New restrictions end coach industry’s Christmas continental season

Coach operators have been forced to cancel continental Christmas work as the new COVID-19 variant and tighter restrictions make European travel too uncertain for businesses and customers.

Cheslyn Hay-based Parrys International Tours announced this month (6 December) that it is postponing all European tours until at least April next year.

Dave Parry, owner of Parrys International, tells routeone: “With the rise in infections, particularly in mainland Europe, and the new Omicron variant, we’ve decided it would be only wise to delay our tours for the safety of our customers and staff.”

Pre-COVID, continental tours made up half of Parrys International’s work. However, the operator has not run any this year.

Adds Mr Parry: “We managed to get some European tours out last year but, despite vaccines and boosters, we haven’t run one European tour this year. But we fully intend to get back into Europe next year.”

Travel uncertainties

Other operators have cancelled continental Christmas trips before reports of the Omicron variant because of continued uncertainties surrounding overseas travel.

LJ Edwards Coach Hire in Polegate, East Sussex, had crossings booked for autumn and winter earlier in the year. However, it had to “release all the bookings due to difficulty getting across,” says Director Antony Burkill.

The operator has not run a European trip since February 2020 and has nothing planned for the foreseeable future.

Adds Mr Burkhill: “COVID-19 restrictions have probably cost us somewhere in the region of £150k of lost revenue on European day trips alone since March 2020. We are very disappointed as they go well for us, and this time of year provide good revenue.”

Similarly, Weymouth-based Bluebird Coaches cancelled its Christmas programme around a month ago. In part, this is due to entry requirements, such as passenger locator forms, and changing restrictions.

“Most of our clients are more senior,” explains Bluebird MD Martyn Hoare. “Although we’d have done the forms for them going out, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do all the forms coming back.

“Our clients are also a little bit apprehensive about going abroad because the rules keep changing. When we think we’ve got one set of rules in place, things change. So, most of our clients would prefer to stay in the UK.”

‘Labour intensive’

The uncertainty of travelling abroad is another reason LJ Edwards has cancelled its European tours.

Says Mr Burkill: “One month coach drivers are not required to test; the next month they are. Keeping up with passengers and their COVID-19 status is also quite laborious, and the onus is on the coach operator to ensure all passengers are compliant and have completed their forms.”

There is also a risk that any hitches will reflect badly on the operator, he adds.

“If we get it wrong due to the complexity of the regulations, then long delays result and unhappy passengers to boot.”

As well as the lost revenue, cancelling coach trips costs operators time, and it can be “a lot more work to cancel a tour than it is to put it together,” says Mr Parry.

“It’s so difficult, time-consuming and labour intensive because you have to get in touch with every single person to see what they want to do. And it’s so disappointing.”

Not giving up

Although it is usually “strongly connected with European travel”, Birtley-based JH Coaches has not done a European tour since February last year, with all European commitments postponed until February 2022.

Director Ian Shipley says COVID-19 and driver shortages have made matters even worse for continental trips as the firm struggles to cover UK commitments.

“It feels like demand has increased, but we’re still not getting as many coaches out as before because we don’t have the correct number of drivers to crew everything that we could operate.

“The frustration is after two years of suppressed revenues, we now can’t take advantage of it because of the lack of drivers.”

Mr Shipley also says the general COVID-19 situation let alone the new variant, has almost wiped out any European business. But he thinks: “Omicron is going to make matters worse and the recovery to normality is going to take a lot longer”.

It may be a while before European tours restart fully; no one knows for sure. However, most operators hope to be back with continental trips next year.

Says Mr Parry: “It’s bad news for most people who want to go into Europe now. But our market being 50% European is very important to us, and we’re not going to give up on it.”