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The V shape, Nike Swoosh, the shruggie.
Much attention has rightly been paid to the shape of recovery that may bring the travel industry back to life in the short term. There’s talk of a surge in domestic travel and localism, the traveler’s new expectation of fastidious hygiene and control over their own personal space, the rise of travel bubbles, and a gravitation towards wide open outdoor spaces. However, far less has been said about the longer term legacy of this moment.
For travel industry folks, it may be easy — and indeed comforting — to assume that beyond the short-to-medium term upset, consumer demand will bounce back once safety and economic conditions improve. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that pent-up demand exists, operating on that rosy assumption alone overlooks something rather unique about the Covid-19 crisis.
Unlike a hurricane, a terrorist attack, or even the 2008 recession — and virtually every other modern precedent we can compare the current situation to — the pandemic is not defined to any particular place or time. It was (and is) in our airplanes, our schools, our offices, our governments, and even our homes. It’s affected our pocketbooks, our companies, our families, and our respiratory systems. It has, simply put, taken over our lives.
So how will all of this impact that one constant staple of travel — the vacation?
Vacations, after all, reveal much about a society’s optimism, its outlook, as well as its sense of hope and expectation of ongoing prosperity and opportunities for commerce. While the human impulse to travel may never go away, the manner we go about it does change.
Just as the body’s nervous system can produce chronic pain to protect it from injury long after a torn muscle has healed, will the world’s collective nervous system keep us closer to home and more risk averse? Or might we fling ourselves into the wide open world, with the knowledge that nothing is under our control and the firm understanding that we only live once?
The truth is nobody knows what the legacy of this moment will be, nor what the future and business of vacations looks like in two, three, or 10 years from now. But after a decade of hubris surrounding travel’s inexorable upward trendline, it’s worth pondering a less certain way forward. Not only is the travel industry likely to be dealing with different consumer appetites, but also a different world order.
As the global crisis of Covid-19 has shown, the kind of seamless and carefree travel that people expect on vacations requires a cooperative and functioning geopolitical framework, with competent governments that are able to foresee and respond to threats, both known and unknown. Climate change means more mass disruptions akin to Covid-19 are on the horizon, and it’s not clear the world’s superpowers passed this first huge test.
In short, the future of the vacation is anyone’s guess.
‘The Physical World Is Still in Charge’
Climate activists have long been at work trying to wake up society to the reality of global warming, but it’s unlikely that they ever considered a pandemic being so effective a wake up call. As longtime climate movement leader Bill McKibben recently put it on 60 Minutes, the pandemic has “reminded [us] that physical reality is real … We tend to forget that the physical world still is in charge. I’ve spent, you know, 30 years trying to get people to understand that physics and chemistry matter. That you can’t spin them. They don’t negotiate. They’re not gonna compromise with you. You have to do what they say.”
That’s something, by and large, the travel industry has acknowledged superficially at best in recent years. The airline industry has nodded to it with dubious carbon offsets and teasing the potential for carbon-free flying — in 30 to 40 years, of course. While the hotel industry has been focused less on, say, resource and land use and more on plastic reduction schemes. In short, the industry has acknowledged climate change, but not as the existential threat it represents. Then came the shutdown, when the inability to travel across the globe at a moment’s notice has given us time to reflect on what that practice is doing to the world.
“As a society, we have been operating under the veil of our looming climate disaster with little to no ability to enforce change where it needs to happen most. The pandemic has forced us to consider our infrastructures and systems, to rethink how we live and how we can rebuild or build anew,” Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based author and travel-focused journalist, told Skift. “Travel, particularly by plane, had already become too easy, too inexpensive, too much like hopping in a car and taking a drive. There are ways for travel experiences to remain accessible without turning it into a burden for the planet.”
For some companies, like Air France-KLM, the terms of its financial bailout will bring about some of those infrastructural changes, Tramuta said, but the likes of the cruise industry will take a lot more change to fundamentally alter the deleterious impact they have on the planet.
But Tramuta also notes that a changing consumer appetite may drive the reduction in carbon emissions from air travel, pointing to a campaign in France that’s encouraging citizens to visit the nation’s “Châteaux and gardens and wine estates, to help support cultural heritage sites that may not survive without their business.”
Others have echoed the idea that the localism trend may not just be a recovery kickstarter, but a longer term idea that’s here to stay. Perhaps being stuck in one place for months — forced to come to terms with staying still — will prove to some people that you can still get the rest and pause of a vacation without circumnavigating the globe each time you do it. It’s also a way to support a local community or region during a time when the need for that has become so very clear.
“The localization of sorts that was already growing in our industry with big international brands starting to launch new brands in their already existing plethora of portfolios or taking over smaller local boutique brands,” Hemal Jain, general manager at the Alila Villas Uluwatu resort in Bali, said. “[That approach] is not going to resonate anymore with global travellers as they will not find this genuine. Travelers are going to seek more authenticity and instead go with humble smaller brands who are really practicing local culture, sustainability and follow a keen sense of community care.”
Proceed With Caution
Pre-Covid, travel was most of the time a relatively seamless endeavour. Bar a heinous delay or flight cancellation, there was always a conceivable way to get there, to get home. Planes would take off and would land every day. The traveler would find a way — even if they complained the entire time.
