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Published on Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020: The year that went terribly, horribly wrong







Has a year ever started so well and ended so badly? We take one last, long painful look back at a year that we'd all rather sling in Room 101.



January: otherwise known as 2020 BC (Before Coronavirus)

Not strictly true, of course, as there had been reports of a respiratory disease in a Chinese region few of us had heard of.


But, as we had no idea of what was going to hit us, the UK travel industry started off as it did every year, with turn-of-year campaigns and 'year ahead' forecasts about who would be travelling where, how long for and what they'd be doing, as revealed in a TravelMole article on our first newswire of the year. It began: "None of us knows for sure what might happen next in this exciting, unpredictable and constantly changing industry."


You can say that again.

Week three brought a warning to avoid Wuhan as Chinese authorities appeared to be disinfecting cities, while European tourism association, ETOA, insisted the virus outbreak was a 'very remote threat' in Europe.


"Whilst there is much that is unknown about this new virus, we do know that the factors that led to the rapid spread of SARS are not being repeated," said Tom Jenkins, CEO of ETOA. The WTTC urged for 'unnecessary panic' to be contained.

The month rounded off with the Foreign Office (then known as the FCO, now renamed FCDO) advising against all but essential travel to mainland China and British Airways suspended mainland China flights.

Aside from the 'C' word, rumours abounded that Fosun Tourism Group had recruited several former Thomas Cook executives ahead of a relaunch of the brand as an online travel company.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps warned UK-EU flights could be grounded from 1 January if the two sides failed to reach a post-Brexit deal. Eleven months later, he was still sounding the same warning until a hastily scrambled last-minute agreement was reached...more of that later.

February - and we're starting to feel a bit nervous

"If you are in China and able to leave you should do so," shouted our headline on our first newswire of February, as the UK govt warned flights from China might be suspended altogether in the coming weeks as the deadly coronavirus spreads.



Caribbean islands Saint Lucia and Dominica denied entry to cruise ship AidaPerla, which reported sick passengers among its 3,000 guests. Norwegian Cruise Line cancelled its entire Asia season and Royal Caribbean and NCL banned all Chinese passport holders.


But the big story of the month involved Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess, placed in quarantine in port at Yokohama, Japan, after an outbreak among its 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew.


Over 705 passengers and crew onboard the ship caught coronavirus, including David Abel and wife Sally, who were among 70 Brits on board. Six passengers died.


David - who became a social media sensation after posting daily updates from his cabin - and Sally have since gone on to book five more cruises, which goes to show that once you're hooked, you're hooked.

PM Boris Johnson continued enthusiastically shaking hands with anyone who came close and The Business Travel Show went ahead in London, but delegates didn't follow Boris' advice and greeted each other with elbow bumps instead. Ten months later, elbowitis is a thing.


February ended with an outbreak of coronavirus at the H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife, with 100 Jet2 and 200 TUI Group customers quarantined, leading to photos in the papers of them lying on sunloungers, wearing facemasks. Ten months later, you only get your photo in the paper for NOT wearing a facemask.

Beware the Ides of March

This was the month that things really took a turn for the worse when, on 17 March, the FCO suddenly advised against all non-essential travel as coronavirus cases began to rise around the world. Cue a mad scramble to get millions of Britons back home before borders closed and airlines cancelled flights. In the end, the FCO had to repatriate tens of thousands of Brits stranded overseas.


Travel agents went from selling holidays to processing refunds - but they couldn't process them fast enough and when ABTA asked for the government to provide financial backing for credit notes issued instead ministers refused to say yes or no, leaving us all confused about whether the refund credit notes (RCNs) were protected or not.



Not surprisingly, with travel grinding to a complete standstill, airlines and operators started to warn of their own demise and there was talk of mass redundancies - until a Chancellor who most people couldn't previously have named came to the rescue and announced a multi-billion pound furlough scheme followed by a grant for the self-employed.


Suddenly it was Rishi, Rishi, Rishi until many self-employed, including homeworkers, realised they wouldn't be getting a penny. Still, the furlough scheme did at least delay widespread redundancies. Kuoni even temporarily reinstated 70 staff who had been laid off just before Rishi Sunak's announcement.

