Could a vaccine save the travel industry just in time?

airport arrivals, coronavirus - Getty 
airport arrivals, coronavirus – Getty

It’s the glimmer of hope that the travel industry was waiting for. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer revealed yesterday that an early analysis of its vaccine suggests that it may be 90 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19.  

While there are still hurdles to overcome – as described in a rather clumsy penalty shootout metaphor by deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam – the jab could well reverse the fortunes of a sector at breaking point if, as hoped, it is approved and rolled out in the first few months of next year.  

Stuck in the mire of a second lockdown after enduring months of the Government’s hokey-cokey-style approach to quarantine restrictions, it’s fair to say that many travel companies are at their lowest ebb, forced to put staff back on furlough, or even shut their doors altogether. The figures that reveal snapshots of the damage done this year remain bleak: new ONS data released on Monday shows that overseas travel dropped by 96 per between April and June. Overall, the pandemic and subsequent global travel restrictions have cost the aviation industry an estimated $426 (£322) billion in lost revenue.

The question is then, is the increased hope of a vaccine early next year enough to save an industry on the brink? Already there have been some encouraging signs. After the news broke, IAG’s (BA’s parent company) share price rose around 40 percent, while Tui’s stock shot up by 31 percent in just 15 minutes. 

Meanwhile, on the ground, travel agents and tour operators are reporting an increase in interest. 

Ewan Moore, senior product manager at Bamboo Travel, a specialist in holidays in Asia, told Telegraph Travel yesterday:

“We have already had five promising enquiries for 2021 trips, all of which have mentioned the vaccine. We’re delighted with the uptick and hope this is finally a sign of the start of a return to normality for the travel industry. Long may it continue.”

Jack’s Flight Club, an online flight deals company, believes the news will have an impact on bookings:

“We expect an initial surge in the price of flights from early birds eager to get something on the books for next year. Airlines do have a lot of empty seats to fill, so we should see that die down pretty quickly with much bigger than usual fluctuations in flight prices over the next few months, as they test the water and demand from holidaymakers.”

The latest data from TravelSupermarket shows that the most popular months for travel in 2021 are currently April and May, after the vaccine is rumoured to be rolled-out, although this could be as related to vague proclamations from Boris Johnson about life returning to normal “by spring” and a general optimism that warmer months will bring fewer restrictions.

Many companies suggest that the appetite for travel has never gone away and that it is Government restrictions, rather than fears of contracting the virus, that have devastated the industry. This is evidenced by the surge of holiday bookings to the Canary Islands after it was added to the travel corridor list in October, when it was clear that Britain was in the grip of a second wave.

Tenerife - Getty
Tenerife – Getty

Jaymin Borkhatria, chief commercial officer at tour operator Southall Travel, is confident that people still want to go on holiday. “Our search data shows a significant appetite for travel, so we are sure that once a vaccine is widely available, British holidaymakers will give the industry a welcome boost and enjoy a very well-earned holiday in the sun.”

 A spokesperson for online travel agent Opodo echoes this sentiment, commenting:

“What we know from the past months is that consumers are sensitive to Government advice, but that the desire to travel remains strong: during this second lockdown searches indicate that we are planning ahead and, once borders open, bookings will follow suit.”  

This all implies that while the encouraging vaccine news may provide an initial boost in holiday bookings, consumer confidence is underpinned by Government action.

Marcelle Hoff, managing director of luxury tour operator Expressions Holidays, sets out a list of criteria she feels need to be met before the industry can make any meaningful recovery. This includes a widely available vaccine, but also regular community testing, airport testing and increased communication and co-ordination between countries.

She emphasises the need for a “joined-up message” from Number 10, which would encourage bookings. 

“Perhaps they could say that by the end of March, we should be in a much safer place, and go ahead now and book holidays for 2021 and if we (the Government) have to pull the plug on it we will make sure safety nets are in place.”

According to Hoff, the safety nets could entail universal insurance policies for customers who contract the virus and have to cancel their trip, plus coverage of cancellation charges in the event of a local or national lockdown. Crucially, she says that if the FCDO advises against travel to a particular destination because of Covid fears, the Government should promise to underwrite the non-recoverable costs of the travel organiser/tour operator.  

While many are buoyed by the vaccine news, the reality is that the industry needs immediate action and cannot wait even a few months for a potential silver bullet.  

Garry Wilson, CEO of easyJet holidays, says: “We need to get Europe flying again and we’ve been calling for the Government to work collaboratively with the industry, and putting an effective testing regime in place to reduce quarantine periods is going to be absolutely crucial. News from the Transport Secretary that plans are progressing well, as well as today’s announcement of a milestone vaccine, is an encouraging step in the right direction.”  

“We still echo ABTA’s calls for sector specific support, and support for our trade partners, just like other heavily impacted industries have had. The Government has not done enough to support our sector and a suspension in Air Passenger Duty is one quick and easy solution that would encourage people to get flying again.”

 A spokesperson for high-end travel company, Kuoni, summed up the general sentiment from the industry.  

“The vaccine news announced is in early stages of course, but will undoubtedly give some confidence for 2021 travel. We continue to lobby for the rapid development of a testing regime. When the FCDO advice against all travel is lifted we need to have a testing regime in place – that’s the best way the Government can help the industry.”  

There’s now a little light at the end of the tunnel, but it seems that Government action taken this winter will determine the survival and recovery of many travel companies. 

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