Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Will Trump win hit tourism?

Lexington Green, Massachusetts - will Trump win damage tourism?
What will a Trump presidency mean for tourism to the United States? Even in the run up to the election there were signs that young people in particular were deciding against travelling there - or at least delaying their decisions. Andrew Shelton managing director of the flight search and travel deals website Cheapflights says that during campaignng he company saw a steady decline in preference for trips to the US. Now that the unexpected has happened it may turn out to be a contest between sentiment and hard economics. If the dollar slumps against sterling the latter may triumph. However, the continuing Brexit farce make it unlikely that the $ will bounce back significantly against the $ - unless, that is, leaving the EU in any meaningful way begins to look more and more unlikely. By meaningful, of course, I mean an exit which will severely damage our trading relationship with Europe. Should sentiment prove the more powerful persuader, it will scarcely deter supporters of a hard Brexit. Against that women, traditionally more likely than British men to have the biggest say in picking destinations, may not feel that a Trump America is for them. And it is hardly likely that UK Muslims will be falling over themselves to holiday there, an effect which will be felt in many other countries.Then there is the issue of the visa waiver programme. Does Trump's anti immigrant rhetoric suggest a more general pulling up of drawbridges? A return to the days of tourist visas, which would clearly be replicated on this side of the Atlantic, would be a disaster for tourism and would threaten an adverse impact on international understanding. I have always thought the world would be a better place if Americans had longber vacations, during which to look more closely at other cultures. An increase in the number of countries subject to US tourist visa requirements would have precisely the opposite effect. In the words of Andrew Shelton: “Last year, the UK welcomed US tourists who spent £3 billion and whilst we’re confident that Brits will continue to want to visit the USA, what the ‘Trump Effect’ could mean for American tourists – faced with potential currency uncertainty and increased border controls at home – remains to be seen.”

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Holiday price gloom as £ hits 31 year low

With the £ sliding to a 31 year low against the US dollar today, who would be a tour operator just now? In the short term, as a phony war is fought over the shape of Brexit, advance purchases of foreign currencies will shield package holiday customers from the worst. Only once in their resorts will they feel the pinch. Independent travellers won’t suffer the full impact just yet either, assuming they fly with airlines that have bought fuel on the forward markets. Tourists with the clearest vision of things to come are those, like me, who have driven around Europe since the referendum vote and have already seen their holidays cost around 12%, after allowing for the constant of ferry or tunnel fares, because of the £’s fall against the euro. But there will come a point in the not too distant future when operators and airlines will be forced to raise prices and fares after accepting forward rates that reflect sterling’s weakness. Unless, unless…..the delusions currently besetting so many politicians in Government, that a so called hard Brexit can be achieved without long term damage to the economy and swept quickly away by an icy blast of reality. Only when the Government faces down the fantastists in Tory ranks and accepts that it will never be able to square the circle of barrier free trade with a ban on the free movement of people are currency traders likely to place renewed faith in the £. Of course, if you have savings in shares, higher holiday expenses may have been wiped out or at least offset by the rise in the FTSE 100. That rise has occurred mainly because it lists firms with heavy non sterling earnings that have benefited from the £’s slide. If you haven’t, trips abroad will soon consume more of your budget. And it could get worse yet.

Monday, 19 September 2016

French tolls sans fumbling for change

A first opportunity to use my new Liber-t tag on French autoroutes. Now available in the UK it enables you to sail through toll gates without queuing or fumbling for change - and saves your passenger the irritation of leaning out to take tickets or make payments. The small electronic device, attached to the inside of your windscreen, triggers the barrier and results in the tolls being deducted automatically from your UK bank account. It works brilliantly, though I confess I didn't have quite enough confidence to drive at the recommended speed through the telepeage channel marked 30 kilometres per hour . One point that may interest readers. Operator Sanef Tolling ( warns that unless your car- or in my case car with roof box - is lower than 2 metres, you need to go through an unrestricted channel, in which case it might occasionally be wrongly charged as a commercial vehicle. Cue much careful measuring before setting off. I was clearly below the safety height. But I needn't have worried in any case. On a round trip of over 1800 kms autoroute I didn't encounter a single height restricted channel. Tolls remain expensive - they amounted to around £145on a journey to the far southwest of France and back. And the damaged has been worsened by the impact of Brexit on the exchange rate. But at least my new gizmo eased the pain a little.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Sterling slump is one hard fact in Brexit confusion

