Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center) admitted on Wednesday that the confusion over whether charter flights are allowed or not arose because Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) needed to make a quick visit to Sweden to discuss a new documentary series on the MS Estonia disaster. Travel agents who sold trips to Turkey based on the new directive suffered damages. It turned out that what is permissible for the PM is not permissible for tour operators.
Is it true that the charter flights ban was lifted a few weeks ago because PM Jüri Ratas had to fly to Sweden unexpectedly?
Yes, because it was a special flight that falls under the same category as charter flights, the directive was indeed lifted. Yes, aviation companies contacted us and asked whether flights were now permitted. And yes, the ministry told them the directive has been lifted which means flights are allowed.
But I would give a contrasting example. The website of leading Finnish tours operator Aurinkomatkat clearly states that all trips to third countries have been canceled for the fall season, irrespective of flight bans. I believe Estonian entrepreneurs should follow suit.
The ministry explicitly told travel agents that charter flights were allowed?
Because the flights ban directive had been lifted, there was no other answer we could have given.
But tour operators should keep in mind that the situation is changeable. We could see changes in government or coronavirus committee decisions in which almost all ministers have a hand. The situation can change at any moment. Situations might also change in destination countries. The COVID-19 case rate was hiked tenfold in Latvia in a single week. This is not the time for making long-reaching decisions based on things remaining the same.
You never intended to allow flights to third countries and the entire confusion was created because of the prime minister’s special flight?
It was a single special flight for which we needed to lift the order.
Why couldn’t the ministry have told travel agents to save their money as the ban was lifted for a special flight that did not concern them?
Legally speaking, all the ministry’s officials could say was that the directive had been lifted. Ministry officials cannot forecast subsequent decisions by the coronavirus committee. Only the committee can do that.
They could have phrased their answer differently.
Communication could have been different. That it would not be wise to commit to long-term obligations as the situation is likely to change.
That said, travel agents could also have considered that everything might change overnight, that additional measures could be taken suddenly and cause a lot of problems.
In other words, tourism companies need to be prepared for the PM needing to travel again in which case bans will be lifted for a day?
Restrictions on flying to third countries are tougher today, while in Europe, it is allowed to fly to countries the COVID-19 case rate of which is up to double the European average. This means that we can fly to almost all European countries today. I believe there are five countries where the case rate is higher than that.
It is a rather absurd situation where the tourism sector has been delivered a serious blow because of the PM’s special flight and trusting a government decision.
I believe the tourism sector could have thought a few steps ahead. I would emphasize the Aurinkomatkat example again as a travel agent that considers that organizing trips might have serious consequences.
I believe both sides should consider this aspect and their communication.
But they were proceeding based on a ministry directive?
Again, the Finnish ministry has issued no such directive and yet tourism firms are acting responsibly.
What you’re saying is that Estonian travel agents are not being responsible in basing their actions on a ministry directive?
What I’m saying is that I believe our northern neighbors are taking the situation more seriously.
The Estonian Association of Travel Agents has decided not to turn to court at this time but wants the latest directive that bans charter flights to third countries, including Turkey, lifted. The association also wants to be involved in any future discussions concerning potential bans. What say you?
As concerns involvement, it is sensible and necessary up to a point. But the decision will be made by the COVID-19 committee based on Health Board data and recommendations. Recommendations of what should be allowed and where will not be made by travel agents. We will discuss travel restrictions during the government sitting on Thursday, while I will base my future steps on the decisions of the coronavirus committee.
In your personal opinion, should the directive be lifted?
I agree with the Health Board that has urged people to spend the school holidays in Estonia this fall and avoid taking risks by traveling abroad.
That is to say you are not in favor of lifting the ban?
I am not in favor of it, but the decisions will be made by the COVID-19 committee.