As if things couldn't get any worse, the CAA warned that Thomas Cook's collapse in the autumn of 2019 had drained the Air Travel Trust Fund of cash.


By 23 March Boris was no longer shaking hands while grinning into cameras; instead he told us we were in a national emergency and the country went into lockdown. Working from home became the new norm and we all got to peek inside our bosses' homes on Zoom.

April, when only fools booked holidays (according to Mr Shapps, sort of)

Hardly anyone was travelling anywhere by April, instead operators had switched to pushing 2021 holidays while simultaneously still wading through millions of 2020 refunds. There was still no confirmation from the government that it would extend ATOL protection to Refund Credit Notes. ABTA continued to advise companies to issue RCNs anyway while also launching its Save Future Travel campaign.

WTM venue ExCel was transformed from conference centre to a Nightingale hospital, with capacity for thousands of Covid patients - but it was ultimately used for only a handful of patients due to a lack of need or lack of medical staff, depending on who you believe.


A British national was among four people who died on coronavirus-stricken Holland America Line cruise ship, Zaandam, which had been at sea for two weeks after being refused permission to dock at several ports.


Sadly, Sunvil lost long-time colleague Issy Emin to coronavirus.


30-year-old Swansea travel agency Burgess World Travel, closed down, blaming coronavirus; 31 major insurers pulled their travel policies and British Airways announced 12,000 redundancies.


Transport Secretary Shapps incurred the wrath of the industry after saying on national radio when asked if people should book a summer holiday that he wouldn't be booking one himself. He later booked a family holiday to Spain but had to come straight back after the government said it wasn't safe. Did someone say karma?


In an odd, possibly misguided move, VIVID Travel founder Kane Pirie launched a Right to Refund campaign to persuade the government NOT to acquiesce to the demands of virtually everyone else in the travel industry, including ABTA, to extend the deadline for refunds beyond 14 days. He also threatened legal action against his rival tour operators that didn't refund within the legal framework. VIVID Travel has since closed down.

May: things get even worse

The job losses continued with Virgin, Ryanair and BA all announcing cuts and Shearings' parent Specialist Leisure Group becoming the first big company to collapse during the pandemic.



Travel associations begged the government for a flexible furlough scheme to be introduced to allow travel agency staff to carry out 'limited work' to handle customer enquiries.


ATOL-holder Enjoy Travel ceased trading after 30 years.



Health Secretary Matt Hancock told ITV's This Morning that overseas holidays were unlikely to be possible this summer. That didn't go down well.


The Chancellor extended the furlough scheme until the end of October but TUI Group still announced 8,000 job losses.


TUI was also named as one of the worst travel companies for handling cancellation refunds during the pandemic in a survey by MoneySavingExpert.com.


The CAA/goverment still refused to confirm 100% that ATOL protection would be extended to RCNs. ABTA continued to insist that they were protected anyway.


June: lockdown is eased but quarantine is introduced

Slowly slowly, there were a few tentative attempts to get people travelling again once the nationwide lockdown began to ease from the middle of the month.



TUI announced ambitious plans to operate a third of its summer programme after taking passengers from Germany to Majorca. EasyJet relaunched its first flights since lockdown and Spain welcomed British tourists again


Travel agents were allowed to reopen, Hays Travel - which had furloughed the majority of its staff at the end of March - announced a recruitment drive, and some - but not all - destinations reopened to British travellers.


However, the government had given in to calls for a blanket quarantine for arrivals of 14 days, which was then kind of a deterrent to people going on holiday. Airlines threatened legal action against the government unless it was lifted.


BA moved all its short-haul flights from Gatwick to Heathrow and easyJet announced the closure of bases at Stansted, Southend and Newcastle.


In non-Covid-related news, Dnata announced that its agent-friendly brand Travel 2 would merge with Gold Medal and touring company Leger bought Shearings from the administrator.

July: travel is on, off, on, then off again

The government finally lifted its blanket quarantine and announced it would have 'air bridges' or 'travel corridors' to countries from where arrivals would no longer need to isolate on returning to England due to their low levels of Covid-19. Scotland and Wales had different rules.



