Travel agents are calling for a bailout from Government, as they fear they may have to close their doors, as a result of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global travel industry.
Speaking with Guardian Media on Monday, several travel agents admitted to having serious cash flow issues.
Zorina Aziz, one of the directors of Irena Travel and Tours, believes Government should bail out travel agents just as it did for hotels in Tobago and for Caribbean Airlines, noting that they can pay their staff full salaries, because of the state funding boost.
Aziz, who has been in the travel business for the last 38 years, said hotels, cruise lines and airlines depend heavily on travel agents at the ground level for business.
She opened on Monday to sell tickets for the inter-island ferry, and told us the monies realized on the sale of ferry tickets are at the break-even level, since most of the revenue earned is consumed in printing supplies and paying a ferry clerk.
“Ferry tickets issued to travel agents by the Port Authority of T&T are limited in number and finish in less than a week,” she explains. “Fortunately, I have a regular clientele using my Couva operations, who otherwise would have to go to Chaguanas or San Fernando for ferry tickets.”
The travel industry veteran revealed that the last three months have been horrible for her staff who have had no income, nor were they able to receive any salary assistant grants from Government. She said her landlords are demanding the rent, while the bank is offering no assistance.
“Unless government makes some move to assist T&T’s 52 travel agents, the industry would collapse,” she warns. “The International Air Travel Association—IATA—has already predicted that air travel would take three years to recover. Corporate travel would be limited as companies would now hold online meetings.”
Another travel industry player, Rajiv Dipnarinesingh, owner of Dipnarinesingh’s Tours and Travel of Chaguanas, said he does not want to see the borders open until the COVID-19 crisis has ended.
“I believe in the interim, the Government should do something to help keep travel agents from sinking into a deeper economic pot-hole,” Dipnarinesingh said. “Unfortunately, I had to send home all of my staff. They are struggling to make ends meet.”
Meanwhile, David Sellier, who operates Sellier’s Travel Service, from Port of Spain, told Guardian Media that travel agents feel left behind by Government.
“We do make up a percentage of the business community, yet we get the feeling that we are somehow being overlooked,” he points out. “We rely on the public to travel, take vacations/business travel etc. If the public is not doing so, then travel agents cannot make an income. Hotels were given a grant as they rely on persons to travel, take vacations, go on business etc, just like travel agents.”
He adds: “Some travel agency owners right now have rent, utility bills to pay on two fronts—for their office location and residence. Many have kept all their staff and still pay salaries. Some have asked their staff to take a reduced salary. All agency owners still have to pay taxes NIS, health surcharge, and so on. It is really a tragedy what the agency owners, and by extension their staff, are going through, as many are seeing the need to close their doors permanently.”
Sellier reports that he had written a letter to Minister of Tourism, Randal Mitchell, asking for assistance for all travel agents.
“The response was not favourable,” Sellier said. “We, the travel agents, understand that the government is being faced with an unprecedented situation and everyone is requesting a grant, but the reply from the ministry was the measures created by the government to provide support for small and medium enterprises. But many owners of travel agencies don’t see this option as very supportive, as it offered assistance in the form of a loan. And many agency owners were asking what would happen if they cannot repay the loan? So, this in itself, to many agency owners, was not a support method,” he adds.