COVID-19. Coronavirus. The words will forever make us break out in a cold sweat. And even though the worst appears to be over, a lingering question remains: Without a proven vaccine and the possibility of the virus returning this fall, will anyone dare travel abroad?
Optimists point to pent-up travel anxiety when predicting a quick rebound for the industry. Others — call them realists — fear the spike in unemployment, the lost income caused by virus lockdowns globally and the expected post-COVID-19 recession could curtail travel for up to a decade.
No matter your side of the debate, on this everyone agrees: the diagnosis short term for the travel and tourism industry does not look good. It faces a long road to recovery. Some sectors are terminally ill and are now on life support.
Travel and tourism has not faced a catastrophe like this since 2001 and 9/11. Back then it took air traffic four years to return to pre-9/11 levels and the airline industry did not get back to profitability until 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Above: The pandemic blanketed the globe and no travel sector has escaped its wrath.
The effects of COVID-19 are sure to be much worse.
Moreso, how people travel post-COVID-19 is what hospitality experts are nervously asking. For instance:
• Will travellers be in a rush to return to cruise ships?
• Will they ever again rent an apartment or home from a perfect stranger?
• Will they be willing to travel in tour groups of more the five people in the future?
• Will the all-inclusive vacation become a thing of the past?
• Will people abandon international travel in the short term and stay closer to home?
• Will road trips become the norm?
• Will hazmat suits be the new fashion choice of air travellers?
Adam Blake, head of research in the Department of Tourism and Hospitality at England’s Bournemouth University, offered this observation on the future of travel post-COVID-19 in a recent interview with CNN Travel: “They (travellers) are going to need not just persuading that it is safe to travel, but they'll need to see actual physical changes made to make travel safer.
"People haven't changed in that they still want to go places. But they're going to necessarily be a lot more cautious about what they do," said Blake.
Above: Experts say travellers will have to reassured that their health is not being placed at risk.
Using 9/11 as a yardstick, though, is like comparing apples to oranges, according to Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly: “9/11 wasn’t an economically driven issue for travel — it was more fear, quite frankly,’’ Kelly told financial magazine The Street.
Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, told CNN Business: “It’s going to take a while to get it (global travel) back up and running again. This is going to be a very tough year for the travel and tourism industry.”
Many people point to the resiliency of travel and tourism, which has weathered many crisis in the past. However, there is no comparison to COVID-19. The industry, which contributed $2.9 trillion (U.S) to global GDP and provides employment for almost 500 million people worldwide, is now adrift in a sea of uncertainty.
Many destinations are expected to quickly ramp up coronavirus recovery programs and travellers will no doubt be bombarded with lots of deals — cheap flights, hotel rooms, cruises, etc.
However, as long as there remains no vaccine to effectively erase COVID-19 and the fear of the virus coming back is uppermost in the minds of travellers, then it’s less likely vacationers will stray too far from home.
Does anyone really think some of the most popular tourist destinations, which were the most affected by COVID-19 — China, Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain and the United States — will be quick to reopen their borders to foreigners? Lest we forget that international travel was deemed responsible for taking the virus global. Far off events like Munich's Oktoberfest, scheduled for Sept. 19, and Dubai's World Expo, which was due to start Oct. 20, are among the many that have been cancelled and more are sure to follow.
No one seems in a hurry to travel again. In fact, a survey conducted in early April for Forbes magazine by the prestigious Harris Poll, found that most American travellers are now pessimistic about taking any trips, especially abroad.
Above: Airlines have lost billions and people remain skeptical about returning to overcrowded planes.
“Right now we’re seeing a fear of venturing too far away from home and a fear of being in tightly confined spaces,” said John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll. According to the Harris Poll survey, 51 per cent of respondents say they have canceled or postponed upcoming travel plans due to coronavirus and 70 per cent say they would not get on a plane right now.
“People said they are twice as likely to greet (infected) people with a handshake than fly on a plane right now, which I find remarkable,” said Gerzema.
Most worrisome for the airline industry, though, is that 49 per cent of those polled said it will take up to six months after the virus “all clear” is given before they’ll get back on an aircraft.
The cruise industry has even bigger problems, according to the Harris results — 57 per cent of respondents said they won’t even consider taking another cruise for at least a year.
In the short term, domestic travel will benefit but that’s not good news for countries like Canada, who rely so heavily on foreign travel spending to help prop up their GDP numbers.
Travel executives worldwide are looking to China to help global travel quickly recover. And for good reason. More than 150 million Chinese travellers spent a whopping $270 billion overseas in 2018 and an injection like that post-COVID-19 would be the elixir the hospitality industry so desperately needs right now.
However, China’s government appears to be taking a go slow approach regarding outbound travel for the remainder of 2020. The country where COVID-19 was first detected is in no hurry to send its citizens abroad or welcome international travellers as long as the virus has not been totally eradicated globally.
Airlines, cruise lines and hotels are COVID-19's biggest casualties. And while governments worldwide have pledged financial support for air carriers — the ones that survive, that is — it appears they have shut the door on the hotel industry.
That doesn’t seem to worry some analysts, though.
“The hotel industry recovered quickly following the containment of SARS in 2003 and the hope will be that a similar pattern will emerge after COVID-19 has run its course,” offers Ralph Hollister, Analyst, Travel & Tourism at GlobalData.
However, he cautiously adds: “As the impact of COVID-19 lessens and demand increases, it is crucial that hotels act in a proactive manner; by effectively managing room rates and marketing offers to maximize revenues.”
Christopher Anderson, professor of business at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., actually suggests the hotel industry will benefit from COVID-19.
“One saving grace for hotels may be traveller discomfort with alternative lodging options such as Airbnb and other vacation rental sites because those properties may struggle to communicate and standardize rigorous cleaning standards.
"I'm going to want the safety and security of established cleaning protocols that I get from an established lodging provider," Anderson said.
CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg even suggests there’s a silver lining to the crisis — an opportunity for the travel industry to address issues that were top-of-mind before COVID-19 arrived.
According to the well-travelled and well-respected Greenberg, issues that resinated with travellers before coronavirus — over tourism and sustainable travel — should now be addressed by popular destinations in this down period.
"We can get back to this (travel) in a much more responsible and ethical way when this crisis ends," Greenberg told CNN Travel in March.
All that’s known now about post-COVID-19 travel is that the new normal won’t seem normal at all. •