The last-minute decision on July 29th to extend Italy’s quarantine for UK visitors for another month until the end of August has finally put the last nail in the coffin for UK Italian specialist operators who have been under immense and untenable pressure since March 2019.
It will come as no surprise to hear that loss of business over the last 16 months has reached epic heights – as much as 95% down on pre-pandemic business. You might wonder how a company can still be operating under such extreme losses. It has taken mighty resilience, creativity, financial juggling, short-term government loans and extreme cost cutting measures for them to emerge ready for the (already shortened) 2021 summer season.
As the UK put all its efforts into vaccinating its adult population, our travel industry has been scrutinizing Italy’s efforts since the beginning of the year, looking at the country’s vaccination schedule as well as infection rates and deaths.
Nerve-racking patience has been the name of the game as our travel industry ‘willed’ Italy to get the pandemic under control and speed up their vaccination programme in order to open up for this year’s season. Speaking to many of our ABTOI member operators who have been living on a knife edge, the constant question of when might the EU have access to a vaccine and how they might reach acceptable vaccination levels by the summer to open the doors for countries like the UK that really did have a world-class vaccination programme.
It was near impossible for any travel company to make plans for a season that may or may not happen, to sign supplier contracts, to invest, to create modest marketing campaigns, to charter flights, etc The questions remained ‘should they invest in a season that may not materialise and how will they survive if this is the second year of virtually zero business?’
The serious ramifications for our UK operators reach far and wide, and similarly the relationship between consumer and established operators has been stretched to levels that will not return for very many years.
Not to mention the public’s perception of why Italy has singled out the UK to quarantine when infections rage across the world, including in the US, while American visitors are at liberty to move around Italy restriction-free. In the UK, infection rates have been dropping for some time and almost 70% of adults have now been double jabbed.
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Now begins the arduous task for our operators to deal with the fallout, to seek refunds from Italian suppliers (most of whom will not refund at such a late stage), to unpick complicated itineraries and contact all the services and accommodation involved, to take calls from angry, frustrated and disappointed clients, to deal with legal cases that will undoubtedly start mounting up as refunds can’t be made. All of this, without any incoming revenue since last March.
The reputation of Italy is fast sinking here in the UK. We have had a year-round market to Italy since time began, established, supported and developed by UK travel companies. It is an enviable and mature market, one which does not switch loyalties according to the latest trendy destination.
You would think this counted for something and would be something the Italian government values and supports. Instead, we feel we have been penalised unnecessarily, if you consult the scientific data.
Tourism is an important factor for Italy’s economy, creating jobs in multiple sectors from car rentals to souvenir shops to restaurants and accommodation. In 2019, it represented 14% of the country’s GDP. In the same year, 6.4 million visitors from the UK travelled to Italy and generated revenue of almost 4 billion.
Italy’s best tourist spots might be busy right now with the domestic market, visitors from other European countries and the US, but come the shoulder, off-peak months and next year, there will be no British visitors to support their tourism infrastructure, to fill their hotels and restaurants, to buy the local services and fill the cities with the mature British traveller, hungry for art and culture, and food and wine experiences.
The Italian government needs to rethink the quarantine restrictions assigned to just the UK market and start considering the far-reaching repercussions for not just their own economy and their reputation here in the UK but how they have treated their overseas trade partners who have contributed and invested heavily into their infrastructure for very many years.