The travel industry is often said to be a bell wether for the UK economy and again, post Brexit, it is so proving. Leave supporters may whistle all they like to keep up their spirits, pointing to the fact that shares are up and there is no sign yet of a serious economic slowdown, but the one hard fact in the confusion is the weakness of staring. Holidaymakers flying abroad, many of them likely to have voted leave, are among the first to experience the painful impact of the vote. In the past few days some airport currency exchanges have been offering as little as 99 euro cents to the £. Now it is widely accepted that airport rates are a rip off, but elsewhere you're unlikely to get more than about 1.13, a fall of 13% since mid June, before the referendum. A couple of tour firms have already reminded surcharges, though it's important to remember that under the 1992 package travel regulations operators must absorb surcharges up to 2% of the original holiday price and cannot pass on any increase later than 30 days before you are due to depart. The giant too operator TUI has warned UK customers booking 2017 may have to pay more for they breaks than they would have this year. How much prices will rise is impossible to gauge. First nobody has any idea whether the £ has now hit the bottom, second it depends on the proportion of the holiday price accounted for by hotels and other elements charge in the destination currency and third it depends on the rate at which the operator priced this summer's packages. If those costs represented 60% of the package price and sterling stayed at its current level it's likely the price would have to rise by just under 8% - and that's without adding any impact the cost of airline fuel, which is charged in US dollars. Tour firms are in a bind. Responsible firms buy most of the foreign currency they need on the forward markets to cushion the impact of a slump in the value of the £. If the direst warnings of the Bank of England and other experts come to pass this will prove crucial. But if they buy at depressed rates and sterling bounces back this means they may lose out, effectively paying suppliers such as hoteliers and transfer coach operators more than they need. With interest rates at a historic low a recovery of the £ a ny time soon seems a distant prospect. But equally, such is the ludicrous lack of clarity about the meaning of Brexit and the timetable for withdrawal - if indeed that actually happens in a meaningful sense - that anything looks possible.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Take your running shoes: Bilbao

Part One of an occasional series on places to take your running shoes:

Run between the legs of Louise Bourgeois' giant spider

Running in cities can be frustrating. Often there are too many roads to cross, too many pedestrians to dodge. Sometimes I have resorted to running around car parks. Sometimes, as in Mexico and Bulgaria, there have been so many potholes that I've been forced to return to the treadmill in the hotel gym. Bilbao hadn't struck me as an exception. How wrong I was. I stayed in two hotels in the capital of Spain's Basque country - one on either side of the River Nervion, once a nightmare of pollution, now a healthy artery. Both afforded quick access to running and cycling routes along its banks. From the NH Hotel I crossed the broad Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro in the heat of a summer evening to an uninterrupted route along the south bank.

Guggenheim Museum

First a pleasant park with a boating lake, ornamental trees, boating lake and broad avenues. then the river promenade, east as far as Frank Gehry's stunning and much photographed Guggenheim Museum, symbol of the city's regeneration since the days when the river was lined with heavy industry and a major draw for tourists. Unsurprisingly there are plenty of other runners on this traffic free route. I turn back beneath the legs of Louise Bourgeois' giant spider which may be admired without paying the museum's admission fee.  On the other side of the river I stayed at the Barcelo Bilbao Nervion. The path for walkers and cyclists is a bit closer to the road, the busy Paseo Campo Valentin, but as part of an interesting circuit I swung left outside the main door and headed towards the City Hall and the old town, crossing first the Ayuntmiento bridge and re-crossing the river on Santiago Calatrava's elegant Zubizuri - Basque for white bridge - which is reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. Three to four miles is about my maximum these days but you could easily run five miles without getting balked by traffic or slaloming between shoppers - while still being able to people watch as you go.

Calatrava's bridge

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Lowcostholidays - early warnings ignored

I wrote this article in 2013 for a publication specialising in travel law. I've resurrected it now to illustrate the failure of the mainstream media - of which I was long a part - to run complex stories on financial protection for travellers. A Fleet Street editor once told me he didn't want "anything about insurance" in the travel pages. I doubt if this will ever change. Yet his and other paper have always been quick to attack when thousands of Brits are left out of pocket or stranded in foreign resorts when a tour operator collapses. 

