It’s been a summer of chaos and confusion for holidaymakers. Yet despite ongoing uncertainty around where’s safe to visit and a general upwards trend in new coronavirus cases in Europe – this week France and Italy recorded their highest tallies since lockdown ended – tour operators are reporting pent-up demand for holidays this autumn and winter, whether that means a last-minute flit to Europe, the vague hope of some winter sun or moving and/or rebooking a holiday for next year.
“Immense damage has been done to consumer confidence but people still want to go away,” said Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the UK travel trade association (Abta).
The destination roulette that is the “travel corridor” and the imposition of quarantine measures on whole countries rather than a regional approach have made hard work of booking a holiday. For many, Thursdays are now a day of dread, with a knot-in-the stomach wait for a green or red light that means they can either get packing or have to postpone should their destination fall off the government’s travel corridor list. In the latest quarantine shuffle, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Jamaica were added to the growing list of countries that travellers can’t visit from the UK without self-isolating for 14 days on their return.
The precarious situation led millions to opt for a UK staycation this summer leading to a massive spike in bookings for campsites and cottages, not just this year but into 2021 too. But for those not constrained by school holidays September heralds the start of winter-sun season and there is an appetite for overseas travel among those prepared to take a risk.
“The government’s behaviour has encouraged a culture of late booking and people are realising that nothing is guaranteed,” said head of communications at Kuoni, Rachel O’Reilly.
Skiers too, are voting with their poles. According to a survey conducted by the Hotelplan group (which includes Inghams, Esprit Ski and Ski Club of Great Britain) skiers report that social distancing in shops and restaurants and restrictions on numbers at après ski bars would have no or little impact on their decision to book a holiday this season.
For those looking to travel between now and Christmas, there are several caveats. Flexibility, a preparedness to travel last minute, a willingness to accept your second or even third choice of destination and factoring in a potential cancellation and re-booking scenario are all part of the new travel landscape. And for those uncomfortable with chasing refunds, booking with a reputable company who can help unpick it, is essential.
Next month Explore is sending customers to the Dolomites in Italy, Greece, Poland and Turkey. “We have 43 trips departing in September – most of them booked by passengers hoping to catch the tail end of the European summer,” said managing director Joe Ponte. “If we’re forced to cancel a trip, customers know they can rebook or get a refund within 14 days.”
Kirker Holidays took £60,000 worth of bookings in the third week of August compared with £5,000 just 10 days earlier. “People are realising that the goal posts are constantly moving,” said director Ted Wake. “Until we have a vaccine things are not likely to get any less complex in the future. If you see a window of opportunity and a sensible destination my advice is just book it.”
Over one weekend in August, Sunvil Holidays sold 40 holidays to Corfu. “Once people saw it was still on the corridor list it was a case of “Right, let’s go”, said chairman Noel Josephides. The company also saw strong interest in rural properties in Portugal’s Alentejo region when the country was added to the safe list.
Increased searches on the British Airways Holidays website are such that, for the first time, the company has started selling some of its holidays over a year in advance. “Twelve of our most popular destinations are now available to book until November 2021,” said managing director Claire Bentley.
In terms of being “Covid proof” there are obvious winners. Villas are in high demand. “We’ve sold 45% of our capacity in Greece for next year, so a lot of the popular villas are full,” said Sunvil’s Josephides. The Maldives, synonymous with self-contained over-the-water villas, has been a top-selling destination for 12 weeks this summer for Trailfinders, and the operator has also seen increased interest in Canada for next summer. “All these are places which in a way let you carry on isolating,” said marketing manager Nikki Davies. Mauritius, Turkey, Greece and Barbados are also proving popular.
With Australia and much of Asia out of the picture for the foreseeable future, the Caribbean is looking like a relatively safe bet for winter sun. Abta’s Tipton points out that, with the exception of Jamaica, most of the Caribbean islands are deemed safe destinations. St Vincent and the Grenadines for example, has no reported cases of Covid-19. The government of Saint Lucia has just announced a further easing of restrictions for visitors, and the Dominican Republic will roll out revised measures at the end of September.
British Airways Holidays has seen strong demand for St Lucia, Barbados and Montego Bay in Jamaica, and some of Kuoni’s clients are booking the Caribbean for Christmas.
Meanwhile consumers looking to holiday at home but without the hassle of hunting down accommodation, have a raft of new UK and Ireland tours to choose from. Kuoni reports a steady flow of bookings for its self-drive UK and Ireland holidays launched in May. A pair of honeymooners due to holiday in the Indian Ocean re-booked a self-drive in Scotland.
Along with 32 new private tours, Explore has launched nine short cycling and walking breaks on the Pembrokeshire coast, Hadrian’s Wall and the South Downs, among others UK destinations. They’re selling well according to Ponte. “They’ve all got that Explore twist – things you can’t do yourself,” he said.
For those who decided not to go abroad this summer or autumn and are desperate to get away, skiing is an opportunity to do so. Self-catered accommodation and self-drive travel are already proving popular. Peak Retreats and Ski Collection marketing executive Hannah Jones said that the French mountains have had their best year ever as a result of the French holidaying at home. “We’re encouraging skiers to plan ahead as some resorts and properties are already getting busy on key dates.” The operator’s ski packages include Eurotunnel and flexible booking conditions have been introduced for the 2020/21 season.
Ski France is among those who have tweaked booking policies for this year to include free cancellation until 14 days before departure for most of its accommodation across the Alps. “We are aware that it might be a very last-minute market but some people are keen to book now so they can secure specific accommodation, on specific dates, and have a ski holiday to look forward to,” said commercial director Joanna Laforge.
The pandemic has brought the travel industry to its knees. Most agree that things will get worse before they get better, with thousands more job losses imminent.
“We are at a tipping point,” said Abta’s Tipton, citing the organisation’s Save Future Travel Campaign. “There are 90,000 UK jobs lost or at risk across the tourism sector. “If companies begin to fail the market will become less competitive and that will impact prices. None of us want to see a return to the 1980s when travel was reserved for the privileged few.”
Josephides said he has spent months lobbying the government, CAA and FCO. “I’ve realised that the government doesn’t actually care,” he said. “They’ve sent a very clear message that they don’t want us to travel.”
That may be so, but the British love affair with holidays is proving harder to quash.