Uncertainty biggest headache for Malta tour operators trying to look ahead

The lack of short and long-term foresight over how the coronavirus scenario will play out is proving to be the biggest headache for travel operators

The lack of short and long-term foresight over how the coronavirus scenario will play out is proving to be the biggest headache for travel operators.

As the pandemic spreads across the globe, the situation is looking even bleaker for the tourism industry, which has been among the worst hit industries by the virus.

Britannia Tours managing director Noel Farrugia said travel operators went from a very good 2019, to zero revenue in the space of two months. “As soon as the pandemic started making its way to Europe and neighbouring countries, people just stopped wanting to go abroad,” he said.

Farrugia said all outgoing tours in the next six months have been cancelled. Asked when he expects tour operators to return to former customer figures, Farrugia said it difficult to predict, with the situation having to rely on a number of other factors.

“It is difficult to establish a timeline. All we know is that we still have a long way to go. It all depends on the vaccine and restrictions, as well as the confidence of the customers in choosing to travel,” he said.

Noel Farrugia said that he expects figures to return to normal in 2022.

“Once the vaccine is out, I believe people will be more than happy to return to their old ways and start venturing out of the country,” he said.

President of Federated Association of Travel and Tourism Agents (FATTA) Iain Tonna told MaltaToday that travel agencies’ return to normality is all based on the will of the customer in choosing to travel again.

“The industry was among the first to be effected, and will be among last to return back to its previous state,” he said.

Tonna said that even if a medical vaccine is found towards the end of summer, the problems won’t just stop there. “If a vaccine is found around September as some reports have suggested, it will be even harder to recover in winter,” he said.

Despite the uncertainty brought about by the virus, travel agencies are making the best of the situation and using the down-time to shake up the way their businesses function.

Farrugia said that Britannia Tours are carrying out surveys to identify the needs of their customers. Better investment in online systems have also been introduced by the company during the pandemic. “In the next few months we have to think in a different way. It is also a great way to reinvent the way we operate,” he said.

Farrugia predicted a change in consumer patterns, echoing Iain Tonna’s views that in the short-term, there might be a change in customer demographics. “People who prefer to travel with operators, will continue to prefer operators. Now, given the circumstances, people who used to prefer traveling alone, might opt to take the easiest and most trustworthy choice of going abroad with tour operators,” he said.

Nationalist MP and hotelier Robert Arrigo said that if government gets it right, a return to normality for tour operators will only be possible in 2022. “If we don’t get it right in terms of having a long-term vision in the way we respond to medical and economic issues, we stand to lose everything we have achieved so far,” Arrigo said.

He has called on government to strengthen their support towards tour operators, saying they have been among the worst hit by the pandemic. “The fear of the unknown will make you take a step back, or even close down, and government must assure operators that it is there to help them out,” he said.

“The more you care about health, the more you have to help out industries financially,” he said.