Each issue we speak to an ABTA employee about their work. This time: Angie Hills, head of destinations
Having worked in the travel industry for many years, I have been involved in managing and providing support to customers and ABTA members on a large number of significant crises and operational incidents. Such situations can have a devastating impact on individuals, travel organisers and destinations. Over the years, natural disasters, such as the Boxing Day tsunami and the Icelandic ash cloud, and previous epidemics and pandemics, such as SARS, Ebola, Zika virus and MERS, have all caused significant disruption and challenges for ABTA members, customers and the local people in the countries affected. However, the current Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen global travel restrictions temporarily shut down the travel industry and its associated suppliers worldwide, is unique for all concerned.
The ABTA destinations team has been monitoring Covid-19 since January 7, when we issued our first operational bulletin regarding Wuhan in China, where the virus originated. We have since issued more than 100 Covid-19 updates to provide members with the latest information and advice from a variety of sources, including the UK government, destination governments and the World Health Organization, and share ABTA’s Covid-19 guidance and legal advice.
Initially, the management of cases of Covid-19 was uncharted territory and members needed guidance on what to do if there were suspected or confirmed cases in a property where they had customers residing. We consulted Public Health England and the National Travel Health Network and Centre on the measures that should be introduced and prepared a guidance note to assist them.
These measures, along with the advice of local public health authorities, played a part in the critical response taken by the industry to manage the unfolding situation. Collaboration in these circumstances is key and we asked members to keep us informed if they were advised of cases within hotels. This information was then shared with other members who used these properties.
One particular hotel in the Canary Islands received widespread media attention after a small group of Italian holidaymakers tested positive for Covid-19, causing the entire hotel and hundreds of holidaymakers to be placed under quarantine restrictions. Members, the hotelier and their staff were exceptional in their support to those affected by the situation. We worked closely with our members, the British Embassy, Public Health England and the local authorities to help achieve a suitable resolution, so that customers could be repatriated in a manner that reduced the risk for those affected, as well as other customers and transport suppliers and associated staff.
Among the many challenges facing members has been the need to repatriate hundreds of thousands of customers overseas due to the UK government’s advice against all but essential travel. Members commenced a systematic repatriation effort, which was hampered by airlines cancelling flight schedules and, in some cases, grounding their entire fleets. We put out a call to members to let us know where they had customers overseas and provide passenger numbers for those who were struggling due to flight cancellations, border closures or transiting restrictions. We also encouraged British nationals overseas to register with the local embassy or consulate to be made aware of any return flight options or local restrictions. The information received was collated by country and shared with our colleagues at the FCO to assist them in any planning support measures that could be introduced and help prioritise where commercial or UK
special flights were required.
We have issued a large number of operational bulletins to members highlighting where commercial or UK special flight services are available to assist with repatriation. In addition, as details of these services become available, we are directly contacting members that provided passenger numbers to advise them of these flight options.
Peru was one country where it quickly became clear that there were many customers experiencing serious difficulties in obtaining return flights. We discussed the challenges with members who had customers affected and liaised with the FCO on their behalf to highlight the scale of the problems and the challenges faced. The UK government subsequently chartered a number of UK special flights to help bring these customers back to the UK.
The global repatriation effort continues, and our members are working tirelessly to bring their customers home under very difficult circumstances. This effort should be recognised and applauded.
It is unclear when the UK global travel restriction will be lifted, but once it is removed, it is highly likely that destinations may be at different stages of the pandemic and therefore destinations will continue to make decisions around their own restrictions and health requirements.
We will continue to liaise with industry partners including the FCO, UNWTO, ECTAA, CTO, tourist boards and destination authorities. This collaboration is invaluable and helps us obtain updates on the measures being introduced, which can be passed on to members to assist them in making business decisions regarding their destination programmes.
To support the industry and help suppliers in their post Covid-19 recovery plans, we are preparing a supplement to complement the current ABTA health and safety technical guide. This publication will provide practical guidance on the measures suppliers should consider as part of the recovery process.
The ABTA destinations team plays an important role, but we are just one part of the ABTA team which, as a whole, is working tirelessly to provide support and assistance to members and their customers. It is an extraordinary time for the travel industry and I am proud to be part of the ABTA team, working with our members to safeguard their customers – and the future of travel.