By every measure, the coronavirus pandemic has decimated the travel industry.
The images of the world’s shutdown are eerie, the numbers are staggering. Approximately 100 million travel sector jobs, according to one global estimate, have been eliminated or will be. Passenger traffic on U.S. airlines is down 95% compared to last year, while international passenger revenues are expected to decrease by more than $300 billion. Domestic hotel occupancy rates fell off a cliff and now hover around 25%.
Regions and countries are beginning to open up, but the outbreak will undoubtedly change how we think, act and travel, at least in the short term.
“The pandemic is going to fade slowly, with aftereffects, a lot of which will be psychological,” said Frank Farley, a Temple University psychology professor and the former president of the American Psychological Association. “There’s so much uncertainty the average folk might want to know everything about travel,” he said. “What’s the escape hatch? What are the safety issues?”
Yet the desire to travel will not go away: In a recent survey by Skift Research, the research arm of the travel trade publication, one-third of Americans said they hope to travel within three months after restrictions are lifted.
To learn how the landscape might change, we talked to dozens of experts, from academics to tour operators to airport architects. Across the board, they highlighted issues of privacy and cleanliness and the push-pull of people wanting to see the world while also wanting to stay safe. Here, answers to 14 of the most pressing questions about travel’s future.
Can airlines keep people apart and make a profit?
Solving social distancing in airplanes — currently attempted by leaving middle seats open — and returning to profitability seem at odds without a medical solution to COVID-19. Nonetheless, expect airlines to dangle cheap fares to get people in the air.
“There will be smoking-hot deals,” said R.W. Mann, an industry analyst and consultant. “It will happen on the leisure side first, but on the corporate side is where airlines make their money. They travel more frequently and pay higher fares. Right now, they are very risk-averse.”
Some of those executives appear to be turning to private charters, even as public carriers mandate that passengers wear face masks and increase the frequency and effectiveness of their cleaning protocols, including filling the aircraft with a germ-killing fog before cleaning crews wipe down surfaces. As it has long done with international flights, Delta Air Lines is doing it nightly on domestic aircraft.
The CARES Act is helping prop up the airline industry with payroll support until October, when many airline executives might resort to layoffs. The government requirement that airlines continue servicing airports they did before March 1 has kept some of the smaller destinations on the route map, although service is often rare.
“Small airports are biting their nails right now,” said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert and professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
Testing would go a long way in reassuring the public, of course, but so far only one airline, Dubai-based Emirates, has offered virus tests to a limited number of passengers. Groups including pilots unions have called for temperature checks. The Transportation Security Administration hasn’t moved on the idea, but Air Canada plans to begin taking temperature readings at check-in this month, and Paine Field just north of Seattle recently installed a thermal camera that reads passengers’ temperatures before they enter security.
Passengers, beware: Low fares won’t last. Assuming the virus puzzle is solved, many expect a robust recovery in 2022. — Elaine Glusac
Could check-in actually get better?
Health screening, space-per-passenger ratios and a redesign of passenger flow are likely to change in the wake of COVID-19.
Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport provides a window into the future of airport screenings. Its new thermal-imaging cameras screen arriving passengers, triggering an alarm when a temperature of 100.3 or higher is registered. Feverish passengers are taken aside for evaluation.
After 9/11, many domestic airports adopted a militaristic appearance with barriers and beefed-up security checkpoints. But abroad, airports like Singapore’s Changi expanded to engage flyers who were required to spend more time there.
“Brand-new airports will be akin to that model,” said Ty Osbaugh, an architect at the global firm Gensler, which has built terminals at New York City’s Kennedy International Airport and South Korea’s Incheon, among others. “Space gets you the ability to deal with a pandemic in a new way. You’re not jammed into a facility.”
Airports hemmed in by roadways may expand vertically, he said. With the arrival of autonomous vehicles, parking garages may be repurposed as check-in and screening centers “in order to use every empty space.”
Space will be vital to ensure passengers aren’t in crowded security lines. Cellphone location data may cue your arrival to an airport, which can then check you in curbside and move you on to a security tunnel in which passengers continue moving — sci-fi style — as they are screened by TSA and health authorities.