We'd only just started singing 'we're all off to sunny Spain except the Scottish because Nicola Sturgeon won't let them go' and we were told that First Minister Nicola was right, the UK's most popular overseas destination wasn't as Covid-safe as we'd been led to believe and it was booted off the travel corridor list.


Grant Shapps came home, along with tens of thousands of families who'd just arrived in Spain at the start of the school holidays.

And that was pretty much the theme of the summer: destinations were added to the travel corridor one week, removed the next, usually - but not always - on a Thursday. Sometimes the government liked to surprise us with an announcement on other days too.



Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson was forced to bail out his own airline after the government refused to provide a financial rescue package. Unfortunately there was no bail out for cruise operator CMV, which collapsed.

Rishi Sunak cut VAT for tourism hospitality businesses to 5% for six months, announced a furlough bonus scheme in his Budget and an Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which was later blamed for a rise in Covid-19 cases leading to a second lockdown in November. Nice one.


BA announced it would retire all 31 of its Boeing 747s, leading to plane-spotters across the country mourning the end of the Jumbo Jet.



And, finally, the CAA confirmed ATOL protection would be extended to RCNs four months after they were introduced by ABTA.


August: we lost some, we gained some


After half a century of booking trips, STA Travel collapsed.

The industry also said goodbye to long-established ski specialist Skiweekends and Advantage member Voyager Systems (Travel Division), which operated a number of retail brands, including a homeworking division. Travelex went into pre-pack administration, with 1,309 UK employees made redundant.



EasyJet holidays started to sell through travel agents for the first time, while National Holidays, whose previous owner, Specialist Leisure Group, had gone bust in May, was given a new lease of life under new owner JG Travel Group.


Virgin Atlantic filed for bankruptcy protection in the US and warned it could run out of money before the end of September unless creditors approved a £1.2 billion rescue deal. The creditors came good later in the month, agreeing a restructuring plan in the High Court.


TUI Group reported a 98% drop in revenue to €75 million in the three months to the end of June.


Hays Travel started consultations with nearly 900 staff who faced redundancy following the downturn in bookings and mass cancellations as a result of the Government's travel ban to Spain.


Hurtigruten had to suspend all its expedition sailings, including plans to start UK itineraries in September, after an outbreak of Covid-19 on one of its ships. COO Brent Martini, who had been on board the cruise, later stepped down amid widespread criticism over the way the company had handled the situation.


ABTA said 39,000 jobs had been lost or were at risk across the UK outbound travel sector since the Covid-19 crisis started, with the number rising to 90,000 when supply chains were taken into account

September sees an old name resurrected


We said hello to Thomas Cook - same name, same logo as the company that failed spectacularly a year before - but newly launched as a purely online travel agent by Fosun, the Chinese investors that had previously been one of the biggest investors in the old Thomas Cook before it collapsed. Do keep up. Not everyone was happy, including former employees and many customers who'd been left out of pocket.


IAG said goodbye to Chief Exec Willie Walsh, who left with his final year's earnings of £3.2 million untouched, despite the fact 20% of shareholders voted against the settlement, which included a £833,000 bonus. He's now got a new job as CEO and Director-General of airline body IATA.


ABTA said good riddance to Loveholidays and On the Beach, which both left the association when they refused to fully refund passengers for holidays to Spain after the Foreign Office (FCDO) advised against all non-essential travel. After a slap on the wrists from the Competition & Markets Authority, Loveholidays has since promised to refund.


Agents baulked at the £125 fee to attend ABTA's one-day virtual Travel Convention. If they had, they would have seen the shock on CEO Mark Tanzer's face when Transport Minister Grant Shaps, back from his hours' long holiday in Spain, revealed there was STILL no deal with the EU for flights to continue after 31 December. WTH?


ABTA's nemesis VIVID Travel said 'au revior' after suspending operations and making all 10 staff redundant and Saga abandoned plans to sell its ailing Destinology business and closed it down instead.

We said farewell to Your Car Hire rental firm and AITO member Cities Direct, which both ceased trading.



TUI UK promised the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) that it would refund all customers for holidays cancelled due to coronavirus by the end of the month. The company also launched an investigation after almost 200 passengers and crew on a flight from Zante were told to self isolate following positive coronavirus tests for seven people.


