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Approval of a U.S. vaccine for kids would be a huge positive for family travel, but it will take time to get over the uncertainty. Visiting friends and relatives domestically will continue to dominate for a holiday season that’s projected to see higher consumer spending.

For the past 18 months, many families with children age five to 11 have been cautious when it comes to traveling far from home or being around crowds, preferring to take domestic trips and explore the outdoors in relative solitude. But their options could soon expand for the first time since the pandemic hit, and in time for the holiday season.

On October 26, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to meet to decide on Pfizer’s proposed vaccine dose for kids age five to 11, and experts anticipate an approval, which would make jabs available as early as the end of the month. Approval in the U.S. is likely to lead to subsequent authorization in Europe.

“I think by Thanksgiving we are seeing absolutely that’s available,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. “We also know that about a third of parents are ready, willing and able to have their children vaccinated, and that third will likely be very quick in their uptake of a vaccine for their children.”

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Hesitancy is expected on the part of some parents, but their numbers are expected to be lower than those who have been waiting for the ability to protect their young kids. 

“The group of parents who are planning to vaccinate their kids right away is a bigger one than those who are not planning to do so,” said Lynn Minnaert, clinical associate professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, referring to the results from the latest U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021 by the Family Travel Association and New York University.

Sixty-one percent of families said they planned on getting their kids vaccinated while 39 percent do not, according to the survey. The 5-11-year-old segment is a substantial portion of the market, Minnaert said; they are old enough to travel and to be a little independent.

A jab for those kids by the time Thanksgiving rolls around couldn’t be better timing for the recovery of the family travel segment. But it isn’t likely to result in an immediate game changer, experts agreed.

“It’s a very personal thing and people have different experiences and beliefs; certainly the vaccine has opened up the door for families to travel again, but it will very much subjective and based on personal comfort — it’s not an automatic ‘everyone’s good to go’,” said Rainer Jenss, founder of the Family Travel Association.

Domestic Leisure Trips Will Continue to Dominate 

In the U.S. Family Travel Survey, 15 percent of parents said they were less likely to consider international even after Covid 19 has been contained.

“There is this built in hesitancy and caution that doesn’t just suddenly go away,” said Jenss, adding that this is reflected in what the majority of families now prioritize as important when traveling, which includes health, safety and cancellation policies. “They are much more demanding.”

This is, in turn, translating into a positive for travel advisors, as 65 percent of families and parents plan to resort to their professional advice to help them navigate through post-pandemic travel in the next two years. 

“Parents with children who are unvaccinated were usually more hesitant to travel overall or to take any risks, for example going to theme parks or going to areas where there’s a lot of people — so I think you know, for those kinds of destinations or for events, it’ll be a game changer,” said NYU’s Minnaert, adding that she also expects an uptick in plane travel which previously ranked among parents’ biggest concern.

Sara Clemence, co-founder of The Expedition, a family travel subscription service, agreed that with a vaccine families are going to feel more comfortable boarding planes.

Demand overall has been high for family travel, according to travel advisors who spoke to Skift and are members of the American Society of Travel Advisors. “Families are booking at an all time high since the pandemic began,” said Cyndi Williams, founder and CEO of Travel Tripsy, based in Texas, adding that the vaccine will help with the confidence of booking travel.

“Our clients are telling us that because the more at risk family members have been vaccinated, they are feeling more confident about spending the holidays together and investing in multi generational trips again,” said Williams. “We have several families with vacations booked already in anticipation of the vaccinations rolling out for their younger children. ”

The Family Travel Association’s Jenss agreed that there is a significant shift happening with multi generational trips that is the reverse of what occurred early in the pandemic when grandparents were considered the most vulnerable. “Now that’s almost reversed — grandparents are the ones making plans to see the parents and the grandkids and there’s been a big reversal in that,” said Jenss.

But domestic attractions and local flights are the more likely early beneficiaries of vaccine availability for kids. A jab for the little ones won’t mean throwing caution to the wind when picking travel destinations, so the uptick for the travel industry will continue to depend on how the pandemic continues to morph in the coming year. 

Jennifer Hardy of Cruise Planners said clients have pushed off their travel to February 2022 and beyond. “They are extremely leery of traveling with their children prior to them becoming fully vaccinated, and are sticking close to home for the holidays,” said Hardy.

