Not the end of the road for travel agencies, says Asata CEO

Aside from the continued ban on international travel, the only other remaining thorn in the side of the sector is people not behaving, by not sticking to regulations. But domestic travel could save the sector. Photo for illustration: iStock

Although not sustainable in the long term, domestic travel could be the saving grace for travel agents in the interim while the sector waits for international borders to open.

The world of travel agents is a finicky one, wrought with overwhelming admin, and the ability to get hold of overseas companies supplying the activities sought by their clients. 

The pre-Covid-19 world was not restricted, and overseas travel was the main selling point. 

Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata) CEO Otto de Vries said that with international borders still closed, travel agencies have become empty shop windows with nothing to sell – unless they take this opportunity to push for domestic travel.

“Travel agents are looking to local travel as a new opportunity, and are redefining their model to drive domestic leisure sales. I don’t think we’re at the end of the road,” De Vries enthused. 

The latest victim of the global pandemic is STA Travel, an international travel agency-branded towards student travel and affordable packages. 

It is owned by Swiss holding company Diethelm Keller Holding (DKH), who filed for insolvency earlier this month. 

Customers may find themselves at the end of the pecking order while waiting to be reimbursed when dealing with a travel agency that is no longer in operation, De Vries explained, saying that there were financial responsibilities in paying staff and suppliers, and paying off bank loans, before customers are given their money back. 

This is not to say that this was the case with STA Travel, De Vries added, as it was not associated with Asata. 

De Vries said the successfulness of customers that booked holidays with STA Travel getting their money back depends on the nature of the relationship between STA Travel and DKH, and if there was a chance that South African branches can operate independently. 

STA Travel has not disclosed this information, but did assure customers that they would be contacted in due course. 

A screenshot of the notice on STA Travel’s website (https://www.statravel.co.za/)

If these same consumers had booked a holiday and attempted to cancel it on their own, however, the money owed to them would be significantly harder to claw back, De Vries explained. 

Money paid to an agent is sent on to suppliers overseas delivering a service. But if suppliers refuse to refund a travel agent, their hands are tied. This in addition to the fact that suppliers are far away, and different regulations apply in each country, means no consistency with regards to refunds. 

From airlines to hotels, if suppliers are not willing to reimburse anyone, it is unlikely that consumers will get their money back. 

Travel agents can at least attempt to find solutions by contacting suppliers, but ordinary travellers do not always have this luxury. 

Or, as De Vries puts it, “someone on your side to navigate you through the mess and chaos”.

Domestic travel campaigns will likely start in earnest soon, as South Africa waits patiently for the slow recovery of business, and business travel. Although businesses are struggling and will likely send less people on trips for now, the economy will open up more and domestic travel will once again be picked up by travel agencies, said De Vries.

But despite this, De Vries said he was very impressed with the tourism sector, and proud that more businesses had not closed their doors. 

Although not sustainable in the long term, domestic travel could be the saving grace for travel agents in the interim. 

Aside from the continued ban on international travel, the only other remaining thorn in the side of the sector was people not behaving, by not sticking to regulations. 

De Vries strongly advised people to stop thinking of a post-Covid-19 world, but instead, “how we live with Covid”.

“The quicker we can accept and action around that, the better our new normal will be.

“This is your perfect chance to reinvent your value proposition to customers,” he advised, saying that before interprovincial travel was officially reopened, the sector expected this decision to only be made in August. 

These “little wins”, and our behaviour during lockdown Level 2, may determine the future of travel agents in South Africa. 

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