Chalkmarks: Everything’s been cancelled until the end of January

“Everything’s been cancelled until the end of January,” says tour director Tim Smith. “From March this year, from having 900 holidays to go out we’ve had only a handful.”

This is the impact on the UK’s coach tourism sector following the two lockdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Acklams Coaches, based in Yorkshire, has lost 90 per cent of its business in 2020. Usually they run 300 Door-to-Door Elite service trips, this year ten have operated. From their Short and Superbreak holidays around 150 went ahead. Their last tour was in October. 

Surely business would pick up at Christmas with last minute shopping trips, I ask? No.

We don’t want handouts, we just want time!

I speak to Tim in November when the new tier system was just being announced. Yorkshire is placed in Tier 3, which means no more coach trips leaving this year. 

“We are on the phones cancelling everything,” he says.

The business is devastated. Their 2021 European brochure has been at the printers since October.

He sounds tired. There’s lots of work ahead but only to refund and rebook passengers. He predicts a slow start to 2021.

It’s expected that customers won’t start booking until they’ve seen what happens with the roll out of the vaccine.

In the world of travel, we have heard the struggles from the rescued aviation industry which was grounded in March. The latest figures from IATA reveal that passenger traffic will have fallen 66 per cent compared to 2019.

Huge cruise liners having been left floating like ghost ships around the world – many off the Dorset coast. Package holidays made the news with their last minute deals for summer holidays abroad and then again when Britons rushed back to comply with quarantine rules. 

The coach travel industry hasn’t grabbed the headlines in the same way. Instead their CEOs were quietly out in the mornings cleaning their coaches.

In the middle of the year when the first lockdown lifted, Acklams ran a handful of day trips but it wasn’t business as usual. To keep everybody safe they spread passengers across two to three coaches to maintain social distancing.

They did it for their regular customers but also to let people know there were still around.

Coach tourism drives the success of the great British staycation and allows passengers – many who are over-55 – to have a break and get to seaside destinations.

Usually this is a thriving sector. In the 12 months before the Covid outbreak, 2.1 million people went on a coach holiday.

According to the Confederation of Passenger Transport, coach tourism contributes £14 billion to the UK economy and 12 per cent of the UK adult population used a coach for a holiday, day trip or private hire in the 12 months before lockdown.

Many operators are small family-run businesses. Acklams has been around for 70 years spanning three generations.

The big-star name Shearings collapsed into administration in May but the brand was bought by Leger in July.

Other than that, it’s as if coach tourism has been forgotten. Just as the vaccine brings some light at the end of the tunnel, the coach companies will be hit by Brexit. If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, it will mean changes to using guides and also it will affect where they can pick up and drop off passengers on the Continent.

The industry has already had the rugged pulled out from under them but they’re not looking for handouts from the Government.

“We want time,” says Tim. “We are looking at 18 months of not much business and it’s just time we need to rebuild.”

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