Trade reports growing fears about travel to Middle East and eastern Med

Travel firms say concern is growing about travel to Middle East and eastern Mediterranean as a result of the war in Gaza but trading generally is unaffected.

Tour operators were closely monitoring events as Israel warned this week the conflict could last several months.

Airlines have already suspended flights to Israel and cruise lines have altered itineraries to avoid the region. This week Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said the war was deterring travel across parts of the Middle East, and highlighted the rise in the price of jet fuel, while MSC Cruises cancelled all sailings to Red Sea destinations until April 17, 2024.

The Foreign Office is advising UK travellers to avoid all but essential travel to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories but has not changed advice for neighbouring countries, including Egypt and Jordan.

Blue Bay Travel chief executive Alistair Rowland cited a “significant” impact on Egypt enquiries, with “lots of clients” wishing to alter trips but often unable to do so because advice remained unchanged.

He said: “Since the war commenced, enquiries [for Egypt] have dropped significantly and we have taken it out of our marketing programme for now.”

But Red Sea Holidays managing director Andy Grant said bookings were “largely unaffected”, adding: “Customers are generally aware of the vast distance between Gaza and the Red Sea Resorts. We will continue to monitor the situation accordingly and are always on hand to speak with any agents that may have concerns or need reassurance.”

He stressed the government had given “no indication” of any safety concerns in Red Sea Resorts or Luxor, with official travel advice unchanged.

Explore said sales had “softened” in recent weeks, but forward bookings were still 9% up year on year to the Middle East and Egypt. The adventure tour operator has cancelled all departures of its Lebanon and Israel tours until the end of this year but all other tours in the Middle East and Egypt continue to operate as normal with no itinerary changes.

The mixed picture was reflected in travel agencies, with some reports of clients avoiding Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Jordan.

Triangle Travel general manager Sarah Kenton said bookings and footfall “continued to be strong overall” after an immediate dip at the start of the conflict, but noted: “We have seen people asking us not to consider Egypt in our late searches.”

Greenstar Travel managing director Martyn Fisher said his agency had seen nervousness among clients were for certain destinations, including Crete in Greece. He said: “People don’t want to go near the area [of the conflict] but I don’t think it’s stopping people from booking other areas.”

Oasis Travel director Heidi Evans said some clients had been cautious about travel to Egypt and one customer had cancelled a holiday in Cyprus for next April. But she also reported new winter bookings for Egypt. “A lot of people people have not travelled for three years or so and still want to go away,” she said.

She also had six customers booked on business travel trips to Tel Aviv this week. All their flights have been cancelled. “We had five bookings affected, but we always book refundable hotel rooms that allow you to cancel a few days before,” she said.

The Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said said the consortium was “not currently seeing” an impact on bookings to the region or on demand but was “monitoring the situation closely”.

Barrhead Travel also said there was no noticeable decrease in bookings or demand.

With many bookings for countries such as Turkey for 2024, Barrhead president Jacqueline Dobson stressed: “It’s too early to understand any wider impact on the industry but our focus in 2024 will remain on providing our customers with the best value-for-money and the best service.

“A very small number of cruises and tours that took in Israel and Jordan have, naturally, been amended or cancelled and we’ve supported our clients with rebooking options.”

Andy Tomlinson, managing director, Sutton Travel, noted “some questions” from clients due to travel to the Middle East next year but said overall there was little mention of the crisis, with strong price offers still driving Egypt sales.

“Egypt is such good value for the next six months. We’ve not noticed any change but I can see how it would impact some people,” he said.

Bailey’s Travel managing director Chris Bailey also cited no “real pushback” from clients aside from some worries about family trips to Egypt.

“One family who went to Makadi Bay this week were very relaxed about it but the grandparents were nervous. I don’t think it will will affect us very much,” he said, adding: “I can only hope the geopolitical situation stabilises.”

Protected Trust Services managing director Mark Sutton said a key concern was the rise in fuel costs since October 7, and cited “palpable apprehension amongst travel businesses”.

He added: “The overarching sentiment is if flight prices continue on this trajectory, it may potentially challenge the affordability of future holidays for many travellers.”

Triangle Travel also warned that continued high prices were an issue for customers and warned they could force a later booking market for those with more budget constraints.  Kenton said that the market had started to book earlier than usual for summer 2024, instead of waiting until the traditional post-Christmas period to book.

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