Gate space will be expanded and robots may load carry-ons, discouraging jockeying for overhead bin space.
“The 9/11 response was very, very un-passenger-focused,” Osbaugh said. “This time,” he said, “I think we can make a much better passenger experience from curb to gate.” — Elaine Glusac
Will passengers return to the seas?
Ships turned away from port after port, passengers quarantined in cabins, emergency workers in hazmat suits: Few travel sectors have taken a harder hit than cruises, now largely halted per no-sail orders issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carnival Corp., the biggest company, has said it could resume sailings Aug. 1.
Analysts believe large companies like Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises have the financial endurance to wait out a recovery until 2021. But discounted fares and flexible cancellation policies will go only so far to reassure future passengers.
“The real challenge will be reducing perceived risk of actually getting on a ship, and this will require changes in operational practices,” Robert Kwortnik, an associate professor in the hotel school at Cornell University, wrote in an email.
Among new practices, he listed passenger health screenings and contingency plans for when infection occurs. In its order, the CDC directed the industry to take more responsibility for managing outbreaks onboard, including plans for laboratory testing of samples, disinfection protocols and providing personal protective equipment.
Genting Cruise Lines, the Hong Kong-based company that owns Crystal Cruises and several other lines, has already issued new standards, including banning self-service buffets, requiring temperature checks at embarkation and disembarkation, twice-daily temperature checks for crew members, and masks for housekeepers and food servers. It will also require a doctor’s note for passengers 70 and over, indicating they are fit to travel.
Ships, too, may be deployed differently, said Ross Klein, a sociologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a cruise-industry expert who, since 2002, has run CruiseJunkie.com. He foresees ships being stationed at islands in the Caribbean, rather than traveling port to port. “If there’s illness on board, you can walk off and fly home,” he said of this hotel-like model. “While at sea, you’re captive.” — ELAINE GLUSAC
Where will travelers go first?
With some states loosening travel restrictions, “people want to get out — just within their own control,” said Tori Barnes, the executive vice president for public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association.
So expect a boom in road trips — and travel companies and agencies trying to benefit.
Visit California, the state’s tourism office, is planning an in-state campaign encouraging Californians to get in their cars and support local businesses and destinations. South Dakota expects to see road trippers looking for wide-open outdoor spaces, and hopes state parks, restaurants and RV companies will reap the rewards.
“Road trips are a huge opportunity for California to help jump-start the economy,” said Caroline Beteta, Visit California’s president and chief executive. “That sense of freedom with personal controls will be ideal for people who want security.”
International travel will take much longer to bounce back.
Countries will reopen at various times — some have already begun to do so — and that staggered reopening might be confusing to travelers. Getting permission to visit a country will likely be more tedious, requiring more documentation and more rigorous health checks. A lack of clarity over who is in charge where will dissuade many would-be travelers, especially at the beginning of the recovery.
“There won’t be a rule banning you from traveling from Oklahoma to Albuquerque, for example, but there probably will be one banning you from traveling from Paris to New York,” said Stewart Verdery, chief executive of the lobbying firm Monument Advocacy and former assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. “But who will make decisions about what the new rules are? Most countries set their own policies, with a little bit of input from international organizations. Are we going to be as tough on health as we have been on security and illegal immigration?” — Tariro Mzezewa
What’s important to families now?
With roughly 1 in 5 American workers out of a job and perhaps some belt-tightening among those who are still employed, affordability will become even more important for family travel.
Price-consciousness among families is nothing new. According to the Family Travel Association, an industry nonprofit, for the past five years parents have consistently named affordability the biggest challenge when traveling with their children. Family vacations post-pandemic are likely to become shorter — the fewer the nights, the lower the cost of the trip.
“The things that parents are naturally cautious about are going to be addressed in spades,” said Rainer Jenss, the president and founder of the Family Travel Association. “You’re going to see a lot of travel industry suppliers offer more flexibility, more discounts and better rates.”
