Travel agents in Australia make a comeback as COVID-19 requirements complicate holidays

International travel has never before promised quite so much ecstasy … and agony at having to navigate a fiendishly complex web of rules, regulations, flights and fares that can change even between home and the airport.

And it's for that reason Australians are turning their back on booking travel online themselves to seek out the help of travel agents once more.

"In the last two to three weeks, business has shot up three or four-fold," said Flight Centre Australia general manager Kelly Spencer. "Now travel is more complicated, we're seeing a lot of customers who would normally book on the web and do it themselves coming to us for advice.

"They know that we know about the COVID requirements, the inbound and outbound documentation necessary, the PCR tests, COVID insurance, cruise and hotel cleanliness, and airline capacities and routes, and they want the security of one contact point for it all. People are very keen to go travelling again, and we're excited about helping them."

Personal trainer Rachel Baynes has organised her own travel online ever since she first came to live in Australia from her native Britain six years ago. But now, she's just booked a return flight to the UK, with a five-day break in Dubai on the way back, through her local Flight Centre in Sydney's Zetland.

"More than anything I think it was a bit of assurance and a nice feeling that someone would look after everything for you," said Baynes, 29. "Trying to book flights can be so stressful, regardless of trying to work out all the additional stuff you now need to consider.

"I felt I now needed the support too in case anything goes wrong, and there's a human I can talk to about it. Everything keeps changing and I don't want to get stuck anywhere and not know what I can do."

The Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) says COVID-19 has wiped out around one third of the travel sector – 15,000 jobs – and left a workforce of about 30,000 employed by 3000 travel agencies and associated businesses.

Before the pandemic, the industry had experienced year-on-year growth of 11 per cent, with Australians spending more than $46 billion on international travel in 2018/9. It could take several years to return to that level.

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But with the opening of international borders, travellers are flocking to book travel at agencies. In Melbourne, Mark Langhorne, of Freedman, Langhorne and James Travel Associates, says business has shot up in the last three weeks.

"It's gone from zero to 100 and we're seeing a lot of people who usually book online coming to us now," he says. "Travel is going to be harder to navigate on your own.

"There are now so many different conditions and requirements for people travelling, and what they need to do beforehand, it's virtually impossible without someone to guide them. My clients have always had my mobile number and I think they appreciate the reassurance that they can call me at 2am if they're in difficulty and need help, or they can call the 24-hour Travel Associates' customer-assist line."

Travel agents in both bricks-and-mortar stores and online agencies are happily surfing this new tide of business, says Dean Long, AFTA CEO. Corporates are also returning to the fold, to make sure they get the most up-to-date health and safety advice.

"Everyone's taking comfort in receiving the best advice possible about what to do and where to go and what their experience is going to be like," Long says. "We're starting to see agents really come into their own now, and we expect to see that ramping up over the next months as more people get prepared to travel."

One of the fastest growing segments of the market now approaching travel agents is the 21 to 38-year-olds, usually the group who like to go it alone and book direct online.

"But there's all these systems like red, amber and green in the UK, which can change colour anytime," says agent Luvena Lee, of Flight Centre Zetland, who took Baynes' booking.

"So customers love the idea if anything happens, we'll let them know and we can offer them protection again flight price changes. Now it's busier than any time I remember, even before COVID."

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