It’s official; this lockdown is going to take longer than we originally expected. So if you’re still hoping that summer vacation you planned months ago is going to push through – forget about it. If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone; all over the world travel plans have been put on hold – or cancelled altogether. And if, and when, “normal” travel operations resume, there will hardly be anything normal about traveling for leisure in the foreseeable future.
The good news is; the travel industry has proven resilient in the midst of crisis: the 9/11 terror attacks, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, and the SARS epidemic are all recent examples of how, after a temporary disruption in global travel, the industry has managed to come roaring back with record growth. You could say that we’ve been here before, but unlike the crises of the past, even the most optimistic industry analysts are not as bullish about the rest of 2020. Indeed, with the COVID-19 pandemic still to peak in the weeks to come (and many more months for anxieties to subside), there’s little reason to believe we can all travel like it was still 2019. Here are some of the ways the global travel industry will adapt to a paranoid post-pandemic reality.
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1. Contactless and friction free transactions will be standard
Airlines and hotels have been trying hard to get customers to migrate to online check-in services and other forms of contactless transactions, but as social distancing — voluntary or otherwise — becomes increasingly common (or demanded) in transport terminals, vessels and hospitality and entertainment spaces, travelers will finally realize the convenience and safety of so-called friction free services without companies having to convince them.
Of course, airplanes won’t be able to fly without any crew, and hotels can’t operate without frontline staff, but the post-pandemic world will find companies trying to reduce the amount of face-to-face transactions and other intimate customer experiences by using smart technologies to replace human interaction, when possible. The business model is already in place: several hotels and airports have contactless check-in counters available, and retail outlets have been offering contactless payment for years; its just a matter of accelerating the use of technology to match the behavioral change of customers.
The use of technology to substitute in-person customer service, however, will be a big challenge for companies such as luxury resorts and premium airlines which bank on personalized services and intimate travel experiences as their competitive advantage. It remains to be seen if travelers will be willing to forego the human touch in exchange for a real — or imagined — sense of safety.
2. Hygiene is the new green
If the last decade witnessed a trend in companies marketing their green credentials to the growing class of environmentally-conscious travelers, then the next few years could see a shift in strategy to attract hygiene-conscious customers seeking protection from viral and bacterial infections. Travelers have always been sensitive about the cleanliness of airline cabins, hotel bathrooms and restaurant kitchens (and rate them mercilessly on TripAdvisor), but not until the recent pandemic began have customers been as demanding about the disinfection protocols, the availability of sanitary products, and the use of face masks (and gloves) by frontline staff. It won’t be enough for coaches, suites and cabins to look tidy, customers will expect hard proof that these spaces are also safe to touch and occupy.
To soothe the nerves of anxious clients and to attract the loyalty of the emerging class of hygiene-conscious travelers, companies may turn to publishing their sanitation standards or perhaps even promote their public health initiatives as a unique selling proposition. Governments and local tourism authorities may likewise impose stricter health measures and it’s not unlikely to have an industry standard emerge similar to ISO certification awarded to health care facilities.
Although the concern for hygiene is legitimate, it threatens the spontaneous and tactile nature of the travel experience. How to introduce a safe environment without transforming cabins and suites into dull, antiseptic spaces will be a difficult balancing act, indeed.
3. Places where tourists converge will be redesigned to enhance health security
There’s a tendency for security and regulatory agencies to exaggerate their response to crisis. We’ve seen how governments around the world have added layer upon layer of security protocols after every terror attack — some of which might seem pointless (think security guards poking sticks in your bag at the entrance of shopping malls). But unlike with stopping the odd terrorist cell from plotting a new attack, it won’t be enough to simply add manpower on the ground (for checking the temperature of people or enforce social distancing as we’ve seen with efforts to manage the spread of the COVID-19 virus), or install disinfection chambers at the entrance of spaces where tourists converge (imagine x-ray body scanners which spray a disinfectant agent when entering).
These measures surely help, but they may not be entirely necessary unless travelers find themselves in the midst of a raging pandemic. Instead, government agencies and travel companies can start by designing spaces with better air ventilation and purification facilities, natural daylight, and surface materials that are easier to clean and disinfect. Equally critical is the lay out of such spaces to reduce bottlenecks in the transit of people. This can apply as well to aircraft, trains, cruise ships, hotels and other enclosed spaces where tourists congregate. Unfortunately, managing the flow of travelers — whether through disinfection chambers, additional quarantine controls or social distancing measures, will only create longer cues at check-in counters and boarding gates. Will this require us to be at the airport four hours before a flight? We can only hope authorities don’t get carried away by irrational fear.
4. Travelers will insist on space
The COVID-19 pandemic will be over some day, but it could take much longer for our collective fear to abate. Meanwhile, expect people to continue practicing a certain level of conscious or unconscious social distancing – especially in the midst of strangers (which is practically every other traveler you encounter). We saw this happen during and after the SARS epidemic of 2003 and we see it practiced against select ethnic groups after every new terror attack. Paranoia will take time to subside; in the meantime, people will want to travel in less congested vessels, holiday in less crowded hotels, and visit less populated tourist attractions.
