For our Viewpoint series, Skift invites thought leaders, some from the less obvious corners of travel, to join in the conversation. We know that these independent voices are important to the dialogue within the industry. Our guest columnists will identify and shape what global trends and through lines will define the future of travel.
One year ago this week, on March 11, something happened that quickly changed the face of travel as we know it:
“The WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”
A single phrase stood out then, and stands out now: “the alarming levels of inaction.”
In the spirit of looking back and pressing ahead, I’ve analyzed 10 Shared Learnings for Travel & Tourism from the dark 12 months that we’ve all just experienced.
- No-one was Prepared. “Pandemic” is a scary word, made more sinister by the fact that we only previously encountered its impact by watching disaster movies. Governments and corporates that read the pre-Covid-19 real-life risk reports placed them back in a drawer. The travel sector paid no attention to the potential destruction that a pandemic would inflict. It’s easy to say this now, but it was also easy to assume that a pandemic would not occur “in our lifetime.” There will be no excuse in the future. The likelihood of a future pandemic is scarily real. The world must build this into all economic, social, and healthcare framework planning.
- Vaccines ARE/AREN’T the Only Tool in the Box. The travel industry — aware that vaccine rollouts in many countries will take most of 2021 — wants unified international collaboration on pre-/post-flight testing to open up the skies. Governments, which for the last year kept most borders closed on the premise that it is unsafe to unlock them until vaccines are administered, find it difficult to shift their overall stance on testing. It was far easier to lock down nations than it is proving to reopen them. This is a tough circle to square. A universal — or at least, in phase 1, a regional — vaccine passport (or Digital Health Pass) is vital, though. Can the EU and/or ASEAN take a lead?
“Governments, which for the last year kept borders closed on the premise that it is unsafe to unlock them until vaccines are administered, find it difficult to shift their overall stance on testing.”
- Islands are in the Hot Seat. Island locations are likely to dominate the early-phase reopening roster in Asia Pacific. Free of border constraints, isolated from land-locked populations and with their own infrastructures and (fragile) ecosystems, islands are desirable and manageable destinations in the current era. Maldives reopened successfully in July, and is preparing to greet vaccinated visitors. Sri Lanka is open, Seychelles will open on March 25. Indonesia’s Bali and Bintan may not be too far behind. Thailand’s economic strife means it has little option but to plan for reopening its islands. Malaysia may follow with Langkawi. The Philippines has a panoply of choices.Land borders present bigger problems for governments. Controlling restricted people flows will be particularly tricky in Southeast Asia, where some borders are notoriously porous. Over recent months, Covid-19 outbreaks in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam were blamed on illegal border crossings. Conversely, both Malaysia and Singapore would enjoy an economic uplift from restoring their causeway crossing. Border management will present perhaps the toughest challenge for policymakers over the next six to 12 months.
“Border management will present perhaps the toughest challenge for policymakers over the next 6-12 months.”
- The Quest for “Comeback Markets.” Two recent case studies highly the importance of securing connectivity with comeback markets. Bali attempted to reopen last September but was stymied by Indonesia’s Covid-19 infection rate and widespread outbound travel bans in its key source markets. Reopening is one thing; ensuring people are able to visit is another. Maldives reopened successfully last July, and has attracted travelers from European and Middle Eastern markets, India and Russia — but not yet, of course, China. Over the past seven months, Maldives benefited significantly from competitor destinations being closed. That will change over the coming months — and competition will intensify to attract travelers from major outbound markets — and yes, China, is the most coveted. In Southeast Asia, outbound and inbound travel are mostly prohibited right now, but that will change. Once one nation makes a reopening play, a “rolling stone” knock-on effect will ripple through the region. The 10 countries of ASEAN will battle intently to entice tourists from each other — as well as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Middle East, Russia, Europe, U.S. et al. Governments have tracked each other’s inactivity on border reopening over the past year, and they do not want to be left behind once the travel action begins to reactivate.
“In a new world of hyper-experiential travel expectations, travelers will want to be indulged and pampered, not categorized and counted.”
Within the context of rebuilding comeback travel, annual volume setting is a mindset that must change. Arbitrary arrivals targets will add counter-productive pressures on travel firms that are slowly reforming and rebuilding. Moreover, travel consumers are ever-more unlikely to accept be branded in statistical terms. In a new world of hyper-experiential travel expectations, travelers will want to be indulged and pampered, not categorized and counted.
- DON’T Ditch Domestic. The enforced pandemic-era shifting of the inbound-outbound-domestic travel equation is up for revision. Governments and tourism boards have implored citizens to travel and spend at home almost as part of a national duty to support toiling economies. And while domestic destinations and in-situ businesses have responded with creative promotions and tailored offerings, tour operators and travel agencies have struggled. Domestic trip choices and spending priorities differ to inbound visitors. They just do.Home-grown travel has gained a broader platform, and this should be nurtured and developed. This week, Tourism Australia revamped its Holiday Here This Year domestic travel campaign, and a new survey in Vietnam emphasized that “Safe & Nearby” (and short-stay) may remain a guiding travel mantra in 2021.
“We are calling on Australians to help support their fellow Australians by booking a city escape, which in turn will help to support the thousands of city-based hotels, restaurants, bars, cultural attractions and experiences that rely on tourism for their livelihoods.”
Phillipa Harrison, Managing Director, Tourism Australia
- Everyone is Rethinking the “Meaning of Travel.” The travel sector often focuses on supply and demand, travel providers and travelers — them and us. Even in the pre-Covid era of putative “personalization,” this endured. Too much loose talk was committed to “owning the customer.” No more. Travelers will dictate terms. Covid-19 has united everyone who travels or is involved with the business of travel to take stock of our human vulnerability, personal wellbeing and our taken-for-granted mobility. Consumers understand the post-pandemic sacrifices they may need to make, and expect travel providers to do likewise. Adapting to this capricious quest for meaning will define the travel industry’s immediate future.