Travel will return in 2021—but it won’t be any fun

Travel will return in 2021—but it won’t be any fun
Image: David Huang for Quartz
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On Dec. 1, 2020, as approval of the first Covid-19 vaccines appeared imminent, a hopeful question popped up on TripAdvisor’s Japan travel forum.

No one can see the future, but does anyone foresee relaxed restrictions on tourism from healthcare workers in the US who receive the vaccine series this December/January? Itching to go to Japan for a two-week vacation in October/November of next year.

It’s been a year since both leisure and business travel came to a screeching halt, as the coronavirus jumped from China to Japan and Thailand, and then spread rapidly around the world. With visitors expected to adhere to strict quarantine rules, or banned from visiting countries altogether, once busy airports and hotels have become desolate.

As the first vaccines began to be approved and administered late last year, officials, businesses, and travelers had hopes that the great travel freeze of 2020 might begin coming to an end. All too quickly, however, the discovery of new, more infectious strains of Covid-19, and soaring caseloads and death rates in several parts of the world, have dampened that optimism.

Hong Kong airport food area is pretty much empty on Feb. 21, 2020.
Hong Kong airport handled 8.8 million passengers last year, down from more than 71 million in 2019.
Image: Tripti Lahiri

Far from opening up, Japan, which late last year had been in the process of drafting rules to restart tourism, barred all international arrivals starting Jan. 14—including athletes preparing for the rescheduled 2020 Olympics. The US has begun requiring Covid-19 tests for international arrivals, while continuing to bar travel from more destinations. The UK now requires hotel quarantines for citizens arriving on international flights from a number of countries. Israel announced it would “hermetically” seal itself. Hong Kong is now making even airline crews quarantine, a move that will likely send the city’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific into a tailspin.

“We’re probably now in the least optimistic part of the whole cycle,” said Rory Boland, travel editor for UK-based consumer advocacy nonprofit Which? That’s because the world still needs “a really crucial piece of information”—whether the vaccines will, in addition to protecting their recipients from Covid-19, prevent them from transmitting the disease. (Researchers are only in the early stages of collecting data on this.)

“If the vaccine doesn’t prevent transmission, I think we’re in for a really difficult year travel-wise, “said Boland. “Because it’s not just about you getting the vaccine then, it’s about the destination that you’re going to also having the vaccine.”

To turn to the language of travel itself, when it comes to the global effort to bring back leisure and business cross-border journeys, we’re not yet at the boarding gate, nor even in the taxi to the airport (we wish). We’re still very much in the research and planning stages.

What we do know is that 2021 is going to be a stop-and-go journey, as governments and businesses try to figure out an equitable Covid-19 testing and vaccine “passport” regime that can safely help ease the mess that’s resulting from different national entry rules and the uneven distribution of vaccines.

“We need to be optimistic about the future of travel. We will travel again,” said Bart Buiring, head of sales and marketing in the Asia-Pacific region for Marriott International. “[But] we need to be a little bit more patient for a few more months to come.”

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What’s becoming clear is that the relatively relaxed approach taken by the US, the UK, and parts of Europe last year is going to become less and less the norm. Instead, the strict rules toward barring visitors and enforced quarantine adopted by places like South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia—approaches seen as outliers at one time—will increasingly be reflected in your travel experience. The steps being tried out in these places, from on-site testing at hotels to digital health passes, will help lay the ground for how travel will come back.

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Table of contents

Facebook is the new TripAdvisor | Traveling in the short-term | The age of staycations and weekend trips | The silver lining

Image for article titled Travel will return in 2021—but it won’t be any fun

Facebook is the new TripAdvisor

Like many people, I ended up spending a major chunk of the pandemic in a place where I don’t usually live.