The obvious victim of this new defense mechanism is the fleet of mega cruise ships. The high profile news coverage of COVID-19 infections aboard giant cruise liners has given these vessels the image of a floating petri dish. Travelers will probably think twice about vacationing with thousands of other passengers gathered together for long periods of time at sea. This may not diminish the allure of cruising altogether, however. Instead, we could see a shift to cruise holidays on vessels designed to accommodate a lower volume of passengers.
The same principle could just as well apply to commercial aircraft, train and tour coaches, resorts and hotels. For as long as they feel vulnerable, cautious tourists will want to avoid travel on jam-packed vessels and opt to stay in low-density hotels where close contact with strangers is easier to manage. If that’s not possible, then customers will probably demand to know the volume of passengers and guests on the same flight, tour group, or hotel, before going ahead with their booking.
Because density and personal space will be an overarching factor, the impact will be felt less in First and Business Class cabins, luxury cruise ships and hotels where a generous space to guest ratio is traditionally practiced. Other travel services that can expect a boost from those seeking a bit more distance from the crowd are private car and Airbnb rentals. Of course, the extremely wealthy have the option of flying private, chartering a cruise and leasing a private villa. But with many more travelers opting to sit out 2020, who knows, maybe space will free up without having to pay a premium for it.
5. Micro tourism will become mainstream
Advocates of micro tourism may have been right all along. For decades they’ve warned us how mass tourism degrades the environment and commercializes local culture. Now they could add the threat of global pandemic to their list of arguments. It’s wrong to blame the spread of COVID-19 entirely on global tourism, but no one will disagree that viruses proliferate faster and wider across the planet due to the sheer number of humans crisscrossing the globe daily – and the large gathering of travelers converging in the same tourism hotspots throughout the year.
As a response, tour companies will probably limit the size of groups they accommodate, while popular destinations may begin to impose restrictions to better manage the volume of visitors. Even before the pandemic, authorities in Venice and Barcelona were already drafting policies to restrict the flow of tourists into their cities through various tolls and controls. In order to decongest sites, popular museums, landmarks, theme parks and entertainment complexes could apply similar schemes to limit access. For inspiration, we can turn to the experience of The Kingdom of Bhutan where its highly regulated “High Value, Low Impact” tourism program has done wonders to preserve the indigenous culture and natural environment of the secluded Himalayan nation (of which only five cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed as of this writing).
6. Tourists will rediscover their own backyard
When fear of contamination and new restrictions on travel combine, the attraction of overseas and long-haul journeys diminishes significantly. This might just be temporary, but for the time being, the local beach or nearby mountain getaway will suddenly seem so much more alluring. Convenience plays a part, but the impetus for going local is likewise a response to the fear of being stranded overseas amongst strangers if, and when, countries decide to close their borders without advance warning (as we’ve seen nations do during their respective lockdowns). Local tourism authorities and hospitality companies should take advantage of the rare occasion when travelers are willing to trade the exotic for the familiar and the element of surprise for the perceived safety of a place closer to home.
7. The road less traveled will soon be well-trodden
What do New York, Paris, London, Madrid and Tokyo have in common? Apart from being among the top travel destinations in the world, they also happen to be among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. If social distancing helps people feel safer while traveling, then you can expect more of them to bypass sprawling urban centers and head for parts less traversed. Simply put: why risk a possible infection in a megalopolis like Paris when you can still enjoy that legendary French joie de vivre and Gallic cuisine in a sparsely populated, but picturesque rural setting like the Lubéron in Provence? (On second thought, with France among the worst hit countries, perhaps travelers might opt to skip that proud nation for awhile and pick a destination largely unscathed by the pandemic as an alternative).
It may not just be the fear of a resurgent virus that will discourage travel to the top urban destinations of the planet, but the stigma these cities will need to recover from and the adjustments they’ll have to undertake will no doubt infect the once lively and cosmopolitan character which made these places so fascinating in the first place. Will travelers consider less-known destinations like Western Sahara, Mauritania, Falkland Islands and Greenland instead?
As we’ve seen with the SARS epidemic and terror attacks in the past, travelers have a tendency to overreact in the immediate aftermath but eventually return to their old habits, albeit always a bit wiser and more cautious. The current coronavirus outbreak may follow the same predictable behavioral pattern, but that really depends on how devastating and prolonged the pandemic turns out to be. Hopefully, some of the changes listed in this article may turn out to be superfluous; others, however, are already happening. If anything, the pause in our travel plans is an opportunity to rethink the mess mass tourism has created for the planet. Indeed, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to realize that the global travel industry was already teetering on the edge of self-destruction. If ever the mass tourism bubble bursts, it at least leaves us with a chance to travel more responsibly and with far more purpose than ever before.