March 7, 2022
Words by Colin Young
From the darkest days it has ever known, to the brink of what could prove to be one of its most successful years.
Fewer sectors have been hit by the pandemic as hard as travel and tourism.
VisitBritain estimates nearly £180 billion has been lost in UK tourism spend since the health crisis began.
Losses to the global industry in the first year of the coronavirus crisis, as travel restrictions, closed borders, cancelled flights and quarantine rules took hold, were an estimated £3.5 trillion. The same World Travel & Tourism Council report also claimed more than 62 million people lost their jobs in the sector across the globe in that first 12 months.
And, of course, it has had a monstrous impact on the airline sector – wiping out nine years of profit, the International Air Transport Association reported at the end of last year – after surpassing more than £175 billion in losses.
But after writing to the Government at the turn of the year, the industry received approval to reopen the departure gates and fire up the jet engines, just in time for last month’s half- term holiday period.
There can surely be fewer clearer signs the travel industry is getting back off its knees than hearing Dame Irene Hays on the airwaves again.
And to the delight of the head of Sunderland-based Hays Travel, clients are ditching their laptops and phones to book their 2022 holidays in person, with more than half of them new customers, compared to 19 per cent three years ago.
“They want to speak to a human being, they want to get to know them, they want to make sure that they’re getting the best advice before they book,” said the owner of one of the country’s most well-known travel services.
“But they also need to know that somebody will be there for them while they’re on their holiday and when they return.”
Ultimately, people are ready to travel and spend some money again.
The signal for Dame Irene to take the call from Radio 4’s Today programme at the start of last month was the Government’s announcement, after lobbying from airline bosses, to lift travel restrictions and testing rules from this country in time for the recent half-term holidays.
Destinations across the globe have relaxed the rules too.
As a result, travel agents saw interest and bookings reach pre-pandemic levels, with Hays Travel reporting a ‘huge spike’ in the week it was announced rules for testing would be scrapped for the fully vaccinated from mid-February, and rules for arrivals not fully vaccinated were also being eased.
Brits are sticking to the old favourites in Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece, but there has been significant demand for long-haul winter sun destinations, such as Sri Lanka and the Caribbean, and a 34 per cent increase in cruise bookings – resulting in an average price booking of just under £500.
Airline Jet2, which operates out of Newcastle International Airport, reported a 30 per cent surge in bookings for Spain, Italy and Portugal after the testing and self-isolation policy for people arriving in England was dropped.
The North East is well served for flights, with planes filling the schedules again at Newcastle and growing numbers returning to the skies over the reinvigorated Teesside International Airport.
On water, cruise ships continue to sail to virtually every holiday destination in the world from the mouth of the River Tyne.
“The travel industry has responded very well to COVID-19 and put in place safety measures to ensure people feel safe when they go abroad,” says Dame Irene.
“Providing people are able to look after their health and comply with the arrangements in resorts and returning to the UK, then the sky’s the limit.
“The latent demand is enormous, so as long as there are no more constraints, it could be a fantastic year for travel.
“People just want to spend more on themselves, they want to go all-inclusive and they want to stay a little bit longer.
“In the last week of January, we were back to the same levels of bookings as we were in January 2020.”
The reopening of the borders, and closure of testing facilities, has also had a positive impact on another established North East business with a certain reliance on a vibrant travel market.
Modrec International, based in North Shields, is one of the oldest specialist luggage companies in Europe, having supplied a comprehensive range of travel bags, holdalls, fashion bags, backpacks, business cases, purses, wallets and leather accessories for more than half a century.
Director John Lightfoot says the company has had to deal with the pandemic on top of Brexit, which led to uncertainties on export rules and increased documentation requirements, as well as causing unprecedented worldwide supply chain issues and a slowdown in sales.
It has also had to contend with a seismic shift in shopping habits, reveals John, which has led to Modrec to see a huge increase in online sales and has prompted the launch of a B2C website containing a new range of goods made from European leather.
Furthermore, the company has taken a fresh look at manufacturing, which means packaging for a new range of leather accessories is being made in the North East and completely carbon free.
He says: “Department stores have always been the perfect fit for our products – both in multi-site department store chains and independent stores.
“We have supplied to virtually every department store in the country, but with more than 80 per cent of these stores disappearing from the high street in five years, a major rethink has been needed.
“While the decline of these stores was well underway pre-pandemic, the change in habits during the pandemic has changed the landscape for good.
“This has meant we must now look at ways to directly attract customers, rather than using the ‘pull’ of the bricks and mortar stores to get products seen.
“Combining all of these factors, this unprecedented shift in the business environment has meant that all companies have had to reassess their strategies and activity.
“Price has, for many years, been the key factor driving consumer purchases, a trend brought about by the exponential growth of the Chinese manufacturing sector and much of retail moving to low- quality products at a lower price.”
Another key focus of the business, says John, is sustainability, with the company taking measures to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint.
He says: “Here at Modrec International, it has always been important that issues such as sustainability and ethical sourcing are not seen as hurdles when faced with the consumer expectation for cheaper goods, and we are now seeing customers demanding sustainability and product quality, rather than simply the lowest price.
“The vast majority of our products were sourced in China or India pre- pandemic, but we were already looking at ways of reducing the impact of such long- distance sourcing.
“During the course of the pandemic we found suppliers based in Europe, so that by the end of 2022 over half of products sold by Modrec will not have been sourced in China.
“This reduction in sea miles is accompanied with a focus on using factories which are compliant to the highest ethical standards of manufacture, as well as the use of more sustainable materials in our products and packaging.”
And John reveals the business will soon be announcing a new license partnership with one of the world’s biggest sustainable fashion brands and a new travel bag, which is predominantly made from recycled material.
He adds: “We are now directing the shift towards having a large percentage of Modrec products and packaging produced in Europe, working towards reducing product miles and increasing product sustainability.
“Now that holiday bookings are returning to pre-pandemic levels, following the recent drop of testing for the fully vaccinated in the UK, we can’t wait to share our innovative plans that we have been working on throughout this time.
“We are ready to unpack the past two years’ worth of planning this year.”