To mollify anxious parents, hotel brands like Club Med — a leader in family travel, with all-inclusive rates and multigenerational programming — will lift the veil on health and disinfection. Its new protocols, from strengthened deep-cleaning to temperature checks for entry into kids’ clubs, will feature prominently in its post-pandemic marketing.
“Health and safety will be top of travelers’ minds; it will change how families choose their destinations, and it will change how travel companies operate,” said Carolyne Doyon, the president and chief executive of Club Med North America and the Caribbean. — Sarah Firshein
Will social distancing kill home sharing?
The future of home sharing depends largely on whether travelers see rentals as private, often cheaper, alternatives to hotels or a source of exposure to strangers’ germs. The vagaries of cancellation policies among rentals will also have an impact.
While hotels offered generous cancellation policies as travel restrictions set in, the home-sharing platforms took varying approaches. Before the pandemic, their policies let hosts set their own rules. Airbnb overrode them, offering refunds to travelers who otherwise might have been penalized. VRBO, its main competitor, took the side of the homeowner, although it encouraged refunds and future credits.
Airbnb hosts may dream of defecting to another platform to their own detriment.
“In the U.S., the majority of short-term rentals are booked via Airbnb,” said Scott Shatford, the chief executive of AirDNA, which measures global home rentals. “They control too much demand for there to be a credible alternative to listing on Airbnb.”
Listings on Airbnb will soon indicate whether hosts are practicing stringent new cleaning guidelines, including a minimum 24-hour waiting period between bookings. A new category of listings will indicate no guest has occupied a rental 72 hours before arrival.
Other services are burnishing their custodial practices. Vacasa, which is based in Portland, Oregon, and manages 26,000 rental homes globally, is working on a cleaning badge that will appear on a listing, attesting to newly raised standards.
Beyond hygiene, home-sharing companies are championing privacy. “Travel will be less urban,” said Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, noting that the fastest-growing segment of the service’s guests travel less than 50 miles from home. “Hotels are in cities; they need a minimum market size. Airbnb is in 100,000 cities and towns.” His company laid off a quarter of its workforce Tuesday, about 1,900 people.
Meanwhile, listings are growing as more people look for extra income. “Over the next six months, we expect more supply, and demand won’t catch up,” Shatford said. “We will see cheaper prices and bigger discounts on monthly rentals.” — Elaine Glusac
Will workers win concessions, or do companies have the upper hand?
The coronavirus outbreak made it clear that many of the housekeepers, concierges, bartenders and other people staffing the low-wage, high-turnover travel sector were undervalued by the companies they worked for.
“Some of the biggest things that hospitality workers are now thinking hard about are health care benefits, which many people lost entirely, and standards like protective gear that wasn’t provided to them,” said D. Taylor, international president of Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers union.
Going forward, Taylor said, workers will demand more from their employers, and he expects that local and federal authorities will establish new health and safety regulations for hospitality companies to follow.
“Workers used to think, ‘Does this employer pay well?’” Taylor said. “Now it will be, ‘How are they on cleanliness? Do they have good health care? Is this a safe environment? Are they committed to having the kind of safety gear I might need?’”
Travelers could play a role, by working only with companies and operators that prioritize facility cleanliness and employee well-being and training.
Taylor said that he wouldn’t be surprised if travelers start rating hygiene and cleanliness as they typically rate food or the view from a hotel room. A cleanliness certificate, like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for green buildings, could also become the new norm.
But according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a staggering 4 million hospitality jobs in the United States have been lost — out of a total of 8 million — since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.
Those numbers might mean that employees desperate to return to work will do so, even in unsafe conditions. — Tariro Mzezewa
Is cleaning the new amenity?
When travel restrictions lift and hotels reopen, travelers can expect to see housekeeping front and center in hotels.
Experts foresee more touchless check-in via apps and expressions of hygiene that go beyond the paper wrap over the toilet seat.
“Transparency and tangible cues will give consumers more comfort,” said Donna Quadri-Felitti, director of the hospitality management school at Pennsylvania State University, adding that housekeeping logs may become public. “Robotic cleaning is still novel, but there’s a lot of talk about automation.”
