Pandemic anniversary: Travel ended a year ago, but it’s back — sort of

pandemic anniversary

One year ago, travel ended.

As COVID-19 consumed the planet, airlines mothballed their planes. Cruise lines docked their ships. Hotels closed their doors, some permanently. And under strict stay-at-home orders, millions of travelers canceled their vacations.

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But on the pandemic anniversary, people are wondering: What did the virus do to travel? What will it still do?

Pandemic anniversary: What just happened?

Like many travelers, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the new reality. A year ago, I was only a few months into a one-year trek across Europe with my three teenagers. We ended up stuck in Nice, France, and then evacuated back to the United States, where we took refuge in my uncle’s basement in Spokane, Wash.

Between lockdowns, covid-19 surges and quarantines, the only thing that I know for certain is that I desperately miss traveling. And I’m not alone.

Paul Metselaar, CEO of Ovation Travel Group, says Americans view travel as a necessity after a year of lockdowns, “not just for business purposes, but for living our lives to the fullest. Each journey enables us to discover other people, other cultures and more about ourselves.”

COVID-19 left a permanent scar

As we mark the first pandemic anniversary, it’s clear that COVID-19 has left a permanent scar on the travel industry. The U.N. World Tourism Organization called 2020 the worst year in tourism history, with international arrivals down 73 percent and a loss of $1.3 trillion in export revenue. Airline ticket purchases for leisure travel are down 63 percent compared with 2019 levels, and business travel is down by an astounding 83 percent, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.

“The tourism industry is still reeling,” says Destination DC CEO Elliott Ferguson. D.C. was one of the hardest-hit cities in America, he says. From mid-March to December 2020, visitor spending plummeted by 71 percent, to $4.9 billion. D.C. lost $375 million in tax revenue.

Requests for help from consumers spiked, too. Last year we hit a record, with more than 10,000 cases received by my consumer advocacy organization.

A dramatic and unprecedented response

The travel industry’s reaction has been dramatic and unprecedented. Over the past 12 months, it has become more safety-conscious and consumer-friendly than perhaps ever before. Customers are behaving differently and demanding more from airlines, cruise lines and hotels. Car rental companies now offer contactless check-ins. Hotels have high-profile partnerships with cleaning brands and medical centers. But nothing comes close to cruise ships, which have had to reinvent themselves.

When they sail again, the experience will be completely different, says Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic. New facial recognition technology will replace traditional check-ins. Payment wristbands will double as contact-tracing tools. “And we’ve likely seen the last of the self-serve buffet at sea,” she adds.

The pandemic also stretched the definition of words such as “temporary” and tested our patience. “When the lockdowns happened, I think everyone believed it would all be temporary,” says J.D. O’Hara, CEO of Internova Travel Group. But weeks turned into months, and longer. “People missed travel, and they are very eager to start traveling again.”

Travelers like me watched in disbelief as the carnage unfolded. I expected to return to Europe in the fall. Then I postponed my trip to the spring. Now I don’t expect to go back until 2022. I’m not holding my breath.

What to expect in the future

What’s ahead on this pandemic anniversary? Even more changes.

The new normal for travel feels like an episode of an ’80s medical drama: “Getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and keeping your distance,” says manners expert Lisa Grotts, who has been closely tracking pandemic etiquette. For a lot of travelers — myself included — that doesn’t feel like much of a vacation.

Many destinations now require proof of travel insurance. They include popular destinations such as most European Union countries, Anguilla in the Caribbean and the United Arab Emirates, according to experts. More countries are expected to join in, as destinations try to cover hospitalization costs in a post-covid world. “As regions worldwide start to reopen, they will require travelers to have some form of travel insurance to enter their country,” says Bailey Foster, vice president of trip cancellation response at Trawick International, a travel insurance company.

How to get there

The preferred way of vacationing — for now at least — is by car and RV. Autos have become like second homes for some travelers, a safe place where they can travel within their bubble. Jim Nichols, a spokesman for Volvo Cars USA, says he expects that trend to accelerate this summer. “I anticipate the resurgence of road trips to continue as people seek alternatives to traditionally crowded destinations,” he says.

As we mark the pandemic anniversary, travelers have adopted a new, no-nonsense attitude, experts say.

“They’ll continue to prioritize and demand flexibility and easy-to-cancel reservations that have been more pervasive over the past year,” predicts Brett Keller, CEO of the Priceline online travel agency. They’re also less tolerant of travel company shenanigans. I suspect that we’ll start to see a more aggressive attitude toward pricing as well. Alain Desarran, a retired federal worker from Odenton, Md., was shopping for an airline ticket for later this year, and he was outraged by the higher fares. Rather than book now, he’s planning to wait until prices drop.

People won’t travel just for the sake of traveling. They’re going to demand more from their vacations, says Victoria Simmons, a senior vice president for travel at the marketing agency BVK.

“The past year has caused us to think much more critically about the decisions we make and the impact they have on the world around us,” she says. “Coming out of the pandemic, travelers will expect much more meaning out of the trips they do take, which may not happen as frequently as it did pre-pandemic.”

What does “more” mean? We’ll set the bar higher than ever before for travel. No more throwaway weekends, no more same-old, same-old. Make every vacation count.

Americans are ready to travel again

“People are so ready to travel,” says Rebecca Gallagher, owner of the Historic Smithton Inn B&B in Lancaster County, Pa. “When things truly open back up again, I think we’re going to see a surge of guests.”

There’s a lot of optimism that a rebound will happen — and soon.

“We’ve seen many people begin to think about, and plan, future trips,” says Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel. The numbers don’t lie: Flight searches for domestic travel have increased 58 percent since January, according to the airfare search app Hopper.

On the anniversary of the lockdowns, a new traveler is emerging — more patient, maybe a little pickier and definitely more safety-conscious. I’m not sure if I’m one of them yet. I’m still processing last year’s events. The rules of travel are still being rewritten as the pandemic starts to ease. Will the balance of power tilt in the consumer’s favor? Or will travel companies raise their prices and impose new restrictions to make up for the lost revenue? We’re about to find out.