Travel Agencies “Drown” Again

Employing about 10 000 people in Macedonia, the tourism sector was hardly hit by the pandemic – travel agencies fear the future. But there’s still hope, and its name is summer and more help from the government. The sector doesn’t give up and waits for the open borders, the easement of restrictions, and financial aid to get back on track.

Tourism has been one of the most affected sectors during the covid-19 pandemic. “Our sector is a very specific one for this covid situation, and we are having a lot of problems: we don’t have work, and we can’t have plans for the next period”, confesses Amela Idrizi, from Best Travel in Skopje. Without sufficient help from the government, travel agencies also joined the hospitality sector protest in front of the Ministry of Finance on the 20th of April.

Travel agencies have the largest share of the tourism-related companies in the country (28%), only matched by the hotels’ share of also 28%, according to a recent study on the effects on the private sector – tourism and hospitality in Macedonia. “As a country, you have to help the agencies now when they need it, and they will give you back”, urges Ana Marija Aleksova, owner of the travel agency Staff and representative of the sector on the public protest.

Especially at a time where people are not traveling nor planning to. “For the summer, the reservations are so low”, laments Idrizi. “We don’t have reservations”. Since Best Travel primarily works with outgoing tourism, closed borders and PCR test requirements affect the company. “We have destinations without PCR tests like Albania and individual, under-request destinations like Dubai, Maldives”, adds Idrizi but for the moment is not enough.

The only hope is the summer. “We are still trying to save the summer, but it’s tough because we still don’t know if everything will be fine with the borders opening, the flights…”, shares Elena Stepanoska, office manager of one of the JK Travel offices in Skopje. The agency is working on some destinations like Turkey, Greece, and Albania, but the reservations are still low. “In Albania, this [PCR test] is not a problem – they make reservations, at the moment, and the sales are going but not very good because we have the police hours and people are not very interested in traveling”, explains Stepanoska. “I hope, after this, the sales will start.”

The Maldives and Dubai are also prominent destinations, but there is a requirement for PCR tests. “We can see that only richer people can afford them, but they are not very interested, at the moment”, says Stepanoska, mentioning a Bulgarian company they cooperate with and that only had the plane half full with passengers. Also, people are not that fond of the idea of getting tested now “because they are afraid they will test positive”. While there are still some people “calling and asking and coming to make a reservation in the hope they will travel”, others are afraid. “Now, it is very quiet; almost nobody is traveling this month – usually what they are looking for is from the end of May to the summer”, she says, pointing out that the preferred destinations are the ones without PCR test like Albania and Serbia.

However, there are some countries that people are not interested in at all. Bulgaria is one of them – “Nobody asked.  Before we were selling Bulgaria packages like every other country nearby but this year not”, tells Stepanoska, guessing this is due to the pandemic and the political situation. African states, the East, and the rest of Europe are also not on the list of requests anymore.

Groups are not that common traveling, especially because of the reduction of seats in transports. The sales are low also because instead of having multiple choices for hours of departures, now, there is only one bus for each place. “At the moment, there are mostly couples traveling to near destinations, like here in Macedonia, for example”, she mentions.

Since JK Travel is an outgoing company, they usually don’t work with Macedonian hotels, but with the pandemic, they had to adapt. “With the situation, we started to sell Macedonian packages, so I think it will be the same this year – we will have Macedonia and the countries around us too”, explains Stepanoska. However, focusing on the country may also not be an easy option for some companies. “People from Macedonia make those trips by themselves; they don’t use travel agencies for that”, states Izidri from Best Travel, who doesn’t have requests for Macedonian destinations.

“I think the smaller agencies are being very hit by this situation, and they cannot survive – we are having problems. I can only imagine how it is for them”, says Stepanoska sadly. According to the previously mentioned study that analyzed the tourism sector in Macedonia, no firm was not affected by the pandemic. 83% of the polled companies expected revenues to drop by over 50% in the last quarter of 2020, and 66% were very worried about reducing the activities on the domestic tourist market.

Still, from the same study, 66% of the companies inquired stated the measures taken by the state regarding the tourism and hospitality sector did not help them. “The situation here with our government and the economic packages they are giving as help stopped”, explains Stepanoska about the sector that’s not a priority and yet employs about 10 000 people in the country. “I just hope the borders will open and everything returns to normal – if not, everything will go to Hell”, she concludes.

“We have to pay the employees, the bills, and when you don’t work, you have nothing, you have money for nothing”, explains Aleksova. “That’s why we need financial help – money for the business to exist, for travel agencies not to close”, she urges.

The demands were regarding the campaign “home is home” – an initiative where the government gives 100 € vouchers to Macedonian citizens to travel around the country –, the vouchers from previous reservations from last year, and the direct financial aid. For the first problem, travel agencies ask for the voucher to be used through them, since it’ll be a greater help for the sector – “from this money we will pay to the hotel, to the guide, to everyone who is included in tourism”.

For the second one, they ask for the deadline of the vouchers to be extended one more year since there is still a lot of uncertainty for this one. “We don’t know what will happen this summer. I don’t believe Europe will open for us – this year, we are not that positive and optimistic about this”, she says sadly.

Last but not least, they ask for financial aid. “Last year, they gave us 6-month salary, and one time they gave us a grant from 1500 to 7000 euro per company, but for one company to live for one year, this is nothing”, explains Aleksova. This year, they only got two months’ salary and “that’s it”. But it’s not enough for the situation is still going. “This is happening all over the world, but other governments are thinking about it, and the people don’t have to go [to protests] like this for the government to help”, she declares. “I have to stay positive and hope our government will think healthy and decide to help us”, hopes Aleksova.

Rute Cardoso

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