Usually, travel agents are the ones sending holidaymakers off with suitcases in tow. Covid-19 has decimated their business, however, and yesterday it was agents themselves wheeling suitcases – in a protest outside Leinster House.
Representing a cross-section of the industry, 15 agents brought a petition for support that had gained over 6,000 signatures in a week.
“Travel agents have been the worst-hit industry during the pandemic,” said Linda Jones of The Travel Boutique in Bray.
“We have had six months of zero income, but on top of that have had to refund every booking we had taken last year for 2020.”
Ireland’s “disastrous” Green List and “14-day quarantine” have added to uncertainty, she said, and September brought further bad news with a reduction of support payments under the revised Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme.
Now, some 3,500 jobs in the sector are under threat and after months of lobbying, the mood is desperate.
“We’ve met so many ministers, so many members of the opposition,” says Pat Dawson, CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA). “They’re all very sympathetic, which is great. But we need action like the pubs got action.”
The industry is calling for an increase of the wage subsidy to €350 a week, for grants rather than loans, and for a waiver to claim redundancy to be extended to the end of April.
“If additional supports are not made available, there will be widespread collapse in the industry, with many companies closing,” Mr Dawson has said.
Since the pandemic began, six Irish travel agencies have ceased trading and more are not renewing their licences with the Commission for Aviation Regulation.
“If this happened to any multinational company, there would have been uproar to think that 3,000 jobs could be allowed go,” Ms Jones says.
“But because we are all small, family-run businesses dotted around the country, it’s just kind of slipped through the net.”
Without proper supports to re-employ their staff, agents will be unable to continue helping as many as 400,000 Irish people working through refunds and rebookings, let alone process future bookings, the ITAA says.
“The problem is these are such highly skilled staff; you can’t just have somebody walk in off the street and get a job in a travel agent,” Ms Jones says.
Yesterday, Leo Varadkar was the latest member of Government to signal that it was considering a possible rapid testing regime, or “opting into” the European Commission’s proposed ‘traffic light’ travel system, ahead of its medium-term plan for living with Covid, and the October budget.
“If we are serious about living with the virus, that means allowing more travel,” the Tánaiste told RTE’s Morning Ireland.