A person at a travel agency. | Gemma Andreu

Were some town hall or local enterprise cooperative to organise a business opportunities seminar for budding entrepreneurs in the current Covid environment, certain types of business - it would be reasonable to assume - would be lower on the list of opportunities than others. Right at the bottom in fact. And one would be a travel agency, be this physical or online.

The ACAVE association of travel agencies in Spain reckons that three-quarters of businesses barely reached ten per cent of 2019 turnover levels in 2020. As well as the 30% which have already gone to the wall because of Covid, some 90% of those remaining “are still at risk”.

Agencies have been the forgotten element of the tourism industry; forgotten insofar as they aren’t airlines, tour operators and hotels which command all the attention. Dire would be understating a situation from which only major operators, such as the merged Barceló-Globalia agency set-up, may be among those which survive in reasonable health.

The budding entrepreneurs may of course sense an opportunity. If existing agencies crash and burn, then there are going to be gaps in the market once things right themselves. This is one way of looking at it. But right now, you would have to think that the travel agency sector comes with all possible alarm bells ringing to warn off new players.

It may just be - and one stresses may - that a severe contraction of the sector requires different approaches by certain tourism stakeholders who recognise that a great deal is at stake. May, because participation in the travel agency business isn’t exactly what some of these stakeholders are adept at or indeed why they exist - town halls and regional governments, for example.

But it is precisely these entities which are entering the market.
Leading this diversification of public service activity are the government of the Canaries and Benidorm town hall. In the case of the Canaries, over 50 million euros are due to be pumped into something which, to quote the islands’ tourism minister, “will be an innovative, intelligent and sustainable tourism destination platform, which will bring together data, information and services to improve the tourist experience”.

And what does any of this mean? Your guess is as good as mine and as that of various tourism industry commentators who haven’t got the faintest idea and who roundly reject the idea of a government getting involved in the way that is being proposed (if, that is, it was clear what actually is being proposed). Meanwhile, Yaiza Castilla, the minister, has explained that there have been talks with software providers, e.g. Amadeus, and online travel agencies such as Logitravel to discuss the “strategy”.

Travel agencies and tour operators are fearful that this publicly-funded project will in fact be in direct competition with them. For all the stuff about intelligent and sustainable tourism destination platform, and despite the minister seeking to allay fears, the Canaries government - so it is felt - is basically setting itself up as a travel agency.

Then one comes to Benidorm town hall, which has launched Visit Benidorm Travel, through which - says Mayor Toni Pérez - visitors will be able to design and package their own holidays by choosing and reserving accommodation, purchasing plane, train and bus tickets. Pérez doesn’t appear to have said anything about improving the tourist experience - that’s left to the Canaries tourism minister - but there’s little doubt that the experience tourists will have is that of an online travel agency.

One does of course understand that destinations want to do all they can to boost their tourism. But is this the way? Benidorm, in attracting its core British market, could enter into an agreement for promotion by having a video of the Best Bits of Johnny Vegas, aka The Oracle, from the TV comedy series and probably still do as well as having a travel agency. A town hall or regional government entering this sector seems wrong, not least because of the hardship that the sector is suffering.

Given the Benidorm and Canaries examples, might others be tempted to go down the same route. How about our own Balearic government? It would surely be enticed by a Canaries-style innovative, intelligent and sustainable tourism destination platform, as the words could equally pop out of the mouths of Balearic directors general and ministers - Iago Negueruela’s or Francina Armengol’s, for instance. The Council of Mallorca, through its tourism foundation, is equally as fond of such talk, if not more.

So, could Viajes Armengol or the Visit Balearics Travel online agency become a reality? I tell you what, there could be one advantage if the government were to run such a thing. The tourist tax could be paid direct. There might even be a discount for direct payment and missing out the accommodation-provider middleman. It’s a thought. There again ...