ECTAA (the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association), held its semi-annual meeting in Athens on 8-9 October 2020 during which the General Assembly re-elected its current President Mr. Pawel Niewiadomski, for a second two-year term.
Looking into the Future by Reflecting on the Past
Mr. Niewiadomski is also the President of the Polish Chamber of Tourism (PIT) which is the largest organization founded by the tourism industry operating in Poland.
We sat down with Mr. Niewiadomski to discuss his focus and objectives for the next years to come during his presidency.
Pawel, congratulations on your second term. You were initially elected in May 2018, is it correct?
PN: Usually, the tenure is two years, however, due to the crisis my first term was a bit longer than usual, for about 6 months. My next term will be a little bit shorter – 1.5 years. I was elected for my first term in Kuala Lumpur, ECTAA’s preferred destination in 2018.
Would you say that ECTAA’s duties and responsibilities have expanded with the crisis into being the information supporter?
PN: This is a very valid question because we are, of course, still lobbying and advocating for good market and business conditions for our member associations, but you are right in saying that we have ventured on the path of providing more prompt information coming from European institutions and feeding it back to our members. We used to provide all the needed information before, and we see the shift in the importance of this information for our members.
I will give you the example of the Recovery Fund which was announced by the President of the European Commission Mrs. Ursula van der Leyen. This is a fund which goes to EU Member States. We already started a few weeks ago to provide information to our members to ensure they know what to do to make this money applicable to tourism and allocated properly. Tourism is the third largest industry in our world’s economy, but, unfortunately, it does not get enough attention by the local governments, maybe with the exception of some countries like Greece, where tourism accounts for 20% of its GDP.
Besides information and advice, we also improved the practice of exchange of information and exchange of experience. In the current times it is extremely important to exchange the best practices between our member organisations. We organise zoom meetings and webinars where the leaders of our member associations, industry leaders and also destinations speak about their experiences. At the moment, an important topic is the credit card payments and how it affects the travel trade.
During this meeting in Athens, we have seen how much respect all the member associations have for ECTAA and when they leave the meetings, they will surely transcend the hopeful message you are sending to their members.
PN: With our meeting in Athens, we wanted to send a clear message to the travellers saying that we are traveling and it is possible to do it in a safe way. If we don’t send this message to the public, then we have nearly no possibility to restart travel. It starts with us. I strongly believe in it. If you travel, and regardless of when, you always have a travel risk. Now, in the past, the travel sector faced many other crises like volcano eruptions, political instability and there was always a question “do we travel here or do we travel there.” Now, however, it is a paradox as we are currently traveling safer. It has never been safer to travel than now: there is social distancing, there are masks and PCR tests.
Would you say a lot of countries still send conflicting information to the public about travel, if you compare it with March of 2020 and now?
PN: I believe whatever information was given to the public in March 2020, whether it was conflicting or not supported by any facts, could be justified as we did not know completely what we were dealing with.
I think now we know it much better, how this virus transmits and what measures can be taken.
Therefore, the travel business – and by travel business I mean also airlines and all means of transportation – there needs to be a better coordination of travel protocols. And this is what we have been advocating since the beginning of the crisis. There needs to be one common protocol introduced across Europe, otherwise we end up with different protocols not only in each country but each region or even municipality, creating an operational nightmare. I would really like the European Union authorities and institutions to be active and to be leaders setting us on the path of harmonisation of these processes.
I don’t support the introduction of new travel restrictions overnight and uncoordinated restrictions across neighbouring countries as these create complete nightmares for the tour operators, travel agents and the public. In this situation the job of the travel agents and tour operators turns into crisis management and conflict resolution.
Some of our members could not make it to our assembly due to uncoordinated travel restrictions by their governments and this is something that we would like to change. We don’t understand why travel restrictions are now part of politics.
The source of information is also not unified. We thought that the platform introduced by European Commission would be a good source, but it is not. It should target the demand of accurate and up-to-date information of the travel business, giving it the charge to inform the end consumers.
