
He could have little idea because the sector just isn’t represented at a government level.
This was underlined later on in the interview, when I again asked about a commitment for dedicated support for the sector should international travel remain off the cards this year. Courts gave a vague response which (naturally) did not answer the question. Instead, he, once again, referenced the support that had already been provided to airlines.
With a deep breath, I, once again, reminded him that airlines are just one part of the travel sector. “Yes yes absolutely,” he replied, “I just gave aviation as an example. But you’re absolutely right to point that out – be absolutely assured that international rail, travel agencies, maritime including cruise, they are all equally seen by me – they are absolutely equal in terms of parity on importance and significance to the UK economy.”
That’s good to hear minister, I replied, because it certainly doesn’t feel like that.
Which is why I was so keen to ascertain whether Courts could understand why some in the travel industry have accused the government of orchestrating a campaign to deter consumers from booking travel.
“I entirely understand that frustration. I would just ask to wait for the Global Travel Taskforce report. Up until then it’s speculation,” he replied.
Exactly minister. The speculation though, has been coming from government and its advisors, not the travel industry.
This was the point at which Courts asked: “If I could just ask everybody for a little bit more patience.”
The problem is, the travel industry has been beyond patient.
Twelve months into this crisis many have still received next to no money into their businesses; numerous firms have been unable to make full use of the furlough scheme with staff required to deal with unimaginable numbers of refunds; the sector has (still!) received zero dedicated sector specific support despite other industries such as pubs presented with dedicated grants.
And yet, finally, the sector had started to see light at the end of the tunnel – the phones had started to ring, bookings began to be taken. And just like that – a few government loudmouths appeared on the news, several clumsy statements were made, and the bookings dried up; the light at the end of the tunnel receded.
Please minister, tell your colleagues to be better; tell your staff to brief you more about the UK travel industry – and why it needs more support; appeal to the chancellor for more financial support; urge your boss – Grant Shapps – and his boss – Boris Johnson – to establish a coherent, realistic return to international travel that will inspire confidence amongst consumers as well as the industry.
But please minister, don’t you dare tell the travel industry to be patient.