Post-Covid, the picture looks slightly different. The vast amounts of infrastructure, border policy, and operational complexity it takes to get us from A to B has been thrown into sharp relief. The prospect of being ‘stuck’ somewhere, dependent on the whims of your country’s diplomatic corps, now feels more conceivable. It used to feel as though you could be anywhere by tomorrow afternoon — now, even if you’re lucky enough to get there, you may have to wait in an isolated hotel room for 14 days before you can see your loved ones. And cross your fingers that the U.S. President doesn’t suddenly bar your passport while you’re in the air.
No one is suggesting such disruptions are here to stay. But it’s hard not to feel that they will leave something of a lasting memory on traveler’s psyches. The unprecedented growth and ease of accessible (and cheap) air travel in the past ten years has lulled us into a something of a cavalier attitude about the risks and complexities associated with long-haul travel. Covid has provided an unforgettable reminder.
“Moving forward, I don’t really care what trip you’re doing, what your budget is, when you want to go: If you look at whatever trip it is you’re considering you have to consider any travel risk and be educated enough to make an informed decision,” Laurel Brunvoll, a travel advisor and president of Unforgettable Trips, told Skift. “I always saw that as part of my role in advising people. I think that’s going to maybe be more intentional moving forward.”
That additional level of caution and planning may see people flocking back to travel advisors like Brunvoll, said Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“While independent travel has been the hottest travel segment for decades … this may not be the most reliable way to travel during the pandemic,” Epler Wood said. “Selecting well-curated trips via tour operators or hotels, which have shown they can deliver safety and wellness as part of standard procedures advertised, is the best way for travelers to ensure they are being looked after properly”
It might also mean fewer impulse buys, or the kind of “last minute” deals that have proliferated in the last decade. That could all spell trouble for big online booking sites. As CEO of booking app Troupe, Alexandra Zubko, put it, “because safety is a concern, travel planning will become more intensive [and more] time consuming, with fewer last minute purchases.”
That being said, Brunvoll has not seen her customers — which range from millennials to retirees to families — as being reluctant to plan trips due to fear. On the contrary, in the last two months, her sales for trips in 2021 and beyond are at levels that, even in a normal booking cycle, would be considered strong. But she thinks the way people think about their trips may shift.
“There was [always] another level of trip — that was a special bucket list trip. Regardless you just assumed you would plan it, you would go,” Brunvoll said. “And now that [assumption] is gone. … I know I’m going to be more appreciative of the opportunity to travel because it is a gift and it may not necessarily happen. We just didn’t think about it. We just always thought it would be fine.”
Stay Away (From Me)
Many of the people who were interviewed for or contributed to this piece mentioned the prospect of cleanliness — that planes, hotels, trains, and the entire travel ecosystem will be a lot cleaner going forward. But what about crowdedness? If social distancing persists for the remainder of this year, it’s not hard to imagine travelers’ tolerance of traditionally-packed destinations might change.
As Epler-Wood said, that could simultaneously solve some other problems that the tourism industry has.
“Seeing destinations like Venice empty out temporarily, might be a golden opportunity to reset the travel experience. Our work at Cornell shows that many destinations have been losing money per tourist for years and have been unable to fix the underlying causes of this because of skyrocketing demand.”
Brunvoll would be relieved to see the era of crowded top-ten attractions recede. She suggested that private and small group tours will be more in demand from vacationers, even with the higher price point.
“Things that maybe may change are some of the things I hate the most: these popular tourists places that are too overcrowded you can’t even enjoy it anyway,” Brunvoll said. “Rethinking some of these places that are so popular that are so overcrowded I think is not a bad thing at all.”
Vacation All I Ever Wanted
How we vacation post-Covid is just one question. But it’s also possible that the very definition of what a vacation is might change in an era where working from home may become status quo.
“What is vacation anymore? The idea of vacation before was to stop work. I’m gonna spend some time with my family and relax,” Christa Quarles, former CEO of OpenTable, recently said in an interview with Skift founder Rafat Ali. “Well, I’m spending way too much time with my family now and so now we’re also seeing people want to come together as multiple families, people that they know and they trust and love to be around. So they’re rethinking what that moment of leisure looks like.”
Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, a resource and workshop series for mid-to-late career professionals, agrees. Amidst all the change, he foresees a potential for the rise in home-swapping and co-living as the means for a new kind of vacation. In addition, he suspects that with the rise of remote working and office-free jobs, people will begin to recast what is possible when it comes to going abroad. In other words, he sees the digital nomad going mainstream.
“It’s not just a freelancer thing, a software engineer, or writer anymore,” Conley said. “That’s a big one especially for Americans. When it comes to Europe, they get [as much as] six weeks of vacation a year and so it doesn’t matter quite as much, but in the U.S. it could actually have a bit of a catalytic effect because it may actually be that they’re on the road a lot more [than two weeks]. Maybe it’s that people consider taking sabbaticals.”
Fittingly for Conley — who is also a strategic advisor to Airbnb, a company born out of the last recession — he also has no doubt this unprecedented era will usher in all kinds of innovation we can’t even conceive of yet, from virus protection to new travel concepts.
“Sort of like back when we had nuclear bombs in the 1960s, you’d hear ‘Oh my god! people have nuclear bombs! Missiles pointing at us!’ And of course there hasn’t been any catastrophic nuclear missile catastrophe. Partly because of human invention — but also human intervention.”