Do you feel that the European authorities should support the introduction of PCR testing at minimal cost prior to departure at the airports?
PN: Yes, and there will also be businesses such as tour operators, airlines or airports that will be interested in bearing that cost as long as their customers can travel. The cost can be as little as 15 euros or even less.
I think this is the only way to rebuild confidence in travel and rebuild the travel sector. It is psychological: if you get tested, you get the results in 10 minutes and then you get accustomed to it.
This is the only way to avoid quarantine as people don’t want to travel to certain destinations as they are required to quarantine for 10 – 14 days.
Testing until vaccine is invented is an alternative to solve all the problems we have envisaged for the past few months including the summer season.
What will be your priority now in terms of matters to attend to as once more elected President?
PN: In the actual fact, it will be the continuation of our agenda. But, of course, as I was saying, the most important thing is rebuilding confidence in travel and by saying so there is one extremely important factor, which is the coordination of the travel restrictions and I am mainly talking about the outbound and inbound travel. These need to be handled better.
Secondly, the most important point on the agenda is the Package Travel Directive – travel protections for travellers. We need to make decision makers aware that consumer rights are placed on the very high level and we do agree with the EU rules. However, in current circumstances, the risk tour operators and travel agents take is too big. Mostly the PTD is suitable for protecting customers in cases of insolvency like with the case of Thomas Cook. But, when you take into consideration COVID 19 and something that can be an equivalent of the World War, I think if we don’t find the right balance, then we simply get to the point where tour operators will no longer sell packages according to the PTD, but will just sell individual services, which brings another risk for the customers’ guarantees. We want tour operators’ and travel agents’ services to be at the highest quality level.
We need to concentrate on the help to the travel sector. Some countries will extend help to tour operators and travel agents. But we need to show to all the countries on the European level that this is an unprecedented crisis and it is not going away any time soon.
We also need to focus on relationships between airlines, ticket sellers and tour operators. This is a difficult matter as we know that airlines are in a pickle as well, but we must have equal level playing field between suppliers. How can a travel agent refund the customer in 14 days when the airline takes 3-4 months to refund the travel agent? Unique situation, I must say.
Greece is ECTAA’s Preferred destination now. Croatia is likely to become ECTAA’s Preferred Destination in 2021. How would you compare their campaigns in promoting their countries?
PN: Both Croatia and Greece have done a good job in attracting visitors from Poland, as an example. They also did a good job in promoting safety of travel to their respective destinations. Everyone remembers the speech “Greek tourism is back” by the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in June in a professional and attractive way. And I must say that our cooperation with the Greek National Tourism Organisation is very efficient.
From my perspective, Croatia did a great job too in analysing their campaigns as they have a very good monitoring system. The Minister of Tourism of Croatia every morning checks what their numbers are from yesterday. This crisis revealed that the analysis of data on a daily basis if available, is extremely important to make adequate decisions as soon as possible.
Croatia also sets the tone for the regional countries like Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Croatia is also doing well in terms of travel as they have 50% of sales in comparison to last year.
Lastly, have you ever expected that during your presidential term, you would have to face such challenges like this pandemic?
PN: Of course, not. To be honest with you, I couldn’t have predicted such situation ever occurring in 2018 or in January 2020. I was aware of the virus at the beginning of the year, but never expected that it would come from China and have such a hit on Europe. Or even, when it started in Italy – I would not have thought it would expand into entire Europe and have such an effect on a global scale. It is an extraordinary crisis both in economy and a travel business.
I however wonder if this pandemic crisis is part of a larger economic crisis – this I cannot say. But what I can say is that we are, unfortunately, facing problems both in travel and economic implications which will diversely affect travel in the near future.
At last, I would like to say that we must look into the future by reflecting on our past. We need to restore confidence in travel and with mutual efforts, I am sure we will.