Alpine Travel Managing Director Chris Owens was appointed to the board of the Coach Tourism Association (CTA) in July. That follows time on the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) board and as CPT President in 2014. In this article – kindly supplied by CTA – he gives is opinions on coach tourism and what the sector should do to prosper.
“Right now, our passenger numbers have never been stronger,” Chris says, referring to the recent upsurge in coach tourism demand. “To keep customer confidence post-COVID-19, we have retained an emphasis on safety, alongside comfortable and enjoyable travel.
“But even when we temporarily reduced capacity to 38 customers per coach, we were able to grow. As a result, this year, sales figures have increased by around 26%.”
Alpine Travel, which also includes Jones Holidays, runs a fleet of more than 70 vehicles. On the coach tourism front, it provides day trips through to continental holidays. Chris has led the business for 20 years. He retired from the CPT board earlier this year.
‘Destinations and LAs must see value in coach tourism’
“At the same time as increased traveller demand, a challenge we face is limitation on coach tourism at destinations and by local authorities,” Chris continues. “That was highlighted during the pandemic, where coach tour operators were inadvertently presented with restrictions. Locations do not always appreciate how integrated coach tourism is within the tourism mix.”
That lack of understanding is one of the reasons he wished to join the CTA board, Chris continues.
“The tourism aspect of coach operation is unique, and CTA provides a voice for all its stakeholders. One of CTA’s crucial functions is to work with national and regional tourism authorities and attractions, where together we can improve facilities and procedures for coach tourism. CTA came to the fore during the pandemic, and its role has never been more important.”
Chris notes that the primary argument to be made for pro-coach tourism policies is financial. “We need to explain the huge value that coach tourism brings to attractions and destinations,” he says.
“We carry a lot of people who are bringing a lot of money. They are staying in hotels and eating in restaurants; they are not staying in a self-catering cottage or bringing their own supplies and food.
“We are bringing people who spend money in the local economy, and being part of CTA is vital to explaining how important coach tourism is.” He also believes that the environmental advantages of coach tourism can be emphasised for the benefit of Britain’s rural regions and not just cities.
“We all know that coaches are part of the solution to the environmental crisis, and the fact that we can take people to exactly where they want to go is a strength for our national parks. Snowdonia is local to us and it is often strewn with cars, with excessive pollution and parking challenges.
“Taking groups of hikers by coach often makes it more convenient and less expensive for them. CTA is a voice that must, and will, get stronger in this area.”
‘Don’t be too reactive in making the sector’s case’
Chris’s long-term experience with CPT is valuable to CTA, and thus the coach tourism sector as a whole, in helping to optimise its approach to encouraging change, he continues.
“What I have learned from my role at CPT and our interaction with authorities, including government, is to not be too reactive. If there are elements we disagree with, we need to give measured feedback and support our position with reason and facts.”
At the same time, Chris believe that the coach tourism industry has its own limitations that it can overcome. “We can improve on giving feedback. Operators need to be there, in the forum. That means giving your voice and constructive criticism in order to improve the situation for the industry as a whole. If you don’t contribute, the industry cannot progress.”
For that reason, he believes that it is important for coach operators to join CTA and participate in discussions.
“I encourage them to do that because if there is one thing that the pandemic has shown us, it is that it’s very important that we all work together,” he explains.
“We are all part of a changing industry, so it is vital that we are there to influence those changes instead of letting the changes happen to us.”
For operators that think they have nothing significant to share, Chris has a response. “We all see different issues, so it is important that we all communicate our voice. You may be involved in something unique, so you could share your view. Alternatively, fellow members may also have the same issue, so they could be able to help you.”
‘Zero-emission will be a big challenge for the coach industry’
A fast-approaching issue that Chris believes might have greater impact than COVID-19 is the transition to zero-emission in the coach industry.
“It is probably going to be 2035 or 2040 before the last heavy-duty internal combustion engines are built. We have to ask ourselves: How is this going to affect us? Some operators may be thinking: ‘This won’t happen in my lifetime’. Even if they are right, is that what we want for the future of the sector?”
Chris speculates whether the solution lies in hydrogen, a proliferation of battery-electric charging points, or a different model of coach tourism altogether, such as a central hub for internal combustion engine-equipped coaches with local trips made by zero-emission vehicles. They are all possible outcomes to an as yet unanswered question.
“The infrastructure is changing, but the issue of how coach tourism will adapt needs careful thought,” he continues.
“In reality, it is still to be planned. That is another reason why being part of CTA is key: It is a forum to share your voice and to hear the rational, well thought out views of others. Ultimately, CTA is the mechanism to help shape ideas and bring them forward.”