Hays Travel acquired 20-shop Welsh agency chain Tailor Made Travel.


The government continued with its regular Thursday travel updates, including advising against all but essential travel to seven Greek islands and booting Portugal off the UK travel corridor.


October: fright or flight?


The month started with the government booting Turkey off the travel corridor; Italy demanding UK visitors provided a negative Covid test before entry and the CAA acknowledging the pressure travel businesses were facing, as it confirmed that of the 1,261 ATOL licences that expired on 30 September, only 995 had been renewed.


The last BA 747 left Heathrow, just as the airline's CEO and Chairman Alex Cruz stepped down and the company received a £20 million fine for a data breach.


Rishi Sunak expanded the Job Support Scheme, saying it would pay two-thirds of salaries and offer business grants only to businesses that are legally forced to close as a direct result of coronavirus restrictions. But the travel industry claimed it had been left high and dry by constantly changing advisories against travel as well as quarantine rules.


It was revealed ABTA Chief Exec Mark Tanzer earned almost as much as the PM and the Chancellor combined, getting £272,000 plus £26,000 in pension contributions and £4,000 in benefits in 2019.


At the virtual ABTA conference, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps dismissed accusations the government hadn't done enough to help the industry.


Harrogate-based Number One Travel and family-owned travel agency chain Toucan Travel ceased trading.


A travel ban came into force across Wales as part of a 17-day 'fire-breaker' lockdown, while the rest of the UK operated under regional tiers. Operators and airlines said they wouldn't refund holidaymakers who were now unable to travel, but some did waive amendment fees.


Quarantine restrictions were removed for the Canary Islands, but the islands' government warned it was planning to implement a new law negative Covid-19 test before being allowed to enter.

Remember remember before we wore masks in November

Covering our faces in public and stepping into oncoming traffic to keep as far away as possible from other people became the norm, but coronavirus cases started rising again.



Friday the 13th brought us the sad news of the sudden death of Hays Travel founder and CEO John Hays, which sparked an outpouring of grief in the industry where he'd spent his entire working life. Within days, a GoFundMe page set up in his memory had raised £25,000 for charity. On the eve of his funeral, landmarks in his home town of Sunderland were lit up in Hays' colours.


WTM London went ahead but as an online-only event, renamed WTM Virtual. Some delegates thought it was a success, some were so disappointed they said they might ask for a refund, but the fact that it took place at all demonstrates how quickly online events have become the new normal.


Independent ski operator VIP Ski collapsed, and tour operator Flash Pack sank into administration but the owners immediately bought back the assets and promised a re-launch of the Millennial brand in the future.

December - Oh come all ye faithful

Good news at last, the nationwide 'firebreaker' lockdown was lifted, Grant Shapps confirmed even people living in Tier 3 areas could go away, saying that the government wasn't in the business of telling people they couldn't go on holiday. Days later, a new Tier 4 level of restrictions was introduced, initially for London and the southeast, and the government told people not to go on holiday.



But, better news, the UK became the first in the world to license the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine and 91-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person outside clinical trials to get the first shot. So far there have been no signs that her body has been taken over by Microsoft, hopefully putting paid to conspiracy theories that the vaccine is a way to implant our bodies with chips.


Sadly, talk of a roll out of a mass vaccination programme for the UK couldn't save one of the UK's largest independent ski operators Alpine Elements from going bust after the French announced there'd be no skiing on their slopes before January, at the earliest.


On a more positive note (we hope) Boris also got us a Brexit deal to stop us falling off the metaphorical cliff on 31 December. Industry leaders are still digesting the deal and when they have they might wish we'd jumped instead, but in the meantime travellers are pleased the they'll still get free healthcare in Europe, at least for a few more months, they won't need an international drivers' licence to take cars to the continent, and they can still take Fido with them as long as they pay a fortune to the vet. Oh, and finally we have confirmation that flights to the EU can continue.


As this month drew to a close, the Oxford-Astrezenca vaccine was also authorised in the UK and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said 'with a degree of confidence' that we'd be out of this whole sorry mess by spring. He didn't say which spring. In the meantime, 75% of the country has been put under Tier 4 Covid restrictions, the upside of which is that 2021 surely can't be any worse.

See you on the other side folks!

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