DESPITE the travel industry being brought to its knees due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a local travel agent is optimistic that it will get back on its feet, as demand is high for holidays abroad in 2021.

Speaking to The Impartial Reporter about how his business has been impacted by the pandemic, Richard Cooper – the owner of Carefree Travel in Enniskillen – said: "Many of our clients started getting worried about how Covid would affect their travel from mid-February onwards."

From February, Carefree Travel started amending or cancelling holidays. "No one at this stage knew that the effects would still be relevant nine months later.

"When lockdown happened in mid-March, we had clients stranded in all corners of the world and, indeed, some with Covid in hospital abroad," said Richard, explaining that their first priority was to get their clients home.

"From mid-March onwards, 99.9 per cent of all bookings had been cancelled, refunded or moved to future dates in 2021.

"On feedback, the few that did manage to travel had a great time, but otherwise this has been the most testing period in more than 30 years in the travel industry," he added.

With holidays being cancelled, Richard explained that getting refunds for customers was a big challenge for his business.

"It was without doubt extremely difficult, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when airlines, tour operators and cruise lines were working on reduced staff, with hugely increased workloads, and no template existing for cancellations on such an enormous scale.

He said that every company in every jurisdiction had different rules and regulations that seemed to "change like the wind".

"We certainly learned that patience is a virtue, as most refunds were forthcoming once the travel partners we worked with got their ship in order.

"Our team at Carefree – even though greatly reduced during this period – worked tirelessly to ensure clients were kept fully updated. We have now paid close to £450,000 in refunds, and the process is 98 per cent complete," he added.

When asked if he thinks the Ggovernment has provided adequate support for the travel industry amid the pandemic, Richard said: "As with most industries, the support schemes put in place were greatly received.

"However, the travel industry has been one of the hardest-hit and, unfortunately, gaps do exist in funding this industry."

With this in mind, Richard, along with a friend who is also in the travel trade, set up ANITA (Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents) in July.

"To date, we have had useful discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive to find ways to plug the [funding support] gaps.

"The industry urgently needs to know which department's remit they come under, I'm not quite sure the Government knows, and if there's no applicable department, they need to appoint one to deal with 'the travel trade'."

Despite the hard times for the travel industry in 2020, Richard says that he is not concerned "in the slightest" about the future of travel.

"The travel business is one of the best industries, regarding the consumer protection it has in place.

"Generally, with the exception of a few online operators and a few rogue airlines, everybody navigated through this period with their reputations intact.

"It might take a few years, but with the pent-up demand that exists, the travel industry should fly into the future," he said.

He continued: "Since the news of successful vaccines becoming available, we have seen strong demand for holidays abroad again.

"Tourist-driven destinations and cruise lines have had a terrible year, and therefore they are now trying hard to promote themselves through price-driven offers in 2021 and 2022.

"There will always be a place for staycations, but for longer holidays, most travellers like to have the guarantee of warmer or dryer climates for their annual holiday.

"A lot of pent-up demand exists for 2021. Many families have decided during lockdown that the time to do a once-in-a-lifetime holiday is sooner rather than later," Richard told this newspaper.