When will this nightmare end? That is the question many, if not all, Irish people – and people across the world – have been asking themselves in recent days, as the coronavirus crisis has continued to worsen.
The most pressing concern is now and will remain, obviously, one of public health, while the economic and societal impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are also being keenly felt globally.
But there is another question many people are asking. “When will I be able to travel again, and is there any chance I will be able to take the summer holiday I have booked and paid for?”
The short and very simple answer to both of those questions is: no one knows for sure.
The Department of Foreign Affairs continues to warn all Irish citizens against non-essential travel off the island of Ireland “until further notice”, a blanket warning that is utterly unprecedented.
Airlines, hotels and tour operators all over the world are facing a crisis of unimaginable scale while those of us who have booked flights and holidays for the weeks and months ahead are staring at calendars and wondering if those trips are fading into the mist.
Ryanair has grounded almost all its flights until the end of May at the earliest. Aer Lingus by contrast is playing a game of up-in-the-air chicken with its passengers by only cancelling flights in short blocks which enables it to avoid refunding some impacted passengers.
Of course it is not only the travelling public wondering what will happen next and when the sector will return to normality – or at least whatever normal becomes when the crisis passes.
Mary McKenna has operated Tour America for 25 years and up until early in March, her business was doing well. “Then suddenly everything fell apart,” she says.
“We’re not getting any income and my staff are working remotely and have been putting in such long hours just to get people home from the US. No money is coming in and we still have all of our overheads. It’s pretty dire,” she says flatly.
“Being honest, I think it will be September and October before things start getting back to normal,” she suggests. “I’d like to think there is a possibility it could be July or August, but I don’t know. What I am more sure of is that when it does come back to normal I think people will start travelling again very quickly.”
She says we will have to wait several weeks before an accurate picture will emerge. “I don’t think it will be possible to anything definitive for at least a month. We will have to see what’s happening in Italy before we know what’s going to happen everywhere else.”
McKenna says that when Italy passes the coronavirus peak and starts coming out the other end of its nightmare, “that might give us give us some indications but as it stands I’d be hopeful for September or October.”
John Cassidy of Cassidy Travel has been in the travel trade for more than 35 years and says that to get any sense of when things might start returning to normal we will “have to look beyond Ireland towards Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy and other markets”.
He points out that “people will not travel until they know it is safe. There are so many questions, not least about the nature of this particular pandemic and if it will have the capacity to return.”
He says the really crucial thing when it comes to recovery in the travel sector is what happens everywhere. “The Department of Foreign Affairs isn’t looking beyond May, so realistically we can’t see what’s going to happen after that.
“Maybe if this thing goes away as fast as it came, things might get up and running sooner rather than later and we might be telling a different story in June but as of now… I don’t think anybody will really know anything until the end of April.”
Despite the lack of anything close to clarity he remains hopeful that things may be “back up and running in June. And my other hope is that we will all have spent so much time trapped in our homes that when it ends we will be desperate to get away. Maybe with the economic impact of the crisis people will be going on fewer holidays but many will still want to travel.”
The President of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) Pat Dawson is not so optimistic. “I think planes will be ready to fly in July but the big problem then will be when the borders in other countries will open.”
He points out that Spain is among the biggest markets for Irish holiday makers with 2.4 million packages from Ireland to Spain sold each year. “The lingering question will be is it safe to travel there and elsewhere. Honestly I think it will be August or September and that is going to be with the wind behind us.”
“October is the new July,” says travel writer and publisher of the TravelExtra magazine Eoghan Corry.
He points out the undeniable reality that Ireland will only recover its appetite and ability for overseas travel when other countries do likewise.
“We will hopefully be in a better position than some countries but we will all move at the pace of the slowest part in the chain,” he says.
How soon many Irish people travel again “depends on how fast Spain or and the other major markets recover,” believes Corry.
And we are nowhere near being able to assess when that might given the devastating impact the virus has had there.
Corry points to a glimmer of hope for an industry on its knees. “There will be a lot of pent-up demand for travel and that will be released very quickly. There is a desire for travel, be that for business or leisure, and it is not going to go away.”