Brexit could “radically” impact tour operators’ ability to function if limits are imposed on EU workers being employed by UK-based companies.

The warning came from the European Tour Operators Association following a survey of more than 100 members which have more than 35,000 staff, with a third of these classified as “non-UK EU nationals”.

The study was carried out to establish the impact of any restriction on the employment of non-UK EU nationals among those based in the UK.

The majority (80%) of companies felt it would be “difficult to impossible” to replace EU workers with UK equivalents.

Language skills are particularly important if you are buying from or selling to people on the Continent.

ETOA members need to recruit ‘poly-lingual’ graduates who are happy to work in the UK. They may only represent 30% of the members’ workforce, but the jobs of the remaining 70% are contingent on their roles.

Not only are their skills difficult to obtain within the UK, but the EU workers have proved that they are willing to travel long distances to work, and are prepared to adapt, according to the association.

This “manifest motivation and flexibility” means that non-UK EU nationals make up the most productive part of the workforce.

“It is hardly surprising that any curtailment of the supply of these people will be detrimental, particularly to productivity,” ETOA said.

Chief executive, Tom Jenkins, said: “People are the most important asset of any organisation and our members’ exports are founded on their ability to employ the best.

“It is not merely a matter of being free to employ people, it is also a question of deployment.

“Tour operators carrying UK clients need the freedom to employ UK nationals as tour mangers and local representatives in continental European destinations.

“Thousands of UK nationals work across Europe in all sorts of roles: the reciprocity of freedom of movement is coveted and needs to be retained in any Brexit deal.

“But the greatest problem at the moment is uncertainty. Part of ETOA’s membership is optimistic about the situation, a greater proportion is very pessimistic, but the greatest proportion are extremely concerned.

“Brexit may radically affect their ability to function as a business, but they are hoping, if not for the best, at least for something which is not catastrophically bad. Currently, 20% of the companies are actively contemplating relocation.”

Only 16% of companies have tried using the ‘tier 2’ visa mechanism which is required to recruit workers from outside the EU, the research found.

Of those that have, 85% found the process “difficult to impossible”.

If this system were to be extended to EU workers, then nearly 80% of companies predicted a substantial detrimental impact on productivity.