Agents have urged the government to provide more “positive messaging” and a restart date for international travel as they report plummeting consumer confidence.

Some agents said they had yet to take a booking in January or remained substantially down on normal sales levels in what would usually be the busiest month of the year.

Miles Morgan, owner of Miles Morgan Travel, said his business was preparing for a “summer of no departures” but a “reopening” date would end current uncertainty.

“Last week, consumer confidence was sucked out by the news [of ministers saying it was ‘too early’ to book a summer holiday],” he said.

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“We need more positive messages from government to protect the industry and they need to make decisions as soon as they can.

“If we know we are ‘closed’ until ‘X’ date, people can book with confidence [for after that].”

Niall Douglas, owner of Full Circle Travel, agreed: “If we knew there was no international travel until the end of July, we’d have clarity.”

He said his agency was not taking bookings for departures pre-June because of the costs of refunding credit card sales and stress caused by changing bookings or getting clients home if travel advice changes.

He added: “January is usually our biggest month; we take £300,000 to £400,000 in turnover. We’ve not sold a single holiday so far this month. Confidence has dropped massively. The luxury, tailor-made and long-haul market is just not booking.”

Richard Slater, owner of Henbury Travel, said ministers’ comments undermined the government’s messages about mental health, as holidays offer something to look forward to.

He said: “The suggestion that it is ‘too early to book’ doesn’t mean you can’t book for 2022. 50% of the holiday is the anticipation. We need more positive messages.”

“Hand-holding” new clients

Henbury Travel has seen a rise in new clients who previously booked online but now wanted the “hand-holding” of a professional. Slater said: “Around 60% of our new bookings are new clients, and they are willing to pay more to book with us.”

Spear Travels said some clients were booking high-value holidays but called the numbers ‘minuscule’ compared with a normal peaks, with sales 85% down on last January.

Steve Witt, co-founder of Not Just Travel, was more positive. He said the homeworking group has seen “strong sales” into autumn 2021, 2022 and 2023 with a focus on “big, dream trips”.

Predicting “another surge in bookings as the vaccination process immunises more people and lockdown three restrictions ease,” he said: “People want to travel, they are desperate to have something to look forward to with their families.

“The consumers that we have seen book with our travel consultants have all wanted something to help with their mental wellbeing. Knowing that they have something to have in their mind that takes them away from their home.”

Noting that agents can ensure customers are booked with suppliers which will look after their money, he said: “Customers shouldn’t be afraid to take the plunge and book something special.”

Meanwhile, Johanna Bonhill-Smith, travel and tourism analyst at data firm GlobalData, warned that a rapid surge in outbound travel for summer 2021 is “highly unlikely” with no end-date in sight for the new travel restrictions on both outbound and inbound travel.

She said: “Fear of quarantine requirements is the main factor deterring people from traveling, followed closely by travel restrictions. There is a strong need to quarantine when returning to the UK from these destinations, which currently is an obstacle for the UK.

Demand uptick

“GlobalData’s UK Covid-19 surveys found that in December, UK respondents were the most confident in travelling internationally since June 2020.

“Operators such as Tui, Jet2, and easyJet declared an uptick in holiday bookings for spring and summer 2021, yet, with major restrictions on outbound travel and the launch of mandatory quarantine, major headwinds are approaching.

“Outbound travel will be further decimated as tourists have to make a declaration proving their journey is essential – the desire for a sun and beach getaway after a near year in lockdown will hardly be essential.

“It has now become clear that the first half of 2021 will not mark the beginning of travel’s recovery and the short-term outlook seems bleak.”

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Urgency for sector-specific support has ‘increased’, says Abta boss

Travel Counsellors says government ‘must act’ to boost consumer confidence