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Many Australian cruisers are so frustrated by numerous cancellations and rebooking holidays that they have decided to splurge instead on luxury cars or  new carpets for their homes, Justine Sealey, managing director of Ramsgate Travel Service told Cruise Passenger this week.

Others have spent their holiday funds repaying mortgages on behalf of their children, who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

“I’ve had clients who used their holiday money to pay the mortgages for their children who have been stood done by their companies. In one case, they paid $24,000 in mortgage repayments for three months and in another case, they paid $18,000, to help their children.

“Others have paid for their grandchildren’s school fees.”

Of her loyal clients, she admitted: “No one is prepared to commit to booking a cruise holiday, preferring to hold off until there’s certainty in the travel industry. No one is thinking about travelling to Europe or talking about going overseas unless there is a vaccine for COVID-19.”

So far, she has had only two clients book a 35-day Australian circumnavigation itinerary on Oceania Cruises in December 2021.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ms Sealey and her team of six travel agents have been consumed by rebooking and unravelling travel arrangements for clients.

“This has involved countless hours of unpaid work in cancelling and unravelling complicated itineraries, rebooking, requesting credits and processing refunds,” Ms Sealey said.

“We are certainly experiencing very difficult times, trying to get on top of COVID-19.

“We are looking to book domestic holidays and local hotel stays for our clients. At this stage, every booking helps us as a small business and we need our clients’ continued support. We urge them not to book their holidays online through international companies such as Trivago or bookings.com as these are offshore companies and the money does not stay in Australia,” Ms Sealey added.

The prolonged “pause” from cruising has hit agents like Ms Sealey hard.  The Australian Federation of Travel Agents, which this week asked the government for special help, has estimated as many as 20,000 agents could be out of work by the turn of the year, leaving a gaping hole in travel.

Travel agents have long battled with online wholesalers for business, relying on the customer care and expertise they offer.  And, as cruise lines were forced to disgorge passengers all over the world because of Coronavirus, many proved their worth, getting customers home through their contacts and sometimes at their own cost.

But what followed was crippling.  Cancellations meant many had to work tirelessly for nothing, undoing complex itineraries involving airlines, hotels and tour operators so customers got their money back.  For all of that work, a travel agent got nothing.

Thankfully, many major cruise lines, acutely aware of the network, customer care and forward sales travel agents provide, have tried to look after them, maintaining commissions where they could.

However, some agents have told us the constant date changes and lines continuing to sell cruises that were unlikely to depart had damaged credibility and tested loyal cruisers.

Barry Downs, sales and marketing manager of Bicton Travel in Perth, shared Ms Sealey’s sentiments that many clients are now “unwilling to commit” to overseas holidays.

“To be honest, though, we have gone back to square one since the VIC (COVID-19) spike.

“Any green shoots we had for international travel have disappeared. Cruisers advise us they will travel, but are unwilling to commit until they have definitive date that international travel will be possible from.

“All current enquiry is for travel within WA,” he told Cruise Passenger.

Yesterday’s Qantas prediction that international travel won’t return fully before mid next year, won’t have helped.

Many of Bicton’s travel agents have been consumed with sorting out clients’ cancellations and refunds.

“Travel agents are suffering enormously right now, given border closures and travel restrictions in Australia. Most fear for their future – they’ve been hit by an almost total loss of revenue, putting their businesses under terrible pressure.

“Travel agents are one of the key pillars of the cruise industry and play an essential part in caring for customers, so it’s vital that we support them through these times. They will play an important role in supporting cruise passengers when the time is right to sail again and they will be a key part of our economic revival in the future.

“Not only have travel agents suffered financial losses, they’ve also been working under immense pressure to make alternative arrangements for passengers whose departures have been affected by the cruise suspension. They play a key role in arranging refunds, credits and alternative bookings for the millions of travellers worldwide who have been impacted,” said Joel Katz, managing director Australasia, Cruise Lines International Association.

In an independent report commissioned by CLIA, the suspension of cruise operations  is likely to cost Australia more than $1.4 billion in lost economic activity by mid-September and  threaten the jobs of more than 4800 people.

“If the cruise suspension continues into the summer high-season, the economic loss to Australia would total a further $3.8 billion and place another 13,000 jobs at risk. Travel agents represent a big portion of these jobs,” Mr Katz added.

AFTA has recently warned of massive job losses before Christmas unless travel agents get financial support from the Government.

AFTA chairman Tom Manwaring said that half of the industry’s 3000 travel agencies could go bust by the end of the year.

Both CLIA and AFTA have been lobbying the government to extend the JobKeeper program for travel industry workers.

AFTA will also reduce its operating hours to three days a week, Monday to Wednesday from September 1.

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