Assistance for Australia’s Travel Agents

Last week on 1 December 2020, the Australian Government detailed its support package for Travel Agents as part of a A$128 million assistance scheme.
As part of the support package, eligible travel agents will be entitled to one-off payments of up to $100,000 in recognition of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the travel industry.
The announcement came amidst a week of mixed fortunes for the industry which saw some state borders re-open, but also the move by Qantas to outsource more than 2000 ground support jobs across Australia’s airports.
Travel agents with annual sales turnover of between A$50,000 and A$20 million will be eligible to receive assistance. Those turning over A$50,000 will receive a one-off payment of up to $1,500, while those with turnover of $20 million will receive up to A$100,000 each. 
Australia’s Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the payments have been designed to support travel agents “operating in an exceptional set of circumstances where most are having to refund last year’s income while continuing to work with no additional income”. 
In a survey conducted by the Office of Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell, it was found that some 1,300 agents had seen sales turnover fallen by more than half. In November, Carnell heeded calls from the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) to support a government package for the 4,000 odd travel agents and the 40,000 plus people in the industry.
Despite the relief package, industry insiders say many businesses will still struggle well into 2021. Tourism bosses are calling for increased government support for wholesalers and operators, saying this “hidden” part of the industry will continue to struggle long after the airlines, travel agents and hotels return to normal trade.

Outbound travel operators and wholesalers are also on their knees this year. According to Brett Jardine from the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO),  much of the focus to date had been on supporting inbound tourism. Mr Jardine contends that inbound cannot prosper without a healthy outbound sector – in 2019, Australians spent $52 billion on overseas travel, but as much as $20 billion of that money actually stayed in Australia.
“As outbound travel operators, we are completely complementary to Australia’s inbound tourism sector, because at the end of the day aeroplanes have got to have bums on seats in both directions. If there’s not people going out of Australia at the same time as people coming in, then aviation capacity is going to be reduced full stop. Yes some (money) goes out of Australia, of course, but a lot stays here, and that accounts for a lot of jobs.”
“Ultimately if there’s no one developing, distributing or marketing product, retail travel agents have got nothing to sell. So our position is you’ve got to support the supply side that will in turn naturally underpin the retail side,” according to Mr Jardine.
CATO has called for an extension of the JobKeeper program beyond March for the travel industry, as well as a grant of A$12 million from the COVID Relief and Recovery Fund. This is to help develop protocols for COVID-safe travel, an industry standard for booking terms and conditions and training in crisis management.
According to industry players, visible parts of the tourism industry such as hotels and attractions could bounce back quickly, but for wholesalers and operators it will take much longer.

Says Dennis Bunnik of Bunnick Tours: “In essence we’re the manufacturing sector of the industry, we take all of those products, put them together in unique combinations, and then we sell them through travel agents and online, and it’s only when the person actually travels that we make our money. We’re prepared for that, we’re just going to need a bit of assistance to help get through.”

Australians who have travel credits for the overseas trips that they had to forgo in 2020 are also invested in the survival of the outbound travel sector as wholesalers and operators are the key to unlocking those credits.

Meantime, consumer complaints about travel increased dramatically this year. Between January and October 2020, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) received 24,210 consumer complaints related to travel, an increase of 497% over the previous corresponding period. 
In addition to large companies such as Qantas, Flight Centre and Etihad, ACCC has also worked with dozens of travel businesses to get refunds and other remedies for customers. Many travel businesses have struggled to process cancellations and respond to customer queries due to staff cutbacks during this time.