Back in 1972 when I was a young trainee travel agent, we mostly did flight tickets for business travel and leisure travellers going on package holidays to Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia. None of us even dreamed of going to Greece, let alone Thailand. As one of the few travel agents who remembers the time before we joined the EEC (as it was), I can see the benefits it has bought our industry over the years – and that’s why I think Brexit would be bad news for agents, and for travellers too.
Back when I started people might catch a charter from Luton at 3am to get to a concrete hotel in Benidorm or Palma Nova, then a bloke called Freddie Laker revolutionised air travel with a £99 airfare to New York. It was amazing – New York for only £99! Just hold that thought: it was 1974. This just gives you an idea how much air travel actually was in those days. As a young travel trainee I earned £11 a week so I supplemented my income by working behind the bar in a local pub to earn another £12 so I worked nearly 60 hours a week to earn £23 a week, some of which I gave to my mum towards rent and food. That was expected in the 70s. Let’s say I was left with £15 a week so to fly to New York before adding accommodation or spending money. I would have needed to work for many weeks without spending a single penny on anything else.
These days things have changed beyond all recognition.
Europe has made air travel very affordable
.First it broke the dominance of flag carriers and forced them to compete – bringing down fares for everyone. Then in the 90s along came the low-cost carriers. Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary might not be the most pleasant of people, but he knew how to use the EU to negotiate cheap air fares. The EU’s open skies agreements meant he and others like him could set up bases across Europe – again bringing down fares for everyone.
More recently Norwegian Air moved its main base to Gatwick so they could negotiate cheaper flights from an EU base than they could from Norway. This allowed them to grow very quickly – opening up more destinations for cheaper fares.
Those fighting for Brexit say cheap air fares don’t matter. That’s easy for wealthy politician to say, but for ordinary people an increase in fares means they won’t be able to afford to fly as often (or at all).
Another argument Brexiteers use is
“but other countries need us so badly they’ll fight to keep air fares down”.
From my regular visits to hotels across Europe, I can see that isn’t true. European hotels won’t collapse if the British stop visiting. You only have to look at the Canaries and note that the empty beds have been filled by Germans, and Cyprus to see that the empty beds have been filled by Russians.
So why did Cyprus look to the Russian market? Firstly because of the last recession and secondly because we deserted them to fly to Turkey and Egypt and they proved they don’t need us anymore. Empty beds always can be filled by visitors from other markets, many of whom incidentally pay more than us. This has also happened in Cuba that are filling their bed stock with Americans who are paying more than us, so they are also proving they don’t need us.
Europe made travelling much easier.
I’m old enough to remember having to queue and get my passport stamped at airports. I had a French passport as a child so I didn’t have to go in a separate queue to my mum. I was officially an alien. I didn’t want to be an alien so I got a British passport when I was old enough to travel alone. Many countries we visit without a second thought now required a visa. If we leave the EU, we won’t have travel arrangements with very many countries, and that could mean an awful lot more hassle every time we travel – long queues at the non-EU queue at airports, and possibly even needing a visa to travel even to Spain or Greece
That additional inconvenience is likely to be a step too far for some. Many could decide it’s no longer worth going away for a long weekend. And that’s bad news for travel agents’ bottom lines and for business travelers who are on very tight schedules.
Those campaigning for Brexit brush off these fears, saying it’s no hassle getting a visa. They’ve obviously not had the experience of a client put off booking at all by the news they’ll need to send their passport away for a week and pay more money on top of the cost of the booking. Or had a client turned back at the airport as the ESTA rules have changed. More administration, costs, hassle or uncertainty is always going to put people off travelling.
Some might argue this is a price worth paying to stop a “flood” of immigrants. I’m not convinced Brexit will do anything to reduce immigration anyway – and we mustn’t forget the upsides of free movement which allow us to explore this great continent ourselves.
Europe saves us money when we travel.
The EHIC card, for example, means that if you are unfortunate enough to become ill in the EU, you can go to hospital under the reciprocal agreement.
Thousands of British tourists are treated in Spanish, Italian and Greek hospitals every year under this agreement
(as are many ex pats living in Spain and Portugal). We’ll lose that benefit if we go out – pushing up costs yet again for British travellers, who will need to spend more on insurance.
The Euro saves us money and hassle too – even though we’re not in it. I can use the same currency whenever I holiday in Europe rather than changing money back and forth, saving me a fortune in foreign exchange (as well as the bother of trying to remember exchange rates for Francs, Drachmas, etc every time I buy a beer). This helps tour operators too, who are better able to plan for costs when they’re dealing with fewer currencies. It’s widely predicted that if we Brexit, sterling will drop against the Euro – it already is with just the threat of Brexit – which pushes up prices for us too. This is a benefit of the EU rather than being in the EU of course but still very useful especially when on a cruise or a tour.
The EU gives travellers consumer protections, in particular benefits like flight delay compensation. Recently a client was offloaded by KLM and even though the flight was to Kuala Lumpur, KLM is an airline based in the EU, so she was re-routed and compensated thanks to EU rules.
The EU has stopped us being ripped off over roaming charges when we travel. This has already been pushed down to just a couple of quid a day, and will be free from next year. That’s useful not just for phoning home and posting selfies on Facebook – we’ve all grown used to using our phones for all sorts of things and having internet available at very low cost makes it a hell of a lot easier to get around, from Google maps to TripAdvisor recommendations. Only a couple of weeks ago I used my cheap data package in Cyprus instead of paying extra to hire a satnav to navigate the new motorway between Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos (a road which, incidentally, was funded by the EU!).
I have seen the travel industry change dramatically over the years thanks to the benefits
that come from being part of the EU – cheaper travel, better roads all over Europe, ease of travel, one currency. I’m lucky that this has given me a long and varied career as an agent – and the opportunity to take my own family all over this incredible continent we live in. Leaving now – pushing up prices and making travel more difficult – means that in the medium term at least our careers and livelihoods will be at risk. I cannot see Brexit bringing any benefits for the travel industry. I will be voting Remain so that those raising young families today will have the same opportunities to visit their neighbouring countries that my generation has.