A quiet scene at Rome’s usually crowded Spanish Steps. (Photo by Getty Images)
As social distancing guidelines relax and hotels and destinations make plans to reopen, we’re facing a new normal for travel – at least for a little while.
The coronavirus pandemic is still a global health emergency, with short- and long-term outcomes yet to be determined. But as curves flatten, stay-at-home orders expire, and businesses begin to reopen, our collective “new normal” is starting to take shape. (If we had a new passport stamp for every time we’ve read “new normal” this month…) Many who love travel are cautiously ready to plan again, and tourism is going play an important role in economic recovery – last year, travel and tourism accounted for 330 million jobs and $8.9 trillion of the world GDP. The travel industry is ready: Countries are (slowly) beginning to loosen border regulations, while rolling out plans for museums, restaurants, and other tourist attractions to reopen; airlines are adding popular routes back to schedules; and several Virtuoso hotels and resorts have recently announced reopening dates – with strict cleaning and social distancing guidelines in place.
We always knew travel would be back, but it’s still unclear exactly what it’s going to look like. Are people really ready to travel – and if so, where do they want to go? And where can they go? We asked Virtuoso travel advisors to tackle these questions – and a few others about travel in our new post-pandemic world. Here, their expert insight:
Some people can’t wait to travel … some can.
Many advisors report seeing a recent uptick of travelers reaching out, ready to start thinking about potential trips for later this year and into 2021. “No doubt there is pent-up demand for travel,” says Virtuoso agency executive Scott Largay. “Travelers are beginning to poke their heads out and at least inquire about where it’s best to go on their next trip and when they should expect to be able to go to certain places.”
Our travel advisors noted that older and high-risk travelers are likely the ones who plan on staying put – at least until there’s a vaccine. And while Virtuoso travel advisor Leah Smith predicts some families will be ready to travel soon (“I’m guessing after being quarantined with kids for so long, they’re yearning for some open spaces!”), advisor Grace DeVita adds that big, multigenerational family trips and reunions might still be on hold for a while – as family members are concerned about older relatives. (Though advisors did mention that private villas are good options for accommodating families safely.)
Their best predictions for travel’s rebound: July and August for domestic travel, and late 2020 and early 2021 for international. Ultimately, it’s about a traveler’s personal comfort level, and there are still many factors that can come into play.
“Travelers have always adapted quickly to ever-changing travel landscapes caused by natural disasters and other events,” Smith says. “When these things happen, those who love to travel are eager to get back out there and help their favorite destinations rebuild. For that reason, I’m very hopeful that travel will resemble some normalcy by this fall.”
Cancellation policies will be a lot more flexible.
Until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, potential new Covid-19 outbreaks may dramatically alter hotel openings, tour and flight schedules, and self-quarantine requirements. “It seems that restrictions will evolve and ease in a very patchwork fashion, with screening or testing at destinations affecting travelers’ access, and rules will be inconsistent and unclear,” says Virtuoso agency executive Ken Neibaur. “Travelers will demand a new level of flexibility with softer fare rules, no change fees, and no lost deposits.”
Because of these relaxed and generous cancellation policies, Virtuoso advisors encourage travelers who feel comfortable to go ahead and keep plans for later this year, or start making new ones for next year. There’s a good chance that hotels will release fewer rooms and tours will cater to smaller groups to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Largay says, so some trips for 2021 may actually begin to sell out sooner rather than later.
Wide-open spaces: Yellowstone National Park began reopening to travelers this month. (Photo by Getty Images)
Domestic travel will come back first.
The advisors we talked to were confident about close-to-home travel emerging first: they’re even planning some of their own vacations. Grace DeVita hopes to visit her grandkids near Saint Petersburg, Florida, within the next month; Leah Smith is daydreaming of California Wine Country and the New England coast while hatching plans for later this fall to travel with her family and the baby she will soon welcome; and Ken Neibaur is gearing up for a California road trip.
Other close-to-home travel trends advisors are predicting: Trips to luxury resorts in the middle of nowhere; interest in cities such as San Diego, Portland, and Denver, which promise nice summer weather and an array of outdoor activities; an increased demand for private villa rentals and other residential-style accommodations; national park- and mountain-centric getaways; and the return of the road trip.
“There’s a real opportunity for some unique experiences with RVs and luxury car rentals,” Largay says. “And by RVs we’re not talking Cousin Eddie pulling up to the Griswolds’ house in Christmas Vacation – these are finely appointed moving hotel suites.”
International travel is going to take some time.
To date, several countries (including Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina) aren’t allowing some foreign citizens in … yet. On the flip side, Greece, Portugal, Iceland, and several Caribbean countries are set to begin reopening their borders in June, with many other destinations following closely behind. The other biggest deterrent to international travel: Many travelers just aren’t ready to hop on a long-haul flight.
“International travel depends on a number of important factors, with the most important being a go-to therapy or vaccine for the virus,” Largay says. “If people have to quarantine on arrival, get tested before a flight, or show an immunity passport, that will dissuade them from taking the risk because too many things could go wrong. That said, we are already seeing an increased interest for international travel for late 2020 and early 2021.”
International destinations a short flight away for U.S. travelers, such as the Caribbean and Mexico, will likely bounce back first, though Neibaur predicts that fast access to modern healthcare when traveling will become a more important factor than ever before.
When international travel returns, an increased desire for venturing thoughtfully and sustainably will come with it, DeVita says. The world has collectively witnessed lockdown’s positive effects (carbon emissions recently dropped to record-low levels, scientists report), while also learning about how much travel dollars can directly support local communities.
“We’re very much looking forward to traveling internationally again,” says Virtuoso agency executive Tony Adler. (Sometimes that the anticipation for a trip – especially right now – can be almost as exciting as the trip itself.) “We had to cancel our March trip to Asia, but we’ve rescheduled another Asia trip with one of our sons and his fiancé for December. We want to be a model to our clients and show them that travel is still wonderful. We’re hoping everything works out and we’re able to go without having to take extraordinary risks.”
Working with a travel advisor will matter more than ever.
Those who can’t wait to get out there again (*raises hand wildly*) will need to understand that travel as we know it is going to be different for a while. It might even be a little confusing and overwhelming at first. “There won’t be a consistent reality for travel requirements,” DeVita says. “Airlines will each have their own rules, and hotels, restaurants, and tour operators will all have different policies too.”
Working with an advisor means that if something goes wrong – a hotel shuts down, a flight gets cancelled, a trip is suddenly cut short – it’s handled. That peace of mind can be priceless. “Things are changing on the fly,” Largay says. “It’s best to trust an expert who knows the latest developments and rules – and will answer the phone when you call.”