As vaccinations ramp up, travel agencies affected by pandemic could become vital

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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) – Travel agents. After the pandemic cripples an already small industry, it’s easy to assume that it will soon be a thing of the past.

But don’t count them right away.

In a post-pandemic era, travel agencies may not provide the same services as in the past. But industry experts say they will be more critical than ever as people start flying again.

As vaccinations continue, infections decline and travel slowly picks up, experts say travel agencies will act as bridges for travelers by helping them navigate complex COVID-19 protocols – in Hawaii and around the world. other destinations – while also helping to stimulate tourism to the islands.

“There is an opportunity here,” said Jerry Agrusa, professor in the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Shidler College of Business.

“If the tour operators can let people know that they are the experts on the protocols and how to go through the system, because there are still people coming who will not have the vaccine.” “

In the past 10 to 15 years, tour operators have already undergone vast changes in their industry due to the advent of new technology, Agrusa said, ranging from people buying their own airline tickets online to booking travel through sites like Expedia.

“They’ve had to adapt to become niches, whether it’s cruise lines, niches in certain types of travel,” Agrusa said, adding that “those who have done it are doing pretty well. There is an expert from the cruise lines, we have experts who just go to Vegas or Alaska, safaris in Africa. ”

Wendy Goodenow has spent the past 25 years booking flights, creating itineraries and coordinating tours around the world for her clients through her business, HNL Travel Associates. Travel is at the heart of everything she does.

But nearly a year ago, as travel stopped everywhere due to the pandemic, so did his business. In March, Goodenow said that instead of booking flights, she was scrambling to cancel or reschedule them.

“We’re here to work for our clients, and it was really tough, those first four months, and then all of a sudden, what do we do? ” she said.

One by one, countries began to close their borders or impose strict travel restrictions, states issued stay-at-home orders, and people in general were afraid to fly. It has affected travel agencies all over the world, Agrusa said.

“Everything was criticized, so they were working without any income, a lot of these travel agencies, and it was very unfortunate,” Agrusa said. “You’ve had so many people to cancel, whether it’s because you couldn’t get a COVID test, canceled because the airlines stopped flying, lots and lots of issues. “

As summer came with no end in sight for the pandemic and travel was still virtually non-existent, Goodenow was forced to take out a PPP loan for her business and ended up putting her four staff on leave.

“It was tough,” Goodenow said.

“I mean, basically with no income because we only get paid when people travel, it’s been difficult. And it was difficult for each agency. I think some agencies have closed. It’s the whole relationship you have with your customers that decides whether or not you persevere.

And his business was not the only one. The pandemic has also hurt tour operators tasked with bringing international visitors to the islands after Hawaii essentially shut down travel by requiring a 14-day quarantine at the start of the pandemic.

The restrictions have forced JTB – one of Hawaii’s largest Japanese travel agencies – to cancel all its tours, dealing a heavy blow to Hawaii’s economy. Before the pandemic, around 1.5 million Japanese visitors traveled to Hawaii each year, many of whom booked their trip through tour operators like JTB.

JTB had to put local staff on indefinite leave and 11 were converted to permanent layoffs. Tour operator Lea Lea HIS Hawaii, another company serving the Japanese market, has announced that it will convert 30 days off into permanent job cuts in March.

Agrusa said that in addition to leaves and layoffs at travel agencies, the pandemic has also had a spillover effect for the rest of the industry.

“We’ve gone from 35,000 tourists a day to around 4 or 5,000 today,” Agrusa said. “So it’s not just that JTB had to lay people off, it’s the company that JTB was using to carry the luggage, the one that carries the people, the side trips, everyone had to be laid off.”

One of the biggest issues these travel agencies face today: COVID-19 restrictions are constantly changing, every day.

Hawaii is no exception. Last October, after several delays, Hawaii finally reopened to mainland visitors through the Safe Travels program, allowing passengers to waive a 14-day quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours. the flight. This has since been changed to 10 days.

The state then extended the program to Japan in November and then to South Korea in February.

But industry experts said the multitude of restrictions added an additional layer of complexity and confusion for travelers. Among the many questions: Which testing companies should I use? Where can I take a COVID-19 test? What should I do when the test results do not come back on time? What if I test positive on arrival?

And now, as vaccinations are underway, more and more questions have arisen about what kind of vaccination requirements are needed to travel.

This is why, said Argusa, travel agencies will be essential in providing expertise on COVID-19 protocols which are “moving targets”.

“It’s a lot harder to travel now than it used to be,” Agrusa said. “There are more protocols. Go to the expert. Show them this, give them the guidelines as these are the steps to take and with these steps we will help you have a wonderful vacation here in Hawaii. “

He added that by helping to streamline the travel process – particularly to Hawaii, with all of the many restrictions in place – these travel agencies could play a key role in boosting tourism to the islands, especially since many are eager to travel again after being locked up. During months.

“They said it themselves, you know, ‘someday we’ll go to Hawaii,’ and now that they’ve got the vaccine, they might be like ‘you know what? Let’s not wait any longer. I think there is going to be pent-up demand, ”Agrusa said.

April Cheng operates her own travel agency – TravelChic World – in her high rise condo in Honolulu. She runs the business on her own, personalizing and personalizing trips to destinations around the world for more than 100 customers, including approximately 70% from Hawaii and 30% from across the continent.

She too was hit hard in the first few months of the pandemic – she had to take out P3 loans and enroll in the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. And since she can’t plan trips to Europe or Asia – her most popular countries – since borders stay close, business isn’t what it used to be.

But there is a silver lining: Since the state imposed the Safe Travels program, she has seen an increase in her bookings in Hawaii.

“I know a lot of people want to come here,” Cheng said. “I’ve definitely seen an increase which is probably most of my business right now is Hawaii trips.”

Cheng adds that if vaccinations resume and the state implements a plan to allow visitors to enter with proof of vaccination to forgo any testing or quarantine requirements, it would help tourism and the economy tremendously.

“Definitely this year I see a huge pickup for Hawaii, and I think if we continue to facilitate the return of tourism to Hawaii and not restrict it by setting up a second test, but doing it safely. , I think, I hope 2021 will be a recovery of the tourism economy, ”Cheng said.

In addition to easing travel restrictions, Cheng said the opening of larger events, such as weddings, will lead to a new boost in the economy. As a travel agency, she also helped plan trips focused on weddings and honeymoons. All, of course, have been canceled due to the pandemic.

“I think if we are able to reopen weddings safely by having people tested before the wedding date, and the wedding planners just watch that and help organize it, I think it is. would be great because it’s a billion dollar industry, she said.

Travel agencies have already undergone changes over the past decade with the rise of technology, experts say, but the pandemic has forced companies like Cheng’s to travel online, hold meetings and socialize. webinars on Zoom. Cheng predicts this as the wave of the future – and believes more agencies will close their offices and go digital.

For now, Cheng continues to book trips to Hawaii, but has also been busy planning tours of the National Park, Disney World, and Africa. And as she looks forward to resuming travel to Europe and Asia, she believes she will be an essential tool for traveling both during the pandemic and beyond.

“I think once a majority of the population is vaccinated, travel companies can really make a profit because we’ll be the travel experts – which country has which restriction, if you need to be vaccinated, if you don’t. You don’t have to get vaccinated, no sort of quarantine policy – so I think… I hope that once the vaccinations are rolled out, we’ll be a really profitable business, ”Cheng said.

Copyright 2021 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.

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