Over the past few months, Europe has been suffering the health and economic impact of the worst pandemic in a century. What started in early March as a health crisis, which is still impacting several European countries, has increasingly became a social and economic crisis in recent weeks.
As the United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) had warned at the start of the crisis, the tourism sector has been among the hardest-hit by the outbreak of COVID-19. Highly dependent on free movement of people, safety and certainty, the tourism businesses are struggling to recover after losing almost the entire start of the season.
Booking cancellations and postponements have predictably been the general trend during April and May. While the spring typically represents around a third of the annual activity for most of the consulted tour operators, this year felt like a long winter. Many of them saw a complete drop in activity levels and cancellations have continued into June due to the uncertainty (e.g. lifting restrictions on travel and border controls). However, many customers are postponing their holidays or changing from international trips to local trips.
‘The spring season is lost and will not be recovered but from mid-July the situation seems better’ Chus Blázquez from Rutas Pangea told us on the phone. ‘Fortunately, most of tour operators benefit of having very loyal customers and they are very understanding with the situation’ he added.
KEEP ON CYCLING
A first step for all businesses was to stay afloat and survive the impact of the COVID-19 shock. Many cycling tourism businesses across the continent had to implement temporary and/or access liquidity under the favorable financial conditions introduced by many governments. Other businesses have been relying on their previous good years to stay financially afloat.
If there is an opinion that all consulted wanted to share it is that their customers have also played their part: ‘I want to thank our customers who have been very understanding and have given us their support in this difficult month. We hope to be able to support them in their travel plans as soon as possible’ Fabien Leduc, Abicyclette Voyages told to us via email.
And this is something that has been key for the sector. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, everyone has had the opportunity to stop, look around and talk to each other. Across different European countries, webinars and online cycling summits have been organised in order to address the situation and even best practices and conditions have been established, such as protecting the loyalty of the customers (facilitating the cancellations or exchange of the holidays for vouchers) in a sector where there is often a close relationship with the customers.
SUMMER, VERANO, ÉTÉ, ESTATE, SOMMER, LETO
National and local tourism will save this summer. This is one of the most shared views by the cycling tour operators. Those that have traditionally relied heavily on tourists from US, Canada, Asia or Latin America will have to swiftly find new audiences. Everyone agrees that national domestic tourism will be their main target this year since people are avoiding long distance trips that require using planes: ‘We have cancelled most of our international trips and will focus this year on national tours. It is also an opportunity to exploit domestic tourism in Spain’ Jesus Blázquez, Rutas Pangea said.
Customers are very well informed about the situation and bookings might happen at the very last minute once there is more certainty (e.g. clarity on travel bans, lifting quarantines, etc.). Many think that we could also have a longer summer break (many customers might go on holidays during the late summer).
Additionally, most of the tour operators offer free cancellation this summer linked to COVID-19 to overcome customers’ concerns about booking when still uncertainty remains.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?
‘We are now expecting more help from the government’ a tour operator highlighted. ‘This situation has brought us together and will increase the visibility of cycling tourism. We are part of a broader public debate now’, another business owner shared with us on the phone.
As one of the hardest-hit by the outbreak of COVID-19, the tourism sector expects subsidies and, what is even more important, certainty over the months to come. Governments from the EU to the local level are working on schemes to try and answer this call by providing support for the tourism sector (subsidies, promotional campaigns, financial facilities, more flexible regulations…).
The decisions made in the coming weeks and months will help us to answer the question: is the post COVID-19 era a chance for cycling tourism to shine?
If you are aware of measures designed to support cycling tourism and leisure cycling at this time, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact [email protected].
Author(s): Jesús Freire
All photos © Rutas Pangea