News that fully vaccinated people from the EU or the United States may travel to the UK quarantine-free has been cautiously welcomed by the coach industry, but there remains a difficult road ahead before incoming tourism from those countries returns to its pre-pandemic scale, three operators have said.
They each believe that while some groups will arrive in the remainder of 2021, it will be next year before they are seen in any number. Even then, one business that derives much of its work from overseas visitors has aired concern about the rate of return of tourists from Asia. Vaccination rollout there is generally behind that in the EU and the US, and the incoming market cannot recover until global travel reopens fully, says City Circle Managing Director Neil Pegg.
Incoming coach tourism impacted by poor hotel availability
Scant hotel room availability owing to a staycation boom means that, while some enquiries have been received by Buckie-based Maynes Coaches from organisers looking to arrange trips for US visitors, they in many cases represent a “finger in the air” exercise, says Operations Director Kevin Mayne.
Much of that contact concerns previously cancelled previous bookings, he adds. “While we are receiving enquiries, a lot are tentative. Organisers are asking about coach availability, but they have a jigsaw to put together with hotels and venues before they can commit. It is early yet, but it is still pleasing to see customers dipping their toes in the water to see if they can rebuild packages.”
City Circle is in a similar position. It has seen two customers begin to reinstate plans for September onwards.
Mr Pegg concludes that the 2021 incoming season is as good as lost, but some last-minute enquiries have been received. He believes that will continue.
“Incoming tourism from the US would typically wind down by late October, so we will be lucky if we see six weeks of arrivals from there this year.
“Many Americans will also have made other plans already. But this is still the first light on the horizon for incoming travel.” That aside, Mr Pegg expects visitors from the EU to return sooner, and for those arrivals to continue into the winter.
Potential to extend what can be salvaged of 2021 season?
Mr Mayne underlines hopes that the removal of quarantine for some visitors will allow the coach industry to push the traditional end of season back. He believes that there may be room to attract visitors from the EU – and the US – to take winter trips.
“We need to sell our socks off over coming months. We also need to be promoting the vaccination take-up rate to ensure that visitors know that coming here is safe. Coaches and hotels are probably the safest they have ever been.”
Mark Anderson, MD of London operator Anderson Travel, believes that the recent announcement will deliver “something of an impact” in Q4. “We are seeing enquiries for November and December, and then a little more for 2022, but it is a slow process,” he says.
Anderson Travel has returned to a business level of around 60% of pre-pandemic, but that has been achieved thanks to diversification. As an example, home-to-school is now much more prominent in its basket of work.
Mr Anderson agrees that coach bookings are one trip component.
The ‘big ticket’ for many visitors is air travel. Some airlines have demonstrated an unwillingness to refund when required to. That is affecting the readiness of potential incoming coach customers to commit.
Incoming tourism looking strong for 2022, says coach industry
While prospects for incoming tourism over the remainder of 2021 look modest, all three operators agree that next year – notwithstanding any further restrictions – is shaping up strongly.
“A lot of people are confident about 2022 – but we said that about 2021,” notes Mr Mayne. “We have dates for next year that are already looking very busy. Bookings from US groups are coming in, but a lot of those were originally for 2020, were moved to 2021 and have now been pushed back a further year.”
Anderson Travel expects a much better 2022, but Mr Anderson believes that customers will remain cautious until consistent government messaging on travel is forthcoming. Currently, a worry of restrictions changing at short notice still exists among overseas clients.
Mr Pegg is also confident about 2022. If things proceed according to plan, there is the potential for “three years’ worth of visitors to arrive together,” he says. But he remains concerned about arrivals from Asian markets, and the Far East in particular. “Business is returning, but there is still a long way to go.”