Where hotel lobbies once aimed for warmth, expect a cold but gleaming scene, with custodians frequently circulating with disinfectant. Pens and other knickknacks likely to be touched by other guests will be replaced with sanitizing wipes. Major hotel companies are experimenting with electrostatic spraying to disinfect interiors and ultraviolet light to sanitize room keys.
Hospitality will be faceless and encourage social distancing. Marriott plans to offer contact-free room service through its cellphone app. Hilton rooms will have a seal on the doors, indicating they haven’t been entered since they were last cleaned. — Elaine Glusac
Where do frequent flyers fit in?
Even now, travel companies are working hard to keep loyalty program members happy — and, at the earliest signs of recovery, to get them on the road and into the skies.
“What we’re seeing is the loyalty programs extending people’s frequent-flyer status and also not expiring their miles,” said Gary Leff, the founder of the airline loyalty blog View from the Wing. “No company wants to burn bridges with customers right now.”
In recent weeks, many companies — including Marriott, United Airlines, American Airlines and Hilton — have made it easier to qualify for elite or higher status.
Leff added that as countries and states gradually open up, airlines will need to entice customers to fly, so expect an abundance of deals geared toward frequent flyers, which will include seats for less mileage and easier upgrades.
The good deals won’t last forever, though. As promotions encouraging travel pile up, planes, hotels and resorts will begin to fill.
For those travelers with points to spare, using them first before paying for seats or to book hotel rooms certainly makes sense, experts say.
“The beauty of miles, in these times of uncertainty, is that cold hard cash in your account is definitely optimal,” said Brian Kelly, the founder of The Points Guy, a website devoted to loyalty programs. “If you have miles, using those to travel will allow you to save your cash.” — Tariro Mzezewa
Will people gravitate to nature?
According to an ongoing survey of travelers by Destination Analysts, a tourism research and marketing firm, more than half of American travelers say they plan to avoid crowded destinations when they resume traveling.
That bodes well for parks, even if allowing travelers back in requires social-distancing modifications to close popular trails and overlooks, with an emphasis on enforcement.
Before South Carolina’s state parks closed March 28, traffic in some was as high as the record-setting numbers for the 2017 solar eclipse as people sought a respite from quarantine. The parks reopened May 1 with the help of law enforcement to manage the crowds.
At the onset of the pandemic, many national parks were also attracting record numbers. Visitation to Arches National Park in Utah, for example, was up 40% this past February versus February 2019. Today, many major parks, including Grand Canyon National Park, remain closed as the park service evaluates reopening on a park-by-park basis.
“We’re going to have to create new norms of how to behave around one another in national parks to create space,” said Will Shafroth, the president and chief executive of the National Park Foundation, the nonprofit organization devoted to the national parks, adding that the boardwalk around the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park may be one-way-only when it reopens.
The expected surge is an opportunity for lesser-known parks, he suggested. Half of all visits to the 419 units in the system in 2019 were at just 27 parks. — Elaine Glusac
How private can you get?
With overcrowding now viewed as a health risk, personal space and cleanliness will become paramount.
“One thing that’s loud and clear from our clients: Any short-term travel needs to be private,” said Jack Ezon, the founder and managing partner of Embark Beyond, a luxury travel agency. “Finding a ‘hermetically sealed’ option seems to be the most responsible solution.”
At the luxury end, that means increased demand in villas and luxury hotel brands like Aman, known for its remote locations and stand-alone accommodations, and Rosewood, where many properties have residences with private entrances or elevators.
“While in the past privacy could be viewed as a nonessential privilege, today it is considered a key element to sustaining personal safety and security,” said Radha Arora, president of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts.
With hygiene playing an increasingly important role in travel, companies along the entire price spectrum will double-down on efforts to create privacy and health “bubbles.” A new health and safety certification program from the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. includes wellness checkpoints and social-distancing guidelines. Hilton will push (and likely expand) its Digital Key program, which allows guests to check into their rooms without interacting with anyone, as part of its new global cleanliness program. And Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which is already seeing increased demand for its properties with exterior corridors (common among the company’s economy brands like Super 8 and Days Inn) from travelers preferring a direct car-to-room connection, will promote social distancing in public spaces in more than 6,000 hotels.
