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Tour operators relax their policies to encourage bookings as industry faces unprecedented challenge

Travel companies are relaxing their booking policies in a bid to encourage people to keep booking holidays during the coronavirus crisis.

Tour operators including Kuoni, Hayes & Jarvis, Prestige, G Adventures, i-escape, On Foot Holidays and Camino Ways are among those waiving fees if clients want to change the destination or date of their trip.

Most of the policies apply to bookings made between now and the end of March, and allow clients to postpone their trip to later this year or, in some cases, into 2021. But the time frame for switching varies between operators. The majority require changes to be made up to 30 days before departure but some, including Kuoni and Hayes & Jarvis, are allowing clients to switch holidays up to seven days before departure, while luxury operators Cox & Kings and Abercrombie & Kent say clients must rebook up to 60 days before.

On Foot Holidays, whose main destinations are Italy, France and Spain, has gone further and is advising customers not to consider travelling at all before June.

The virus presents the tourism industry with an unprecedented challenge. Noel Josephides, founder of Greece specialist Sunvil, said: This is our 50th year, and for us the only thing that compares to it is the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when we specialised in Cyprus holidays. This is far worse because its very uncertain. The way the government is playing it trying to flatten out the peak means it will continue through to June. But if it goes beyond that the whole summer will be wiped out.

While bookings to Europe have slowed to a trickle, long-haul tour operators say there is still demand for holidays in 2021. Sam Clark of Asia specialist Experience Travel Group said: The majority of our clients would travel at the moment but they cant because they cant get a visa, referring to restrictions put in place by India and Vietnam. India has suspended all tourist visas, effective from 13 March until 15 April, while Vietnam said UK passport holders will be unable to apply for a tourist visa for Vietnam until further notice. Clark added: People seem very relaxed about travelling, but later in the year and beyond. A lot of people are looking for deals in late 2020.

He called on airlines to change their policies. A growing number of airlines, including Etihad, Virgin and Qatar, are allowing travellers to cancel free of charge but not all. Some airlines are being very unhelpful, he said.

Discover the World, a specialist in Nordic countries, has seen a spike in bookings for 2021. On our Nordic destinations were up 66% overall, said marketing director Georgina Hancock. Which breaks down to Iceland up 23%, Sweden up 48%, Finland up 107%, Norway up 150%, and Arctic voyages up a whopping 220%.

Travelsupermarket is reporting a spike in online searches for destinations with no cases of coronavirus, including the Greek island of Santorini, which is up 165% from last week; Barbados, up by 88%; the Maldives, by 70%; and even Tenerife, which was down by 75% earlier in the month but saw searches rise by 68%. By contrast, searches to destinations in Spain and Italy are down by 80%.

UK tourist boards are also encouraging hotels to be flexible about booking policies. Deirdre Wells, chief executive of Visit Kent and Visit Hertfordshire, said: We are encouraging them [hotels] around cancellation policies. If people are looking at May half-term for example they are more likely to book if they know that they could postpone if necessary.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/mar/13/holiday-bookings-fall-coronavirus-tourism-industry-chalenge