'Forgotten' travel agents call on First Minister to help them through winter
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They say the latest travel restrictions are hammering their operations - and they want the same level of support as the crippled hospitality trade in order to survive a desperate winter.
It came from Bruce Lamond, who runs Kirkcaldy based Travel Your World.
He was one of 150 travel agents who attended a recent demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Mr Lamond says he has healthy bookings lined up 2021 - but he, and his colleagues across the sector, need help to ensure his business makes it through winter.
He estimates he has lost 95 per cent of business this year because of the pandemic, and that is on top of spending the past seven months refunding the majority of the work done from the previous year.
He said: “If people do not travel, we do not receive our commission - so all bookings refunded have resulted in zero income for us.”
Mr Lamond explained: “The work involved in initially booking, then rebooking alternatives and then eventually refunding these holidays has resulted in a massive amount of unpaid work for us, and continues to do so with no income to show for it.
“The work that has gone into getting these refunds has been very challenging as a lot of travel companies have had staff working from home, making communication difficult.
“And the amount of work has left us unable to take advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme as we couldn't simply close - we needed all hands on deck to get our customers their monies back which many of them desperately needed.
“Our workload has probably increased due to the administration of an unprecedented amount of refunds and re-bookings and again for zero income. This has been very demoralising for us and our staff.”
Mr Lamond, who launched Travel Your World, an independent family company, in 2016, said his team continues to face ever changing restrictions, and called for clarity from Ministers.
He said: “We come to work every day with new quarantine rules, travel advice, flight cancellations, hotel closures and other issues affecting our bookings to deal with.
“The decreased demand for our product has been thwarted further by very low consumer confidence and uncertainty in this ever changing situation, thus making a living just now even harder.
“We fully understand and appreciate that travel restrictions in place are to protect the public in the same way restrictions on socialising in hospitality venues are.
“Yet, that business sector has shouted loud, and is now benefitting from government help that the travel industry has not been offered at all.”
Mr Lamond said the travel industry desperately needed support to get it through winter.
He said: “If we were a licensed premises we would qualify for financial help as it seems that any restrictions on them selling their products is swiftly followed by government help.“Yet, we have spent the last eight months having our ability to sell our product massively restricted largely in part to quarantine rules implemented by the government with no financial help forthcoming.
“What we sell is something that is beneficial in so many ways to our customers and community, and, it could be argued, more so than other businesses that are currently at the front of the queue for government help.
“I also believe we have a large part to play in Scotland's recovery from this pandemic - not just economically but in helping to repair the damage done to mental health and morale this crisis has inflicted on so many of us, more so than alcohol for sure which can be detrimental to people’s health.
“But the importance of pubs etc getting funding seems to get more attention and financial help. “
He urged the First Minister to “urgently review” what help can be offered to the industry” - and he highlighted the impact the newly introduced restrictions levels have had on travel agents as reason to include the sector industry in the Strategic Framework Business Fund.
“We are based in Fife, and the new travel ban in level 3 and 4 areas makes it now impossible to generate any income in the foreseeable future within the law,” he said. “Surely this qualifies us for help in the same way licensed premises are due to early closure restrictions?”
“I am asking for your support for my business, my staff and my industry just as surely as the SNP will be asking us all for support in the coming year.
“This has been a very challenging time for the government and I do appreciate the work that has been done in dealing with this unprecedented crisis and I hope you appreciate my intention in bringing this problem to you.”
Jamie Hepburn, Scottish Government Business Minister, said: “We do not underestimate the significant impact this pandemic has had on the tourism sector, both outbound and inbound.
“We know that the restrictions on travel between local authority areas are tough, but they are essential for preventing the spread of the virus and saving lives.
“We are engaging with the sector, including with the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association, in order to fully appreciate and understand the current challenges they face and will continue to do so in order to help support those businesses.
“We are doing everything we can with our limited powers to help businesses, offering support which now exceeds £2.3 billion in addition to the UK Government’s furlough scheme.”