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The Future of Travel: The post-COVID road to recovery

Jenny Southan

Editor, Founder and CEO

Globetrender, the UK’s leading travel trend forecasting agency and online magazine dedicated to the future of travel.

The health of the tourism industry is inexorably linked to the health of humanity. It’s somewhat dystopian to see we are now living in a world where countries (such as the UK) are imposing hotel quarantines on visitors from “red list” destinations, or offering vaccines to those who come on vacation as an incentive (in the case of the Maldives). To prevent the free movement of the COVID-19 virus, people have had to curtail their freedom. The fortunate thing is, unlike this time last year, there is now a panacea available, and as the worldwide inoculation drive continues at speed, international travel will soon be back on the agenda.

Pre-pandemic, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that about one in ten people globally worked in the sector. By March 2021, about 62 million of these had been lost, the organization said, along with close to a US$4.5 trillion revenue decrease due to a 70 per cent drop in spending. It’s hard to fathom the implications of these numbers and just how serious the task ahead is in terms of recovery. But in spite of all the challenges, people want – and need, desperately – to travel again. Collectively, we are highly resilient and innovative. For every problem faced, ingenious solutions are being developed.

A good example is the digital “immunity passports” being rolled out by airlines and governments around the world, which will be key to getting people across borders again with minimal interventions in terms of COVID testing and periods of confinement (at Globetrender we call them “Vaccine VIPs”). The IATA Travel Pass (from the International Air Transport Association) will likely have the greatest uptake – the idea is that it provides a globally recognized and approved certification for travelers who have been vaccinated, as well as displaying PCR test statuses, making it quicker and easier for authorities to process passengers at border control.

Queues, of course, are going to be a very serious problem unless immigration is urgently streamlined – just look at the seven-hour waits being endured at London Heathrow airport in the UK. One passenger told the BBC: “I felt really unsafe. It was really disorganized. One mother had to feed her baby on the floor. It’s not humane.” By mid-April 2021, the IATA Travel Pass was being trialed by almost 30 major airlines including Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Virgin Atlantic and SWISS so the hope is that this situation will improve. If not, it will be extremely off-putting to travelers.

VeriFLY is another health passport provider, in this case teaming up with carriers such as British Airways, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, which are all part of the Oneworld alliance. “We are constantly looking at ways to make travel easier and simpler for our customers; and navigating testing requirements and validation is a big piece of that,” said Julie Rath, vice-president of customer experience for American Airlines. “All of our airports will now accept customers’ testing verification via the VeriFLY app.”

What will be interesting to see is how attitudes to having the vaccine will evolve. While some countries and even airlines (such as Australia’s Qantas) have said they won’t admit people who haven’t had the jab, other destinations such as Turkey and Greece that rely heavily on tourism, will be more lenient. Instead, they will rely on testing protocols. When it comes to cruises, on the other hand, operators will be taking a strict approach – everyone on board will have to have been inoculated. It’s easy to see how there will be a division in freedom enjoyed between those who have had the vaccine and those who haven’t. Politics will also play a very big part in the privileges citizens from other countries are given.

Normally it takes at least ten years to develop a vaccine but scientists around the global have managed to bring seven COVID-19 vaccines to market in a matter of months. Not only that but more than 880 million doses have now been administered – with 200 million given in the US alone, giving a quarter of the population full protection and over 60 per cent of the population given at least one jab. Although decisions are still being made about how much freedom fully vaccinated persons can have, the expectation is that they should be able to resume living as they once did – and that includes travelling internationally.

After a poor start to 2021, which saw an 87 per cent fall in global tourist arrivals in January compared with the same period in 2020 (according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization), the UNTWO forecasts two possible scenarios for quarters three and four. If all goes well, a global upswing could begin in July, in line with travel restrictions being lifted and consumer confidence returning. In this case, the UNTWO projects a 66 per cent increase in international arrivals for 2021 compared to the lowest points in 2020 (although this would still be 55 per cent below the levels recorded in 2019).

Alternatively, recovery will start later in the year, in September, with a more modest 22 per cent increase in overall arrivals for the year (although still equating to 67 per cent fewer than 2019). UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili, said in a statement: “2020 was the worst year on record for tourism. The international community needs to take strong and urgent action to ensure a brighter 2021. Improved co-ordination between countries and harmonized travel and health protocols are essential to restore confidence in tourism and allow international travel to resume safely ahead of the peak summer season in the northern hemisphere.”

In the lead up to the rebuilding of international flight networks, airlines are focusing on expanding domestic and regional routes first, anticipating demand for short-haul rather than long-haul journeys, initially, and leisure over business travel. According to a report published in December by global aviation data firm Cirium, 77 per cent of all flights taken in 2020 were domestic and 30 per cent of commercial aircraft fleets were grounded. In May 2021, Chicago-based airline United will launch 26 new nonstop domestic routes between Midwest US cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee to summer vacation destinations such as Hilton Head (South Carolina), Portland (Maine), Pensacola (Florida) and Savannah (Georgia).

The approach is slightly different in Europe, where train services and roads provide adequate access to domestic tourism hotspots such as Devon and Cornwall in the UK, where the G7 climate summit will take place in June. Instead, airlines such as Easyjet are placing their bets on short-haul overseas destinations, particularly in the Mediterranean. For example, at the end of June it will be flying from Birmingham to Alicante, Malaga and Palma in Spain, plus Faro in Portugal and Corfu in Greece. Ali Gayward, Easyjet’s UK country manager, said in a statement: “We’ve kept our fleet in a flight-ready mode so we are ready and able to ramp up our services quickly and increase our capacity where we see increased demand for the summer.”

Looking further ahead, aviation experts don’t predict long-haul traffic to return to 2019 levels until at least 2023 or 2024, as there will be continued concern about third and fourth waves of the pandemic, new (possibly vaccine-resistant) variants of the virus, and continual revisions to country-specific travel rules and regulations. Also, while many people will feel okay about doing a short flight, they may have more anxiety about travelling long-haul. The best strategy is planning for uncertainty – it’s something that has to be lived with – and looking for windows of opportunity.

When it comes to business travel, there will be a long-term reduction. Bill Gates predicts a permanent 50 per cent drop. This might be a worse-case scenario, but on the plus side at Globetrender we anticipate a significant rise in “workations”, where travelers stay for longer periods of time in one place and combine work with leisure. Single-purpose trips will become less common. It’s a logical continuation of the “working from home” trend, which will see companies willing and even encouraging of “working from anywhere” (we already have evidence of this with the flurry of new “digital nomad visas being offered by destinations such as Barbados, Dubai and Croatia). Whether it’s professional life, family life or personal life, the future is hybrid. And the same goes for travel.

“In many ways, the past year or so has felt agonizingly slow, but the progress being made at overcoming the virus has been phenomenal.”