– By Jeannette Cooperman, Ph.D., writer & Mike Konzen,CEO
Just two years ago, global travel was at an all-time high. For anyone in the travel and tourism industry, the pandemic was a gut punch even if you stayed healthy. A single virus was about to wipe out the life’s work of millions of dedicated people, taking 5.9 million jobs in the U.S. alone and subtracting $910 billion in economic output—seven times the impact of 9/11.
It was inconceivable. And it threw an awful lot of lives into turmoil, damaged many businesses, snatched away jobs, and left people wondering if the entire industry would be decimated.
Already, though, we are seeing signs of life: More than one-third of Americans are saying they hope to travel within three months of eased restrictions. Surveys show that a lot of quarantine time has been spent online—planning future trips.
Instead of cataclysm, this will prove to be a shattering setback—and a window briefly open. We are now in a time when the status quo has dissolved, and it is possible to rethink travel. As experts come up with creative ways to keep it safe, it is also becoming, in many ways, more sustainable—and even more enjoyable.
Before COVID-19 spiked, some travelers were feeling flygskam (flight shame) about carbon emissions and others were alarmed by the consequences of overtourism, notes the founder of G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip. With the pandemic, carbon emissions are expected to drop by 8 percent, and while that’s only temporary, it will buy time for technological innovation. As for overtourism, in January 2020, almost 75 percent of Americans were planning two trips to urban areas in the coming year, and now more than half plan to avoid crowded destinations altogether. There is a new, powerful incentive to spread out travel destinations. Experts are now guiding tourists to rural or remote parts of the world that are pristine or undiscovered, giving them instant bragging rights, because none of their friends have been there.
Sustainability initiatives are catching on, too, like the Ripple Score that determines how much of a tour group’s money is going into the local economy. Travel and tourism employ more than 10 percent of the global work force; just last year, the industry generated 10.4 percent of all global economic activity. These initiatives will show the difference it makes for local economies.
Local collaborations are reinforcing that difference. In Asheville, North Carolina, the visitors’ bureau set up an online shopping platform shared by restaurants, distillers, art galleries, and tourist destinations. In other parts of the country, people are curating themed trips, leaning on participants who once saw themselves as competing for the same travel dollars.
International travel will take a while to return, slowed by real risk, the perception of risk, tedious requirements and health tests, and confusing, staggered reopenings. But regional collaborations are already emerging around the world, witness Australia and New Zealand’s trans-Tasman bubble and Europe’s Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania corridor.
Road trips will enter another Golden Age this summer. Not only is the car a friendly private space where families can hide from the virus, but driving is affordable, especially with the current gas prices. After all the furloughs and closures, that matters.
In the same spirit, Hoshino Resorts, known for courting international luxury travels, has shifted gears to woo domestic tourists instead. After years of exotic adventures, people are going to, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
That will mean knowing the landscape, the rivers, the seascape, the fjords. Open-air destinations both feel and are the safest. Greece is emphasizing agritourism and boating; Wyoming its vast open spaces. Iceland, which opens to travelers in early June, is seeing strong interest, not only because it’s handled COVID-19 so well, but because its main attractions are its hot springs and lagoons, icebergs, and lava fields.
Even luxury can now be reimagined, Poon Tip points out. Traditionally, it’s had a British, French, or Italian flavor no matter where it was situated. But real luxury is linked to its cultural context, like the rose petals that dropped softly on his shoulders from the roof above the entrance of the Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel in Hyderabad, India.
For everyone, the new luxury will be less traffic. Paris, par exemple, is reserving 30 miles of streets for cyclists, including the Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard Saint-Michael, and another 30 streets for pedestrians only. Airport check ins will be smoother, with no long security lines or throngs to elbow through. Some airlines are even thinking of using robots to load carry-ons, so people aren’t jostling to grab space overhead.
The paramount amenity is now cleanliness. Big hotel companies are experimenting with electrostatic spraying to disinfect rooms and ultraviolet light to sanitize room keys. The Singapore Tourism Board is creating a certification process for hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. Puerto Rico has a 30-page safety and hygiene protocol that’s three times as long as the U.S. guidelines. Clean feels healthy. And direct measures like Iceland’s free COVID-19 test at the airport will spread, too.
Privacy is the other sought-after amenity: motel rooms with exterior doors; home-sharing in small towns; chartered planes and luxury accommodations like Aman, with locations across Bhutan, in the hinterland of Laos, and atop a cliff in the Dominican Republic. With big tour groups less appealing, more intimate groups will elevate the quality of the interpretation as well as the camaraderie.
While we were all sheltering in place, destinations did a lot of clever outreach. Britain crowdsourced a Spotify playlist of treasured British music; zoos let their tuxedoed penguins visit empty art museums; St. Lucia streamed a yoga practice in front of its volcanic spires; Puerto Rico taught thwarted travelers to make salsa; the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma put its digitally naive head of security in charge of its Twitter feed and charmed the world. Destinations stayed top of mind.
Now the necessary distancing is offering more opportunities to be creative—like The Twisted Citrus, a diner in Ohio, which put up shower curtains to separate patrons and offered a Rubber Duckie Mimosa. Restaurants are going al fresco, annexing sidewalks, parking lots, even closed-off streets, allowing plenty of breeze between diners. Other restaurants are converting unused banquet and meeting space into air-conditioned extensions of their dining rooms. Or they are opening walk-up windows, allowing patrons the chance for a gourmet picnic in a nearby park or their own backyard.
As for travel, people will return to places where they felt carefree and happy. Sensing that nostalgia, even P-Town—Provincetown, Massachusetts—is forsaking its party reputation for a gentler emphasis on dunes and beaches and bike trails.
But travelers are also planning trips to places they want to make sure they see.
“My bucket list is to visit the countries my ancestors came from: Poland, Croatia, and Slovakia,” a listener told NPR. “The pandemic has only intensified my desire. My parents and grandparents are all gone now, and I often wonder what they would have made of all this.”
In these next months, travel will be less casually impulsive, more cherished, and carefully thought-through. People will put their heart into a trip. They will travel not to impose their own cultural expectations or buy up the tourist kitsch, but for deeper reasons—to restore calm and joy, and to explore and understand the ways of that place, connect with it, remember it. Done in that spirit, travel can be profound—and is irreplaceable.
Read the first 2 installments of this series: Why our Minds and Bodies Crave Travel and How the Travel Industry Reaches the Heart and Soul.
For the latest industry research and recovery solutions from PGAV Destinations, visit Destinations Dispatch.