More than 150 agents, operators and travel associates are expected to march on the Scottish parliament, Holyrood, on Thursday (5 November) to demand tailored support for the country’s travel sector and a strategic plan to "save Scottish travel".
The protest, organised by the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), is scheduled for midday; participants wear Save Scottish Travel face masks, brandish placards and hazard-taped passports, and wave flags of the world outside the parliament building.
According to the SPAA, some 26,000 travel jobs in Scotland – which includes 5,000 high street agency staff and hundreds of homeworkers – are at risk without clear Scottish and UK government strategy and action plans for the resumption of travel.
Around 500 jobs have already been lost since March according to SPAA members, with the association warning the rate of job losses will accelerate "rapidly" if the industry enters a second year with near zero revenue.
Scottish agencies are currently handling only about 10% of the volume of work they would in previous years, with much of this work being administrative – such as rebooking clients and processing refunds – rather than being revenue or profit-generating.
Airport traffic in Scotland, meanwhile, has slumped dramatically; passenger numbers at Edinburgh fell 91% year-on-year between April and September according to the SPAA, with Glasgow’s traffic down 98% on 2019.
The SPAA wants tailored support from government in recognition of the £1.7 billion generated each year by the country’s outbound travel sector, and the £11 billion that comes from inbound visitors. It is also highlighting the importance of global connectivity for the country’s export interests.
Additionally, the SPAA is calling for a "credible, robust and affordable" airport testing regime for Covid to be implemented by Christmas to end what it described as the country’s current "impractical" 14-day quarantine on arrival requirement from many destinations.
"Travel is broken," said SPAA president Joanne Dooey. "We are at serious and immediate risk of losing Scotland’s travel industry and the 26,000 jobs which the industry supports.
"Travel agents are broken – and broke. The financial model of the travel industry means agents did all the work for summer 2020 bookings in autumn 2019 but they didn’t receive a penny of the money paid by their customer as this goes immediately and directly to the tour operator. Travel agents receive their fees eight weeks or so before departure date. No departures meant zero revenue.
"It’s clear the financial model of the travel industry is neither understood nor differentiated by the Scottish government from the domestic hospitality and tourism sector.
"As an industry, we have refunded our customers despite not always having received the refunds from the operators and airlines. We’ve lost all of our revenue for 2020 and we’re now facing the whole of 2021 with zero revenue. We urgently need a tailored support package of grants for the industry."
Reflecting on the plight of agents, Dooey said there were "massive" mental health and wellbeing impacts of the sector being placed on edge, with many agents struggling to access support and unable to furlough staff owing to their statutory refund obligations.
"Travel agents were refunding clients for work they did in 2019, from their own pockets as they awaited the return of monies from operators and airlines," said Dooey. "They had to pay staff to work to process this tsunami of refunds at a time when they had zero income.
"And to add insult to injury, we’ve had to refund non-recoverable credit card fees on the sale and again to process the refund. Now, many agency owners are facing difficulty accessing bank loans.
"They have used all their savings and are now using their pension funds to stay afloat and are teetering on the brink. The Scottish government needs to act now to Save Scottish Travel."
On testing, Dooey added: "People want to travel, but are put off by the ever-changing travel corridors and the possibility of having to quarantine for 14 days, even if on departure their destination was on the ’safe list’, or that a holiday will be cancelled at short-notice.
"Pre-departure Covid testing could be the lifeline for travel, and this should lead to multi-lateral testing arrangements with other countries."