Covid has left a trail of pesky challenges for global tourism going into the new year, even as two vaccines begin to make their way into the world.

There’s the issue of destination marketing offices’ slashed budgets and reduced staffing. There’s the survival of cities that remains in question, with small businesses that may not survive long enough to wait for travel confidence to rise. There’s also emerging vaccine skepticism, in the same way masks we saw mask-wearing being challenged.

But as the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization said last week “the restart of tourism — and the many millions of people who depend on it — cannot wait for mass vaccinations to become a reality.” Therein lies global tourism’s biggest struggle ahead: how will the industry begin to recover and draw in visitors while curbing Covid and preventing the economic blowback ensuing from a stop and start scenario?

“We’re in this unusual era. It’s like the time between BC and AV — Before Covid and After Vaccine,” Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, told Skift. “We’re in that in between.”

That “in between” phase has caused global destinations that were once Covid success stories to slip back into shutdowns as an inevitable result of reopening tourism amid surges in source markets.

Sign Up Now to Receive Skift Research Global Travel Outlook 2021

Following a spike traced to an all inclusive resort this month, despite the island’s stringent entry protocols and zero Covid deaths, Grenada’s minister of tourism and civil aviation Clarice Modeste-Curwen told Skift that the lesson learned going into 2021 and tackling the biggest challenge to tourism’s recovery isn’t a new one: the industry must keep reminding people of the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.

“After that last spike we had, we’re actually implementing stronger [frequent spot checks at businesses], adding more people, training them more, making them more effective,” Modeste-Curwen said. “Sometimes in life if you feel like you’re on top of something, complacency can start to set in. We’ve learned that you can’t corner Covid so easily — I still have hope we can, but not as easily as we thought.”

Partnerships and Transparency Will Remain Key

Until the bulk of international travel returns, destinations will need to keep innovating and collaborating locally and globally while continuing to navigate the storm.

Alignment with local health authorities, governments, and institutions will also remain paramount.

“They’re now in lockstep to see what can be done to begin attracting at least the local person to come back into his or her community,” Don Welsh, CEO of Destinations International, a global trade association with almost 6,000 members and partners from hundreds of destinations around the world, told Skift.

Transparency is part of that effort. Gone are the days of tourism offices shoving bad news under the rug or avoiding controversy in fear of hurting tourism.

“Transparency is the currency of character right now,” Dean said. “We talk so much about consumer confidence, but really when you get right down to it it’s about trust and if we earn and maintain the trust of the consumer we’ll have their confidence when it comes time to travel.”

The Fickle Traveler Sentiment

As Covid peaks and falls, travelers’ decisions shift right along with it and destinations are forced to remain agile and responsive. Tourism marketers will need to reassess travelers’ perspectives regularly and convey the value of the destination that’s relevant to them.

“I’ve never spent so much time of my career talking about the number of CVS and Walgreens and the US based health care system,” Dean said, noting that the most important tactic for Discover Puerto Rico in 2021 will be pointing out the value in being part of the U.S.

But how comfortable are travelers to venture out in larger numbers this coming year?

According to Skift’s December 2020 U.S. Travel Tracker, just 16 percent of surveyed U.S. consumers indicated their first trip of 2021 would be 100 miles or more away from home by flight, down from 20 percent in November, while 12 percent will travel internationally and 27 percent said they’d travel domestic, by car.

Sixteen percent of surveyed US consumers indicated their first trip of 2021 would be 100 miles or more away from home by flight.

In spite of inflections since March, the data points to the unavoidable reality that international travel confidence remains low.

A recent Expedia Group study which surveyed 11,000 travelers across 11 countries on intent to travel in 2021 also showed that the majority are more likely to travel after April 2021, with North America, Europe, Middle Eastern and African travelers showing increased intent starting in Q3 2021.

“I think the one thing we have seen in this is the fact that people are not going to be forced into making the decision to travel,” Welsh said. “They’re going to do it when it’s best for them and their families.”

“There Has To Be Hope Somewhere”

Destinations such as New Zealand and Singapore, among others, continue to limit entry by reopening strategically and in phases to regional neighbors.

“We will progressively put in place [..] arrangements with more countries and regions and adjust measures for inbound travelers according to the risk of importation,” Rachel Loh, Singapore Tourism Board Regional Director for the Americas, told Skift.

It’s anyone’s guess, however, whether these vigilant destinations will curb Covid as they open to additional countries until vaccines are available en masse.

As the travel industry prepares for a slow and steep climb in 2021, navigating Covid while revving up the tourism engines, optimism is alive — not least for an incoming U.S. administration that’s diverse, pro-tourism, pro-climate change action and pro-conservation.

Destinations are also confident traveler demand will rise once curves flatten and confidence returns.

“We’ve seen some good hope — even before our spike, our November numbers increased over our October numbers,” Modeste-Curwen said. “We started seeing us going into the thousands of arrivals when we were zero at one point in time. So there has to be hope somewhere.”

Photo Credit: Proper practices by tourists, like these in Mexico City, will be crucial to tourism's global recovery in 2021. Marcos / Adobe