Christmas Day, 1991, and Noel Josephides is sitting down to lunch with his family – and the president of Namibia. “It’s the mad things you remember in this business,” he says, flashing me a wry smile across his desk at Sunvil HQ in Isleworth. “We [Sunvil] haven’t always followed the fold - and I’m proud of that.
“My then-wife was at university with the Africa editor of The Independent. He would say to me: ‘Noel, you must go to Namibia. They are going to be independent next year. The infrastructure is incredible – it’s better than what you’ve got in Greece’.
“I’d never been to Africa before, but in the end I booked a flight to Windhoek, hired a minibus and took my wife and four children. We did almost 3,000 miles setting up a programme out there.”
It’s a far cry from the fiercely cold winter morning when I meet Josephides, my bag weighed down by the heft of the Outstanding Achievement Award bestowed on him back in September at the TTG Travel Awards for his contribution to the industry.
- Noel Josephides
Cyprus-born Josephides joined tour operator Sunvil, set up by his close friend and long-standing associate the late John der Parthog, in the early 1970s. Der Parthog saw tourism as a force for good, one that would revitalise Cyprus’ ailing towns and villages as its coastal regions became the country’s economic powerhouse, with Sunvil’s programme quickly expanding to nearby Greece.
Sunvil has long been challenging the industry to pursue self-improvement. It launched programmes in the Azores in 1990 before adding Namibia in 1992 and Costa Rica in 1995 - destinations hitherto largely off the map for British tourists.
"The first year , we sent eight people to Namibia," Josephides recalls. "The second year, I persuaded the lead writer of the Sunday Times to go. We got a double-page spread. In those days, that was the ultimate. Suddenly, from nothing, in your own small way, you realise you’ve created a new market.
“When we were there, one of the places we visited was the Skeleton Coast. It was Christmas Eve. We got to Terrace Bay, where I’d booked a place, but the army said we couldn’t go in. After a lot of toing and froing, they let us pass.
"A bit later, we got a knock on the door from a soldier, an apology, and an invitation for dinner with the president who was on a fishing holiday.”
It’s a tale that exemplifies the founding spirit der Parthog and Josephides instilled in Sunvil. “We’ve always been interested in parts of countries that are unknown,” he explains.
“Drive north of Seville, you have Extremadura and you have fabulous cities like Salamanca. We have a programme that links Extremadura with the Alentejo region of Portugal.
“But countries don’t want to spend money promoting these places. You need big marketing bucks – £250,000 – to make any impact on the UK market. It’s a pinprick compared to what they would gain, but local governments think that if a destination is doing well, they don’t need to spend to promote it.
“We pioneered a lot of things in Cyprus. We worked with the Leventis Foundation to demonstrate to villagers foreign tourists would stay in their villages if they did up their properties.
“That was in the mid-80s and it was groundbreaking. It made a lot of difference – people opened restaurants and other businesses that would benefit from tourism.”
Josephides repeatedly returns to Alentejo: “We put on a direct flight to the new airport there,” he says. “Our flight would come in, the airport would open, people would get off, others got on, and [the airport] would shut again until the following Sunday. But we got so much publicity because it literally put Alentejo on the tourism map.
“We were the first to put on flights to Skiathos and to Lemnos. We were doing fly-drives in Costa Rica in the mid-90s. That was unheard of. It was so exciting.”
However, far from his legacy being one solely of promoting new and sustainable tourism, Josephides’ advocacy work with Aito, of which Sunvil was a founder member, and latterly as chairman of Abta and the Travel Foundation, has seen him lead the fight for a better, more fairly regulated industry.
“Aito’s fought a lot of battles and we haven’t won all of them,” he says. “We campaigned against the takeover of Horizon by Thomson; we fought to make sure VAT in Tour Operators Margin Scheme (Toms) was implemented properly. The one we’re fighting at the moment is with the non-UK operators coming in after the new Package Travel Regulations.”
- Noel Josephides
Josephides has chaired Abta since 2013 and his six-year term will end in July. “I wanted to soften the interaction between the industry and the association. In the past, it was all about ‘what’s Abta doing for me?’,” he tells me.
“In fact, Abta does a hell of a lot. It’s extremely efficient and it knocks spots off any other trade organisation in Europe, if not the world, in my opinion.
“Often, the industry approaches Abta in fear. We’ve scaled some of that back. When you have people coming in who’ve had a bad year, made mistakes or misunderstood regulations, I think the message now is we’re there to help, not judge. And if I’ve helped to do that over the past six years, I would consider that quite an achievement.”
I ask Josephides if he has a crystal ball among the many trinkets that adorn his office, picked up during his five decades in travel. “The airlines control tourism now, not the tour operators,” he muses. “That’s the biggest change. They set the trends.”
Josephides believes Jet2.com and Jet2holidays “would appear to have got things right” and says their emergence over the past year as part of the “big three” shows there is still room in the market yet for the likes of easyJet Holidays.
“Very few airlines have managed to run successful tour operations,” he tells me. “The airlines’ needs always come first, not the tour operator. EasyJet could change that... Jet2 is different because the airline and the tour operator started around the same time; the tour operator wasn’t an after-thought. They seem to have got it right.
- Noel Josephides
“But you do have to ask yourself, once Jet2 feels confident enough, why wouldn’t they walk away from agents? Tui UK is far more profitable than Tui in Germany. Tui in the UK is vertically integrated, whereas Germany is still a traditional model paying agents commission.
“I think the next stage is when Tui and Cook feel Jet2 have gone too far. I think they’ll react. Thomson fought ILG and Airtours – those were interesting battles. But when you get to the size these three are, you get in fights. And these fights are always bloody because it’s all about price.
“When that happens at the top, it affects all of us because people’s perception of what they’re paying for a holiday changes completely. It’s bad enough as it is, let alone having a capacity war on your hands as well.”
Encouragingly, though, Josephides believes there is still huge scope for smaller, specialist operators with reputations built solely on quality, and similarly opportunities for more specialised agents moving into luxury long-haul and cruise.
But what of Josephides’ own future? “I’ve tried to step back as much as I can because, well, I’m 70,” he smiles. “I have to let them [Sunvil] get on with it, but I’m not someone who gives away these responsibilities easily.”
It seems despite Josephides’ plans to wind down, we’ll be hearing plenty more from him.