#COVID19 thoughts by Rune Engstrom

By Rune Engstrom, Owner and Managing Director of ‘Destination Africa

(Posted 28th April 2020)

Dear friends and colleagues around the world

I am writing to you from Norway. As everywhere else we are closed due to the Corona virus. Hotels, restaurants, bars etc are closed. Cultural events, sports, concerts, and exhibitions closed until further notice. The travel industry is dead. Nobody can travel.

Travel and tourism make up about 330 million jobs worldwide, that is about 1 in 10 jobs in the world! I am one of these. The tourism industry was perhaps the first industry in Norway and Europe to notice the Corona epidemic as early as January. Scheduled trips to China were changed or canceled long before anyone here at home understood the seriousness. Travel agencies and advisors received phone calls and messages from customers who had to change the journey as airports, hotels, destinations, and entire countries closed down.

This is part of the job and as many have been before. We all remember September 11, the tsunami in Asia, ash clouds from Iceland and other things that have affected tourism. Who would have thought that this time it would be so much worse?

I am a tour operator specialising in tours to Southern Africa, and at the same time handling clients into South Africa. Our company, Destination Africa is working only B2B, so we can feel what is happening with the European travel trade. Consumer law in Europe is 100% geared to protect the clients. Agents and tour operators must refund clients for cancelled trips. It looks like our governments do not understand how this industry is working. They just
say we have received money for a service not delivered. They do not take into consideration that most of the money received is paid out to airlines, hotels, lodges, wheels operators, guides, and others. Most suppliers around Africa are doing their best in this situation. We are all in this together.

Airlines especially are difficult to deal with now. They offer vouchers for
future use. Agents must pay back in full. Some suppliers have the money to refund, but many have to offer vouchers for future use. I cannot as an operator in Europe expect every little supplier to have the money to refund. Even for those who refund, banks are eating lots of the money. First when we buy local currencies or USD to pay suppliers, and later when we must buy back our own currency to pay clients. Maybe 10% is lost here. Bank fees, exchange
rates and so on.

I was just reading a story from our neighbouring country Denmark. Out of 650 travel agents and tour operators, around 500 might have to close in the coming weeks and months. These are specialised agencies, small and large. They are the ones promoting Africa and other destinations. Companies built over years with a deep passion for Africa, and their suppliers there. The whole food chain is at risk here.

Both myself and others try to explain to our Parliaments and Governments the importance of the travel industry. Let me steal and rewrite Nokia’s old slogan. Tourism connects people. Tourism gives people an insight and understanding of other cultures and countries. Tourism is essential to the whole society, both in Africa and Europe. I used an example here in Norway with airports. Our airports are owned by the Government. The airport taxes, tax-free sale etc from our international airports, finances all the small airports around the country.
These small airports are vital to our national infrastructure. I believe the situation in most countries is the same. The income of the international airports is based mainly on tourism. Without tourism, where should the money come from?
Tourism is also vital to so many other industries.

 How many people are employed by dry cleaners and laundries to keep bed linen, towels, uniforms and so on clean.
 The retail industry and the small industry will also notice it if tourism stops. The sale of towels, bed linen, blankets, quilts, uniforms, furniture, service, cutlery, kitchenware, and much more will plummet.
 Agriculture is also directly affected. I want to use an example from South Africa here. The math is certainly relevant elsewhere as well. City Lodge has about 7,000 rooms and serves a simple breakfast. City Lodge alone buys about 1.4 million eggs a year (about 200 per room). South Africa has about 250,000 rooms. With the same multiplier, this gives about 50 million eggs only for breakfast on a yearly basis. Here we can add poultry, meat, vegetables, milk, cheese, cereals, wine and lots of other things. The next step after agriculture is the food industry.

Many would argue that travel agencies and tour operators are not important, because the industry is working hard to get Norwegians to leave Norway. The thing is that in other countries there are lots of industry colleagues who are just selling Norway to their clients.
When you read newspapers, listen to radio / TV or see the comments fields, it seems that people do not quite understand what a travel agency is doing. It seems like many, both politicians and the media and others think they are just sitting in an office and are a costly intermediary who only raises commissions.
I myself have worked in the industry for about 20 years. This has been an amazing journey. I have worked as a tour operator and put together ‘packages’ that are sold through travel agencies. I have met countless wonderful people. Some are suppliers, other are customers, or competitors. What strikes me is that we all eventually become good friends. Dedicated people who are passionate about their customers. People who provide a fantastic service to put together an experience for their customer. People who like to stretch out a hand to help each other. Across whatever company we work for, across borders and other. Now we are all in the same boat, assisting each other. Many agencies are also tour operators. That is, they put together packages for their customers.

