With the entire travel industry essentially on pause and no clear answer about when things will return to normal, one thing is certain: Traveling in a post-coronavirus world will not be the same as before. Traveling provides us an opportunity to connect with others, find inspiration in foreign ways of life, and support local economies. But it also has negative impacts on the environment, with carbon emissions speeding up the process of global warming and can be damaging to destinations and communities if not done sustainably. Now that the coronavirus has forced millions of people to stay home, we’ve seen the earth enjoying a much-needed respite. The canals of Venice are crystal clear, air pollution in cities like Milan is reduced, and wildlife is returning to places formerly overrun by humans. So, what does this mean for the future of travel? We surveyed leaders within the tourism industry to find out their predictions for how travel will change.
A Slow Return
All of the experts we spoke with agreed that travel will return gradually over the course of months, if not years, and people will probably stick to local destinations for a while. “Initially people won’t want to venture far from home, preferring long weekend stays to drive-to destinations and the corona-cation will be born,” Misty Belles, the managing director of global public relations for worldwide travel network Virtuoso, told AD. “This is an important first step because with 20% of people expressing concerns over air travel, restoring consumer confidence will be a key part of recovery.”
Gregory Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), agreed. “We certainly recommend as part of a responsible recovery for travelers to reduce the amount of air flights and look for more sustainable, lower footprint ways to travel,” he said, adding that he expects the road trip to make a tremendous resurgence. While train travel may be the most sustainable option, road tripping allows people to have more control of their environment and avoid contact with strangers.
New Standards for Hotels
When people do start traveling again, they’re going to be cautious at first. Many brands, like Marriott and Hilton, have announced heightened standards for hygiene and cleanliness—an important step, according to Miller, who believes that in order to be successful, hotels need to clearly communicate what they’re doing to keep travelers safe. Big brands may be better at getting that messaging out, but independent properties and small hotel groups might have more leeway to adapt their policies.
“We will need to approach a new way of check-in and check-out procedures, applying new sanitary protocols, mandatory for all public activities, and we are going to be very strict on that in order to [best] follow all the indications given by the Sanitary Institution,” Giorgia Tozzi, general manager of Rome’s intimate Hotel Vilòn, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, told AD. “Nevertheless, I am working on new ways and little tricks that will smoothen up these procedures and transform the new rules in a less traumatic [way] and hopefully [create] pleasant experience still in line with the elegance and style of the hotel.”
Similarly, Borgo Egnazia—a chic member of Leading Hotels of the World in Puglia—will implement new hygiene and safety guidelines, including digitizing check-in, reducing paper material, and reducing occupancy to give guests more space for social distancing. Adriatic Luxury Hotels, which runs 12 hotels in Croatia, is rolling out enhanced sanitation measures, including placing hand sanitizers at entrances to the restaurants, elevators, spa, and in restrooms, frequent disinfection of the elevator control panel and staircase handrails, deep cleaning of kitchen areas and buffet tables, and the provision of masks and gloves upon request.
The Rise of Villa Stays
Even with enhanced cleaning practices, people may be wary of interacting with staff as they did before. For this reason, Belles reports that demand for villa rentals is increasing among Virtuoso’s network of travel advisors. “While people are eager to get back to traveling, they also still want to socially distance,” she says. “Villas are the perfect solution, though guests are foregoing things like housecleaning and personal chefs, which are typically part of a villa rental.”
Elena Fotiadi, marketing director for the Greek luxury villa rental company White Key Villas, couldn’t confirm that they’ve had an increase in bookings for this summer, but affirmed that some guests have said the only vacation they want to take this year will be in a secluded villa and not a hotel. “Facts permitting, summer will be on in Greece later this June; our team, as always, will be on-site to control and oversee the work done prior to their arrival and during their stay,” she said. “We strongly believe that these are important actions that need to be highlighted now more than ever, and that once we have returned to our new normality, professionally managed private villas will be among the safest accommodation options globally.”
Big Changes for Aviation
After 9/11, security screening at airports around the world were dramatically enhanced, and according to experts, we can expect airports to ramp up health screenings in a bid to fight the coronavirus. In airports such as Rome’s Fiumicino, no-contact temperature scanners have already been in use since February. Emirates recently became the first airline to administer rapid COVID-19 tests using finger pricks. JetBlue, American, Delta, and United have announced that passengers and flight attendants will be required to wear face masks on flights. Miller and Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare, which partners with AD on design-focused trips, both mentioned the possibility of immunity passports, though medical experts are still unsure if people who recovered from COVID-19 are actually immune.
“Airports will need to rethink everything from security lines to baggage carousels as they assess spacing for traveler safety. Zone boarding will be more strictly enforced, rather than serving as a guideline that is inconsistently followed,” according to Belles. With planes nearly empty, some airlines have blocked off middle seats and are putting passengers in every other row, but they’ll have to find other solutions when demand starts to pick up again. According to Travel + Leisure, Italian manufacturing company Aviointeriors released a set of designs that would put transparent barriers between passengers in economy seats.
“Many airlines have already gone out of business; many others are cutting back their routes. They’re going to have to run many fewer flights and the access that we’ve all taken for granted in terms of affordability and frequency of travel has absolutely changed and will not come back for many years,” Biggs Bradley said. As demand has dropped to a fraction of what it was, many airlines have retired older aircraft before they otherwise might have. Hopefully they’ll use this as an opportunity to update their fleet. “What we want to see is that air travel becomes more sustainable and the airlines that continue to survive are using newer aircraft, with more attention to sustainable biofuels,” Miller said.
Trouble for the Cruise Industry
“The cruise industry is going to have the greatest challenge. They’re gonna need to really make a very deep commitment to rethinking the business model of high-volume cruising,” Miller explained. After reports surfaced of cruise ships being blocked from entering ports and sick passengers getting stranded at sea, the $50-billion-a-year industry lost the confidence of the public. Not to mention, a large swath of the cruise companies’ target audience is in the high-risk category.
Miller sees this as an opportunity for port destinations to put safeguards against overtourism in place. “Historically the cruise destinations have been at a great disadvantage. The cruise industry has pitted destinations against one another,” he said. Now, destinations have the opportunity to create limits on the number of passengers that can disembark and start levying the kinds of tariffs that Venice plans to implement. Cruise companies might have to alter itineraries and retool the embarkation and disembarkation process to avoid herding passengers cheek to cheek.
Overtourism and Sustainability
In addition to limits on the numbers of cruise passengers disembarking, we might see limits on the number of visitors allowed to access historic sites and how long they’re allowed to stay. Some museums, like Rome’s Galleria Borghese, already require timed tickets to reduce crowding, and others may follow suit.
“I think to some degree the end of overtourism and the end of fast travel is going to happen because of economic realities,” Biggs Bradley said. The economic fallout of COVID-19 is not only affecting the travel industry, but also travelers, many of whom have lost their jobs. “In any difficult situation, people have to be more thoughtful about what they’re doing and how they’re spending their time and money,” she added, speculating that people might take fewer trips and save up more in order to take more meaningful trips.
All the experts we talked to agreed that travel will come back, but for now, we need to listen to health officials and continue to shelter in place. “People need to be patient. Travel is a privilege. It’s not an entitlement,” Miller said. “As global citizens, we can make a difference. We have to look at when we travel, how we travel.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.