The travel sector has been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and, despite economies slowly opening up, this seems to have had little effect on one of Malta’s leading agencies, Hamilton Travel, a family run SME, offering cruise ship and travel packages.
“The situation is crazy. We first closed in March and we haven’t sold a thing since then. We’ve had to make five people redundant, which was heart-breaking, since our company is family run, and we’re very tight-knit,” said Yasmin Hamilton, one of the Directors of the company.
At the moment, she added, the family is “just hoping for the best”, but, despite activity in Malta and in many countries in Europe restarting – albeit in a limited way – the company hasn’t seen any movement, on its end, yet. “We’ve been left in the dark, and no one really knows what lies ahead,” she said.
One of their most crippling issues, she continued, is the issuing of refunds to clients who had already booked a package and paid a deposit. “I think there’s a misconception since we don’t keep the money ourselves. It goes straight to our suppliers, some of whom ask for a 50 per cent deposit, while some ask for the full amounts. And, now, our suppliers are refusing to give us back the money we’ve paid, and insurance companies are refusing to cover clients when it comes to COVID-19, even though the policies state that they’re covered in the case of a pandemic or a travel ban”.
Thus, the company finds itself between a rock and a hard place, Ms Hamilton explained: not earning any revenue – due to the lack of bookings – yet being subject to an EU Directive which forces them to refund clients, even when that liquidity is in the hands of other suppliers, who do not want to reimburse the agent.
“It’s a very big problem, and we’re sandwiched in the middle. We cannot give a refund if we have not been given it back ourselves,” she said, adding that Malta’s Consumer Affairs have been on their case about this issue, and have not tried to see the practical challenges, and help them resolve them. “We need help. Thankfully, the Chamber of SMEs are really trying to help us, giving us support, to try and sort out the issues, so we’ll just have to see how we’re going to conclude,” she asserted.
Added to this, recovery is hampered by events out of the agent’s control. Just this Saturday, the Italian MSC Cruises – one of the firms Hamilton Travel represents – announced they would restart their Western Mediterranean Cruise. However, the agent is not allowed to sell tickets, since Maltese passengers will not be allowed to board the ship due to safety concerns. “They’re only selling to Italian clients,” the Director said.
Looking ahead, “we’re taking it day by day and tackling it in the best way we can,” she said, adding that, last Monday, 3rd August, they had reopened their offices until 2pm, taking all the necessary precautions.