Escorted tour specialist Explore is preparing to launch a debut programme of Saudi Arabia tours, with the first departures expected by November this year.
The adventure operator will also expand its range of UK trips following “excellent” feedback for the programme, which has almost sold out.
Michael Edwards, who became managing director in April, said the Hotelplan-owned brand is gearing up for growth and the development of new products as it emerges from the pandemic.
“We are bored with feeling despondent, we are driving new product,” he said.
“New Saudi Arabia trips to be launched soon, in the next few weeks…and people will be travelling from November.”
Saudi Arabia opened its borders to international tourism in September 2019 and earlier this year the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) opened a commercial office for the UK and Ireland as part of its strategy to engage the tourism trade.
Commenting on the destination’s controversial record on human rights, Edwards said: “The best way to understand a culture is to travel there; we do not want to boycott destinations.
“People can make up their own minds; once countries start opening up with tourism it engenders change, it brings people together.”
Also in the pipeline are new rail trips from the UK to Europe and then into Asia via Istanbul, plus more domestic UK tours.
He said the domestic programme, launched last year as a result of the pandemic, had been “phenomenal” but admits it doesn’t compensate for hundreds of overseas destinations that are still off limits for Brits.
The company is able to send holidaymakers to some short-haul countries, such as Greece, Portugal, Albania, but he expects long-haul travel will take much longer to return.
Explore held a three-day flash sale two weeks ago, to gauge demand and stimulate bookings. About 40% of bookings came from new customers, thanks to marketing online and with agents.
“We were back at pre-pandemic levels for that period,” said Edwards.
“It shows demand will be consistent into next year. 2022 is looking good, especially the second half onwards.
“There is a lot of pent-up demand and people are looking for bucket-list concepts.”
He said being part of Hotelplan Group means Explore has been “well supported” during the tough times of the pandemic.
It has been bringing back staff from furlough and is preparing to recruit again.
Its two business development managers, Nick Hindle and Philippa Baines, are back to support the trade with webinars and training.
“We will put in more resources for the trade, as customers want security and knowledge and experienced people to talk to,” commented Edwards.
“Now and next year, there will be no one better than a travel agent to guide you through the ever-changing, fluid, complex, challenging travel situations. We see that trade level of expertise is invaluable.
“We would love to do more trade bookings and will actively pursue that.”
The operator will also take part in face-to-face trade events such as the Association of Touring and Adventure Suppliers (Atas) conference in Birmingham (October 19-20).
He slated the government’s “absolutely atrocious” handling of the travel sector throughout the pandemic, but anticipates a “big summer” in 2022.
“All being well, 2022 will be seeing travel back at huge levels and we are getting set up for that,” he said.