CHRISTIAN travel companies face financial difficulties — for some of them, possible closure — in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. The advice from the Foreign Office to avoid non-essential journeys has led to a fewer air passengers and flights, and tour operators have suspended travel, if not future bookings.
Companies affected include Lightline Pilgrimages, which connects Christian communities in the Holy Land with pilgrims in Britain; and Oak Hall Expeditions, which combines package holidays abroad with Bible study and Christian fellowship. Oak Hall posted on Facebook in mid-March: “The last five weeks of this winter season will not be able to go ahead as both Austria and Switzerland have just announced that they are closing all their ski resorts this weekend.”
Pax Travel, which runs pilgrimages to sites including Knock, in Ireland, and the shrine of Our Lady Queen of Love, in Italy, has closed its office. McCabe Pilgrimages, which offers holidays and pilgrimages to locations including Ethiopia, Greece, and the Holy Places, and which would have been arranging travel for visitors to the Oberammergau Passion Play this summer, has postponed tours, but hopes that the situation will be temporary.
The head of marketing for McCabe, Paul Ellerby, said: “We have successfully postponed most church groups travelling between March and June 2020 until equivalent dates in 2021. We are currently awaiting co-operation from our Passion Play office so that we can start work on rescheduling the groups which were expecting to travel this summer on to similar programmes in 2022.”
Airlines have faced criticism for making it difficult for individuals and businesses to claim refunds, despite being legally obliged to do so. Instead, consumers have been offered vouchers or bookings for a later date, at a cost of £100 or more, even when the possibility of an airline’s going out of business means that future tickets could become invalid and the money be irrecoverable.
Mr Ellerby said: “As a tour operator looking after the needs of church groups, we take our moral obligation seriously. As a result, we sometimes make decisions to postpone trips before airlines and even the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make their decisions. We rely on airlines refunding or deferring the flight cost, but, if this does not happen, then we stand to carry those losses. We will not be able to assess the financial impact for many months to come.”
Tour operators, including Camino Ways, which organises trips along the Camino de Santiago, have responded by cancelling fees should clients wish to change dates or locations. But Lightline’s chief executive, Rene Siva, said: “British Airways might refund us, but it is 50-50. In the mean time, I have to refund everybody.
“Once I cancel a tour, by law I have 14 days to do that, which means I have got to borrow money to refund the clients, which puts us into a hole. Some clients don’t see why they can’t get a full refund straight away, and I can’t tell people they will get their money back, whatever happens. We have had bad times before, but this is unique. Long-term, it is going to be a struggle.”
One-day pilgrimages to all C of E cathedrals in England, and some in Wales, organised as a joint initiative by the Association of English Cathedrals and the British Pilgrimage Trust to mark the 2020 Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage, are now virtual ones. The author Victoria Preston has now led the first virtual one to Croyde Bay, Devon, and Lundy Island.
She wrote on her blog at the end of March: “[My] past experience of virtual pilgrimage is that it can be as joyous as the real thing if entered into with a truly open mind.” Anyone wishing to participate in one of her pilgrimages can email her at email@example.com. Her book We Are Pilgrims (C. Hurst & Co.) was published on Maundy Thursday.