The public may be leery of large commercial planes and newfound airport hassles — like the full-body disinfection machine undergoing trials at Hong Kong International Airport. Companies like JSX, which provides hop-on, short-haul jet service out of private terminals may benefit. JSX currently operates on the West Coast, and post-pandemic protocols include contactless check-in and 20-person limits on 30-seat planes. — Sarah Firshein
Is the green wave over?
Will planetary health be as urgent to travelers focused on preserving personal health? In a germophobic world, will single-use plastics make a comeback?
“The work on reduction of plastic is going to take a back seat to the larger quest for the health and security of travelers,” said Megan Epler Wood, the managing director of the Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program at Cornell University. “But there are plenty of reasons to find hope.”
Epler Wood points to efforts by tourism organizations and destinations to plan for a return to travel that addresses overtourism. The U.N. World Travel Organization released recommendations for recovery that call for citizens platforms for local feedback and tourism councils that coordinate public and private sector involvement.
She also called the present situation an opportunity “for our global figures to see if we can build a better set of sustainable procedures.”
One possible upside of the pandemic is the awareness of how spending locally helps communities.
“We are all becoming familiar with the idea of helping small businesses through COVID-19,” said Jonathon Day, an associate professor focused on sustainable tourism at Purdue University. “If we carry it into the future to places we travel, thinking about whether the money will stay in the community, that’s something we can take from this experience.” — Elaine Glusac
Will travelers sign up with tour operators?
The logistical ease of group tours comes with a trade-off: traveling with strangers.
“I certainly appreciate the paradox: There is safety in numbers, there is risk in numbers,” said Jennifer Tombaugh, the president of Tauck, a high-end tour and cruise company. One solution, Tombaugh said, will be smaller groups with lower guest-to-guide ratios — a trend that had already been predicted to rise, pre-pandemic, by the U.S. Tour Operators Association.
Debra Asberry, the founder and president of Women Traveling Together, which runs affordably priced small-group tours for women over 50, expects the national parks trips to rebound first, just as they did after 9/11.
“It really saved us in 2002, and we think the same thing’s going to happen here: We’ll have a much heavier emphasis on domestic tourists, especially into the first half of 2021,” Asberry said.
After being cooped up for months, tourgoers may gravitate toward wellness experiences. “If 2020 proves to be a year we spend a lot of time indoors, 2021 will be about getting outdoors and getting active, with tours centered around things like cycling, trekking and mindfulness,” said James Thornton, chief executive of Intrepid Travel, which runs tours on all seven continents.
And overtourism, an industrywide concern, has renewed importance. “Ten years ago, people wanted crowded markets and big, well-known cities,” said Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, a community-tourism-focused tour company whose eight-day trips range from $650 to $3,200 per person. “Now there’s a real push for tours in Antarctica, the Galápagos, Mongolia and Tibet — all wide-open spaces.” — Sarah Firshein
Will anyone actually buy travel insurance?
Many travelers were infuriated to learn that their travel insurance was worthless during this pandemic. That aggravation underscored one key truth: Buyer beware.
“Travel insurance is typically not a good economic deal; it’s usually way too expensive and filled with caveats and exclusions,” said J. Robert Hunter, the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer-advocacy nonprofit.
If insurance companies are to rebuild consumer confidence — especially with airlines and hotels changing policies to make it easier to cancel — they will have little choice but to demystify the fine print. Customers will demand it.
“There’s going to be a lot more focus, rather than ticking a box and moving on,” said Anna Gladman, the chief executive of nib Travel, which owns World Nomads, a travel insurance company. “People are going to be concerned about catching this, so they’ll want to know more about their products.”
Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer at Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison website, said the industry will likely follow the precedent set by 9/11, which forced terrorism coverage into insurance policies.
“The biggest pivot in the industry is going to be more policies with pandemic coverage for things like CDC alerts, travel advisories and stay-at-home orders,” Moncrief said. — Sarah Firshein