Holiday bookings are down as Omicron hits, but travel industry hoping for brighter days ahead

As we approach a third year of the pandemic, the long-term horizon is starting to look a little brighter for blighted international travel. But it must get through a bumpy early 2022 first.

Ordinarily, January is a peak booking period for summer holidays. However, with Omicron now presenting another serious hurdle on the road to recovery, activity is still not what it would be in a normal year.

Comparison sites TravelSupermarket and are reporting a “mixed picture”, with around one-third of their current searches for this summer, and not quite as many translating to bookings.

This time last year we were entering a third national lockdown, and holidays were illegal. With much of the population having had three vaccine shots since then, the outlook is more positive. However, confidence is fragile.

Yet the desire to travel remains undiminished. This was evident when restrictions were relaxed for October half-term and passenger numbers picked up. If we assume that Omicron peaks this month then subsides by spring, we could see less onerous restrictions. A review is due on Wednesday but it is understood testing will remain in place until at least the end of the month.

So, if restrictions lift, will it be a return to summers of old? Perhaps not quite. The travel sector has been one of the hardest hit.

Continued restrictions and extensive spells of furlough have meant many in the industry have not returned to their jobs. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates a 205,000 tourism job shortfall in the UK. Once demand returns, there might not be the capacity to meet it.

More on Iweekend

Refunds have also been a contentious issue for the industry. After the failure of Thomas Cook, swiftly followed by Covid, the Civil Aviation Authority proposed major changes to the Atol financial protection scheme to improve its resilience. Essentially, customers’ money would be ringfenced until a holiday was completed, rather than used as working capital, making refunds easier to manage.

Good news for consumers, but Abta, the travel trade association, has warned that rushing through changes “could seriously damage the recovery prospects of the industry.”

The delayed Etias scheme is also likely to come into force late this year, when travelling to the EU will require a €7 visa waiver application.

Will it all be worth it? Movement is part of our psyche, and once the pandemic is behind us, we’ll be raring to go again.