Travel leaders foresee the most-serious challenge in the sector’s history as the coronavirus epidemic worsens.

The Italian government ordered a country-wide lockdown on Monday, putting it off limits to visitors. Carriers continued to slash services, with Lufthansa cutting up to half its capacity, Norwegian Air cancelling 3,000 flights to mid-June and many airlines sending staff on unpaid leave. A leading UK aviation figure told Travel Weekly: “This is the worst crisis we’ve seen.”

Tom Jenkins, chief executive of European tourism association Etoa, reported a “tourism meltdown throughout Europe”, while a senior leisure industry figure said: “Holiday bookings have fallen through the floor.”

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Alan Bowen, advisor to the Association of Atol Companies, said: “People are running around in circles trying to keep up. The peak [of the epidemic] is possibly two months away. We’re going to see a lot more people affected. There is no cashflow because people aren’t booking. Businesses are asking ‘can we continue with the number of staff we have?’”

Midcounties’ coronavirus response

In the face of the crisis, Alistair Rowland, chief retail officer for specialist business at The Midcounties Co‑operative, said: “I support a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ message but it has to be proportionate [to what is happening].

We’re giving agents and consumers the best picture [we can].
“Experienced agents are used to helping customers and dealing with crises. Tour operators are being as flexible as possible with balance payments.”

At Midcounties, he said: “We’re doing sensible things – stopping non‑essential travel, cancelling internal conferences for March. There is a lot of coronavirus planning.”

Rowland advised caution about messages to consumers, saying: “We could have taken a view last week on Italy and it would be different this week. My daughter’s school trip to Italy on April 1 was fine until yesterday [Monday].”

He added: “Nothing would stem the negative press, but that is likely to subside when ‘management’ [of the virus] rather than ‘containment’ takes the lead. Right now, it’s not a matter of what [message] you put in front of consumers – it would make no difference.”

Rowland is chairman of Abta and speaking on behalf of the association he said: “Whether we like it or not, there is a perceived and actual risk in travel – and Abta members would not want us to be seen to put commercial interests ahead of customer safety.”

Abta called for “extraordinary support measures” in this week’s Budget and advised consumers: “Follow Foreign Office and NHS advice regarding destinations, protect your financial position by booking a package holiday, [and] check your travel insurance for elements of your holiday that are not part of a package.”