The pandemic’s impact on family travel continues to be such that 22 percent of families this summer said they would be “hesitant to take a trip far away from home until we know all virus related issues have been resolved,” per the U.S. Family Travel Survey 2021.

“Imminent approval of a vaccine for 5-11 year olds will not be an immediate game changer for travel this holiday season,” said Hardy. “The approval comes too close to winter break, knowing that people are only considered fully vaccinated 2 weeks after their second dose. I do foresee more local family gatherings, but when it comes to international travel, cruises, and other destination-focused vacations, parents are more cautious and want to wait it out.”

Families that also have kids below the age of five will continue to push off travel plans until their entire family is eligible for vaccination, Hardy added. 

An opportunity that could emerge for international family travel in 2022 is if the projected huge demand for domestic travel next year leads to booked out local destinations and sold out rentals. 

“For people that get shut out of domestic as a result of 2022 strong numbers, what could happen is that the vaccines will now open the door for people saying ok, maybe now let’s consider international,” said Jenss.

Still, so far only 22 percent of families expected to spend more on international travel in the next 12 months compared to 44 percent who said they anticipated spending more on domestic travel. 

The cruise industry will be waiting even longer to see first-time cruisers and their kids coming their way despite a vaccine. Cruising took a big hit from the pandemic, with 26 percent of surveyed families saying they were less likely to consider cruising even after Covid 19 has been contained.

“The cruise industry isn’t going to bounce back quickly among parents,” Jenss said, adding that the cruise lines were not likely to attract first time cruises despite their best efforts to feature family friendly activities on megaships. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Amid all the consumer reaction likely to ensue in the weeks ahead from both the confident and the hesitant camps, post Pfizer approval, Rutgers University’s Halkitis said that the ongoing uncertainty of an ever evolving Covid virus around the world points to the importance of having a vaccine for kids.

“Quite frankly we don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world, we don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the country,” Halkitis said. “There are places in the world, including our own country, where the virus is running rampant, where mutations are happening, where we don’t know what lurks behind, we don’t know that there’s not an even more powerful strain coming ahead. “

The vaccine’s availability won’t mean throwing caution to the wind for families when picking travel destinations, so the recovery patterns of this segment of the industry will continue to depend on how the pandemic continues to morph in the coming year. 

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Halkitis said, when it comes to choosing places to travel with five to 11 year olds. “I would stay away from the whole south quite frankly right now. If you were to say to me, you’re going to go to the UK, which seems to be managing it OK, I might have a very different response than if you say I’m going to Russia, which I don’t know what’s going on in Russia, no one knows what’s going on in Russia.”

What parents need to do and what travelers need to do, said Halkitis, is really be careful and analyze what the laws and the policies are in the places that they’re going, and the requirements for vaccination.

“We’ve noticed that many U.S. families who are traveling internationally are sticking to nearby destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. But vaccinations are going to change that,” said The Expedition’s Clemence.

It’ll take time for the bulk of the family travel segment to bounce back into long-haul international travel, with visiting friends and relatives likely to be among the strongest motivator for those who choose to head far from home this holiday season and early into 2022.

A vaccine mandate could also follow a U.S. vaccine authorization for children five to 11 years old, in the months ahead.

“I think increasingly the screws are going to be turned in and it’s going to be difficult for families to travel to places without the vaccination,” said Halkitis. “So the minute that five to 11 becomes fully approved, I think you’re going to see governments around the world saying that you can’t enter without the vaccine even for the 5-11 folks.”

Outside of the U.S., China was the first to start inoculating children between three to 17 years of age in June 2021, with the Sinovac vaccine. Sinovac has been distributed in Asia, Africa, and South America, but only Chile so far has approved its use on children of six years of age and up.

Vaccinations for kids five to eleven is far from being a global phenomenon at this time. Still, the moment the family travel segment has been waiting eagerly that brings it closer to a return to normal lies around the corner.  

“It’s going to help; it’s just another positive development in what is the recovery but it’s still going to be a process,” said Jenss.

NYU’s Minnaert shared an optimistic outlook from the survey’s results. “In our last question we asked what can the travel industry to do to serve you better? And for a very large group of people, the answer was, I just need all my kids to be vaccinated and then I’m good. I’m not actually expecting the travel industry to do anything, I just need my children to be protected.” 

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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, family travel, travel agencies, vaccines

Photo credit: U.S. theme parks such as Disney World will benefit from a potential vaccine approval for kids later this month Jeff Kays / Flickr Commons

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