Travel leaders have cautiously welcomed the certainty offered by Theresa May’s draft Brexit withdrawal agreement, hailing an “imperfect” deal infinitely preferable to crashing out of the EU with no deal at all.
Derek Jones, boss of Kuoni parent Der Touristik UK, told TTG that while the settlement fell short on key issues facing travel like freedom of movement, the deal “offered positivity” ahead of January peaks.
“At least there’s something on the table,” he said. “It’s something positive we can digest. Other than remaining in the EU, it’s the best deal there is.
“It’s by no means perfect but it’s a damn sight better than no deal. It addresses a number of our concerns and gives us a level of certainty. If there was no deal going into Q1 2019, I think we’d see a real dip in consumer confidence."
However, with May facing an uphill battle to drive her deal through Parliament and a potential leadership challenge, Aito chairman Derek Moore said “everything was still to play for”.
“I don’t think there will be an early election, but if May can’t get this deal through, all hell will break loose politically,” he Moore. “The deal itself looks like a compromise which, as we all know, can be good in some aspects but not in others.”
Ken McLeod, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association, said the deal “was something to work with”, adding consumers needed to be able to have the confidence to book.
“It’s important to agree a framework; we can always come back to the table on other issues.”
Giles Hawke, chief executive of Cosmos and Avalon Waterways, said he believed there was "still a long way to go to get real clarity".
"At one level the transition window gives some comfort, but in many ways it just prolongs the uncertainty," he added.
Hawke called for "real hard answers" on issues surrounding travel via roads and airports and the validity of driving licences, passports and visas, to provide customers with "100% confidence in booking holidays".
Asked if he had faith in Theresa May to deliver a deal that works for the travel industry, Hawke said: "None whatsoever. While politicians are more bothered about playing party politics and securing their own positions, the real issues are left not being dealt with."
Gary Lewis, chief executive of The Travel Network Group, added the consortium was “hoping for minimal impact” to the travel industry and would be “monitoring the situation closely” as the withdrawal agreement went through Parliament.
An Abta spokesperson said “many of the critical issues” for travel would not be discussed until negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU took place post-Brexit.
“We continue to lobby the government, EU officials and destination governments on the priorities for the UK travel industry,” the association said.
“Given the ongoing uncertainty [around Brexit], Abta is advising members to continue with contingency planning in order to make sure they are prepared, whatever the scenario, and are updating our contingency planning guidance to reflect the latest developments,” added Abta.
“In this regard, we welcome recent announcements from the European Commission that the EU intends to allow UK travellers visa-free access and to put in place a bare bones aviation agreement, on the basis of reciprocity, even in the event of a “no deal” scenario.”
Meanwhile, Seasonal Businesses in Travel (SBIT), a coalition of more than 200 British outbound travel companies, has this week warned Brexit is already costing British holiday companies millions of pounds in lost business and risks plunging the travel sector into “years of uncertainty”.
SBIT spokesperson Diane Palumbo said while she was heartened by May’s threat to Tory Brexiteers that a rebellion risked “no Brexit at all”, the withdrawal agreement offered little more certainty at a time when SBIT’s ski operator members were trying to plan for the 2019/20 season.
“It’s not good for confidence at all,” she said. “We face years of complete uncertainty. Trade agreements take around four years on average to negotiate. Tour operators plan their programmes three, five, seven years in advance. Many have moved to flexible, short-term contracts. This not good for continuity.
“Our business models are built on economies of scale to deliver value. We can’t do that effectively now. Ski company members of SBIT alone have sold 20,000 fewer holidays this season compared with 2016 - and that’s the minimum, the smallest figure. It’s millions of pounds of lost business.
“We’re selling more short breaks than we did in 2016 too. This hurts the resorts; it affects their Saturday-Saturday model of efficiency - cold beds, ski hire, lift passes, and so on. Everyone loses out.”
Palumbo, sales and marketing director of Skiworld, added the operator had deployed 10% fewer staff overseas for the 2018/19 season as a result.