"I guess for me the hardest bit of Covid is seeing my very successful travel business dissolve into nothing or less than nothing, for reasons beyond our control."
"It has been an uphill battle that we are still fighting today."
"Pre-Covid we had 25 staff, now there are 11."
The comments are from Bay of Plenty travel agents who have dealt with job losses and drastic falls in revenue. Others have been forced to close.
The industry association says national employee numbers have dropped from 5000 to 1500, and the multi-billion-dollar outbound travel sector revenue had dropped by 90 per cent.
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash says substantial support has been extended to travel agents, known in the trade as Inbound Tour Operators [ITOs].
"They will play an important role in helping to rebuild international tourism once borders re-open."
However, Galaxy World director Joanna Corbett said from July 2019-December 2019 Galaxy World in Rotorua made $3 million in sales which was not a record. For the same period in 2020, they made $100,000 from refunds.
Corbett said staff numbers had also dropped from seven to two, which was heartbreaking.
"Losing our team was very, very hard. I guess for me the hardest bit of this Covid is seeing my very successful travel business dissolve into nothing or less than nothing, for reasons beyond our control."
In her view, the biggest frustration was "our profile".
"We hear about tourism and hospitality. But there is a void when it comes to the travel industry."
Despite the challenges including trying to "squeeze blood out of stones" for outstanding refunds from airlines, cruise companies, tour companies, rental car companies and insurance companies - she remained upbeat.
"'We [remaining travel businesses] are all throwing money in to support our businesses which we believe in, and know are successful.
"I believe in travel. I love to travel. It is exciting. It's what I wanted to do when I was 14, and it's what I want to do now at 60. It's my world."
YOU Travel Bethlehem managing director Kay Rogers says pre-Covid the company had 25 staff, now there are 11, including a home-based broker group.
"We forecasted a much healthier bottom line on our budget come April 1, expecting open borders to Australia and the Pacific Islands, so we are getting used to being disappointed.
"However, we are feeling hugely proud of our efforts to sustain the business over the past 12 months and we remain optimistic as the vaccine has given us a new goalpost in our sights."
She believed the cruise market would bounce back and many people were holding thousands of dollars of credits from previously cancelled cruises, so these people were keen to rebook and travel.
"Cruising in Europe, the UK and Australia has already kicked off and we are very concerned that Kiwis will miss out for 2022 and 2023 if they don't book soon.
"The challenges presented to all cruise companies has been well documented on the huge changes cruise lines are making onboard their ships.
"Smaller vessels are showing most popular as they are seen as a safe travel option."
Rogers said most destinations were currently offering 100 per cent guarantee for future bookings and "this is particularly indicative of the cruise market and South Pacific resorts".
She had absolute confidence in the future of travel.
"It continues to be my passion because it's a challenging exciting industry, that could never be called boring. It's a pleasure to get up and come to the office every single day because you never know what the day will bring."
House of Travel Tauranga owner Shane Kennedy said from early 2020 it had been a real challenge.
"House of Travel decided early on we needed to see this through for our customers, team and business, but it has been an uphill battle that we are still fighting today.
"We are optimistic that we have done what is needed, and that we'll come out as a strong team on the other side."
Kennedy said like many tourism businesses in this current climate, "sadly, our team has reduced considerably in the last 12 months".
The company was fortunate to secure funding where applicable.
"The reality is this money only offsets some of our losses and this will continue until the borders re-open.
"But we remain committed to keeping our stores and rebuilding our team as best we can once international travel resumes."
People were still travelling, he said for a range of reasons, largely for compassionate travel and repatriation.
"International travel at the moment is incredibly complex but we are enjoying resolving some challenging compliance restrictions for our customers, sharing our knowledge and being on call 24/7. The feedback we're getting on our services is very comforting as we support our customers as best as we can."
House of Travel Papamoa owner/operator Tanya Aitken said 2020 had been a "journey to help us all discover what grit we really do possess, and it has challenged us in ways we never thought possible".
The business was championing domestic travel and was grateful for the support from customers.
They were even organising an event later this month, to inspire Kiwis to travel locally and support a local business.
"We are also seeing very strong inquiries for cruise holidays from 2022 and onwards. We are fighting to get cabins on world cruises as soon as they go on sale, with some selling out within a few hours. The demand is still there and as soon as it is safe, the ships will be full again."
Travel Agents Association president Brent Thomas said this time last year about 5000 people were employed as agents or consultants around the country but there were now about 1500 still in the industry and some were just clinging on.
He said pre-Covid, 70 per cent of employees were female and often they were the main breadwinner.
"So they have been disproportionately affected by the downturn in trade."
Banks were also reluctant to lend to travel agencies which had put them in an unenviable situation alongside - in his view - a lack of Government funding and support.
The total outbound travel industry was worth about $10 billion in 2019 and Thomas estimated that would have dropped by 90 per cent.
Minister Nash said 26 ITOs had been offered $20 million in concessionary loans which were interest-free and did not have to be repaid for two years.
"This will help the ITOs downscale operations while borders are closed, and enable them to be ready to scale up again when our border opens."
Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said in a parliament debate it was still not safe to have a travel bubble with Australia and it needed to give travellers as much certainty as it can.
This included a plan for an outbreak, including what happens to stranded travellers.
"We can't unscramble the egg. Once we open this we need to be able to stick to it in some form."
What is the Travel Reimbursement Scheme?
Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment Financial Accounting and Control manager Steve Burgess said the Covid Consumer Travel Reimbursement Scheme was launched in October 2020 to support travel agents and wholesalers recover refunds and credits owed to New Zealand consumers from international travel companies.
"It pays New Zealand-based travel agents 7.5 per cent of the value of all cash refunds they are able to successfully recover for their customers and 5 per cent of the value of all credits successfully secured or rebooked for international travel."
The scheme was funded to a maximum of $47.2 million. Travel agents could submit claims up until June 30, 2021.
As of February 28, 2021, a total of $22,037,405 had been paid out to travel agents.