In Norway we have huge discussions around the few remaining wolves we have. Some wants to protect them, lots of others want to shoot them. They are a pest to small farmers with sheep and lambs. I normally ask these people what about Africa? All the predators, elephants, rhinos, and other vulnerable species are just a pest to local farmers. Should the local farmers just shoot them? These animals kill cattle and eat crops. With income from tourism, all these animal species are important for the locals to protect. That is their source of
income. In Africa problem is huge. Millions of jobs are at risk. The problem of poaching is increasing dramatically. Not for sale to Asia, but for the locals to get food. Europeans scream NO, do not shoot those beautiful animals! They have a romantic view of Africa, maybe through the eyes of Karen Blixen’s stories and other novels and movies.

There are probably lots of other examples I have not thought of here. My point is the ripple effects that the industry can face death without government intervention. The consequences are very much greater than it seems that politicians, the media, and the commentary fields seem to be moving inward.

What does a travel agency do?
Countless industries depend on travel agencies. Norway is a world leader in shipping and offshore petroleum. Shipping companies and operators are dependent on 100% change of crew and the like. A ship waiting for crew in a port costs fortunes each day they lie idle. This is where travel agencies specializing in Marine’; Offshore come into the picture. They know
exactly which airlines can get the crew from A to B in the most efficient way. Both temporally and economically.

The film industry will move several people to a location, with a minimum of time spent. Everything must work 100%. We may see James Bond act on a location. In addition to Daniel Craig as we see at the canvas, there are countless others who will be in the same place at the same time. Not a minute is to be wasted and budgets are kept.

Football clubs and sports teams will travel to sports events and matches, both at home and abroad. Not just the team, but the leaders, doctors, cooks, fans and others. Not fun if you travel far to follow your favorite team if you or the team is late.

We often look forward to concerts and festivals with local heroes or world stars. Have you thought about how many people are involved here? They must have planes, hotels, local buses, and cars. With the Rolling Stones on stage, more than 100,000 fans may be waiting.
Then it is bad if the artist is delayed because someone has booked the wrong flight to save some bucks.
It can be said that in the case of James Bond and the Rolling Stones, there are event agencies doing the job and organize everything. Let’s call them specialized travel agents.
The export industries travel around the world to market its products, or service products / products that have already been delivered. These depend on agencies that specialize in business travel.

Travel advisers often spend their free time learning new destinations and products. We go to trade fairs at home and abroad. It may sound exotic to join so-called viewing trips to distant regions. Maybe travel to Africa, America, or Asia several times a year. The first trips are often exciting, and you are looking forward to it. Eventually, you become more and more picky about what you want to take part in. Can I and my company benefit from this tour? Is the destination relevant to our business? Is it worth spending a few days on this journey? This is not vacation and leisure. It is a job.
You rarely or never get time to enjoy the place you travel to. One should reach over a lot of hotels and experiences in the shortest possible time to be able to tell you their customer what is good or less good on a destination. When you get
home, reports should be written so that others in the agency can learn from what has been experienced during the trip. The counselors, like everyone else, have children and families they would like to spend their time with. TIME IS MONEY!

Remember that travel agencies only get paid when people travel. That is when they can benefit from what they have learned on these viewing tours.
I ask you to speak to a travel agent the next time you go out. Do not press BOOK NOW on any online site. These so-called Online Travel Agencies are usually registered in some tax haven that does not contribute to the community at all. At a travel agency you can tell your advisor exactly you want, what you want to experience. You contribute to local jobs, and you will have a better experience without the tour necessarily becoming more expensive. Maybe
you save time on the stopovers, get a better hotel room or other little things that make it all better.

In our digital world, people often find inspiration via social media. The big international players often have a lot of money to promote their products. When your local travel agent posts a post on Facebook, Instagram or elsewhere, they do not have the money to reach out in the same way. Therefore, like, comment, share the post and such stuff. The more people do this, the more the post will appear out there. Invite your friends to do the same. Do the same with your local travel agent. Maybe your local hotel, travel agent or restaurant have something that is exactly what your friends, neighbours, or others in your family are looking
for. They would never have known about it if you did not just like or share the post.That is how social media works. It costs you nothing, but you help maintain local jobs.

There are countless advisers around the world promoting different countries as the world’s most beautiful destination. Each country has its own advantages, and these travel advisors can help you find your dream destination. How many Asians or Americans would come to Norway without these local agencies around the world? I urge you to speak to a living person the next time you travel. Whatever you dream of the day we can travel again, talk to your local travel agent. I do not care what agency you use, here we are all on the same team. Do
not press any order now button on some strange website.

This is not the time to fight among ourselves in the travel industry. With the current situation in the world, we can all end up as losers if we fight, or winners if we work together.

Rune is an ardent follower of ATCNews.org since we first met several years ago at a tourism trade event, following which closer ties evolved.
ATCNews thanks Rune for sharing this article which was first posted in local news media in Norway.