Though it passed almost unnoticed except by customers directly affected and travel industry insiders, the decision by Lowcostholidays to shift its business base from Britain to Spain was a seismic event in the development of protection for consumers booking holidays by air. The move coincided with debate over the European Commission's blueprint for updating its 1990 Package Travel Directive, which includes a proposal to make the cross border sale of holidays easier. The Commission cites a fictitious operator in Luxembourg who wants to sell packages in Belgium, France and the Netherlands but can't, because they won't accept the protection regime in the company's home country. In the case of Lowcostholidays we have an operator based in Spain, wanting to sell holidays in the UK. To the lay eye it would seem that under current EU law the UK authorities would be justified in taking the same view as the three countries in the EU example. I should add here that, after some initial confusion the Civil Aviation Authority confirmed that customers who had booked before the operator' transferred its business on November 1 would continue to be protected under Its UK ATOL certificate but that any protection for those booking after that date would be provided by the Spanish authorities. According to the Authority, which issued that ATOL, Lowcostholidays was selling holidays under the recently introduced flight plus rules in Britain but in Spain it will be selling them as packages. Flight plus protects consumers against insolvency but doesn't covers all the other elements of the Package Travel Regulations such as the right to cancel if an essential part of the holiday is changed. So where's the problem, you might wonder? Aren't Lowcostholidays customers getting better protection as a result of the move than they would have received if the company had stayed here? That's a tricky question to answer. In Spain EU directives are adopted by Madrid but implemented regionally. The region in question comprises the Balearic Islands. Under EU law, of course, travellers must be reimbursed if an operator fails before they depart. How easy would it be for them to secure that reimbursement if they had to deal with a foreign authority? The law also requires that that they must be repatriated in the event of a failure while they are on holiday. But where to? Harking back to the EC's example, it might not be such a problem if holidaymakers from Luxembourg were flown back to, say, an airport in Belgium. But what would happen if a company based in Mallorca - carrying passengers living in Britain - were to go under. Would the the Balearic Island Government be required to organise repatriation to British airports? Where would it find the aircraft? How much expertise do the authorities there have in such emergency situations, compared with the UK CAA? In theory a single, mutual recognition of protection regimes between EU member states may look attractive. In practice it would run counter to a priority long recognised in London and Brussels, which is to make protection simpler to understand for travellers. Imagine a future in which consumers have a choice of booking with operators based in three or four different countries, all offering the protection required by European law but all interpreting that law in slightly different ways. The result would be more, rather than less, confusion. One way of dealing with the problem of cross-border sales is through bi-lateral agreements between states, though for some in Brussels this may sound a retrograde note, evoking memories of air service bi-laterals in the dark ages before the single market in air travel. This would at least allow authorities in one country to thrash out agreed mechanisms for refunds and repatriation. What such agreements cannot do is ensure that the best expertise available is employed in ensuring that, whenever possible, companies go under at relatively quiet times of year, when the damage to holidaymakers is least severe. This is something Britain's CAA has become adept at over the four decades or so since Court Line, owner of when was then the UK's largest tour company, Clarkson's, collapsed slap in the middle of the summer peak. It should not be forgotten that even if consumers are guaranteed to get their money back when operators fail, they still often face disappointment that a carefully chosen and much looked forward to holiday now won't happen as originally planned. The mutual recognition proposal is not the only flaw in the draft directive. What exactly is an "assisted travel arrangement"? Does it include sales made on airline websites where a customer clicks through to book a hotel or rental car under a separate contract? Some experts think it does but it's not at all clear to me. Where does responsibility lie for organising protection? And why place an absurd arbitrary minimum value - ie 20% of the holiday price - on an additional element which, sold with a flight, turns the arrangement into a package? All these questons gether greater gravity in light of noises from Government suggsting ministers will be reluctant to "gold plate" new EU regulations for the better protection of UK consumers. Better make sure that they get it right to start with.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Travel uncertainty and the staycation myth

No sooner does the £ plummet than the "staycation" myth raises its hoary old head again. It's as predictable as "crashed jet had history of problems" when some hack has got hold of its routine maintenance records. Suddenly, so goes the lazy thinking, thousands of Brits have decided to stay in the UK rather than face the increased costs created by the slide in sterling since the Brexit vote. There will be some effect, admittedly, but it won't be significant. Why? First because the vast majority of Brits planning summer holidays have already booked - and in many cases paid in full - for their breaks. And second because the lack of guaranteed sunshine here means you may lose most of any currency related savings in ticket prices at rain proof attractions. Any serious increase in numbers holidaying in Britain is more likely to be the result of terrorist attacks that have made Tunisia and Sharm el Sheikh near no go areas and devastated Turkey's tourist industry - which has been dealt a further blow by lsat week's attempted coup. This has made accommodation in popular western Mediterranean resorts much harder to come by. As for the longer term impact of Brexit on holiday decisions, much will depend on political developments between now and the main, post Christmas summer booking season (it's increasingly likely that those of us who ski will find our already pricey trips markedly more expensive next season). An economic downturn could spell serious problems in the travel industry, especially for tour operators who gambled that a Remain vote would but the value of sterling. Further high profile collapses would clearly dent public confidence. One the other hand, signs that a deal is in sight with EU leaders that would result in the UK effectively or actually staying in the EU could encourage traders to buy sterling again, pushing its value up. Its weakness has already prompted the big US airline Delta to reduce planned capacity on winter flights from the UK to the US. Better safe than sorry. ON top all this is uncertainty caused by the US Presidential election. Suppose what would have seemed purest fantasy a couple of year back comes to pass, and Donald Trump beats Hillary Clinton to the White House.What would be his policy on the visa waiver programme? Trump has already spoken of a ban on immigration from countries with problems of home grown terrorism. It doesn't seem to me such a big jump from there to the reintroduction of visas for travellers who are currently exempt. It must add that successive Washington administrations have failed dismally to attach sufficient importance to incoming tourism. I fervently hope whichever side takes power next will recognise the importance of maintaining the visa waver programme. One thing's for sure though, not many Brits are likely to replace a hoped for American holiday with a staycation.