A nearly empty Hong Kong-Delhi flight in the early days of the pandemic.
A nearly empty Hong Kong-Delhi flight in the early days of the pandemic.
Image: Tripti Lahiri

It was late last February when my mother’s best friend called to tell me, “You should come.” I quickly got on a flight from Hong Kong to India, in what would turn out to be one of the last weeks when travel was still open. The plane had perhaps 10 passengers on it. Though many people in the US and India were paying relatively little attention to the coronavirus at the time, US carriers had stopped flying to Hong Kong. Weeks earlier, United had canceled my tickets to the US for a trip to see my sister and nieces, and to visit Quartz’s main office. Just days after I checked my mom out of the hospital in March, India suspended all air travel. Hong Kong the same month instituted stringent rules for residents wishing to return, and suspended all visitor arrivals.

I expected travel to become a little easier toward the end of last year, and as I began planning my return, friends in Hong Kong urged me to check out a Hong Kong quarantine group on Facebook, set up to help people figure out the rules, decide which hotel to quarantine in, and navigate the loneliness of quarantine. This was travel to get home to loved ones and pets, to homes left empty for months on end, to funerals and family crises.

The group was a reflection of the chaotic state of travel in a pandemic year in which millions were homebound, shrinking the number of air passengers to levels last seen two decades ago. In February 2020, Marriott hotels reported hotel occupancy of 9% in China. As of November, US air travel had recovered from 3 million passengers in April to 28 million—still down 60% from the year before. Just 9 million passengers traveled through Hong Kong airport in 2020, compared with more than 70 million in 2019. As a result, millions of travel-related jobs were estimated to have been lost globally.

“2020 was the most catastrophic year for the tourism industry all over the world, and especially Thailand…our economy has been driven mainly by the export and tourism sectors for decades,” said Tanes Petsuwan, a deputy governor at the Thailand Tourism Authority, in an email, citing an official estimate that at least 100,000 jobs would be lost in the country’s hotel sector.

Those who had to travel found themselves quickly having to get up to speed on new rules, and not always successfully. Still more, such as myself, eventually decided to delay traveling, usually after a series of setbacks.

First, Cathay canceled my tickets a week after I’d bought them and said it had no plans to fly the route for months. Then a friend directed me to a Hong Kong travel agency that was organizing occasional chartered flights. But with new responsibility for both my parents in the pandemic, I grew increasingly uneasy about the idea of not being able to get back into India if needed. I finally threw in the towel when, on Christmas day, Hong Kong extended its quarantine from 14 days to 21—which some travelers found out the day they arrived. Still, I continued to lurk on the Hong Kong quarantine Facebook group, collecting tips for the future and experiencing the travel community bonding.

The most popular topic of conversation was quarantine meals, which were included in the price of the government-mandated hotel stay, and left outside a guest’s door three times a day by hotel staff. Other popular discussions involved why the government-provided GPS trackers buzzed so frequently, how to keep up an exercise routine in a small hotel room, and quarantine hobbies.

A frequent theme was whether to splurge on a big room or a nice hotel—given that it would be your whole world for three weeks. One group member who quarantined in a hotel that offers rooms larger than many apartments said it was well worth it—even if it means “instant noodles for remaining 2021.”

Kerry Hotels quarantine room package, with three meals included.
A quarantine room with a view.
Image: Screenshot

In the group, I bumped into an old friend who was trying to return to his family in Hong Kong from Europe, where he traveled late last year for a short work contract for a humanitarian agency. His experience was travel in 2020 in a nutshell. The initial trip out to Europe wasn’t bad, he said, considering it required navigating a ghostly airport.

“Hong Kong airport [is] usually such a bustling and in some ways vibrant place. I’ve always enjoyed going through there, whether for work or holidays with the family,” he said. “But this time it was completely eerie, and with a sense of unease (from passengers and staff) that I’ve never felt before…you get the sense that, no one (including myself) would be there if they didn’t have to be.”

Getting back to Hong Kong is proving to be more of an ordeal. “It is trying to do a jigsaw, but the shape of the parts keeps changing,” he said.

First, he accidentally booked a hotel that was only offering 14-day quarantine stays meant for Hong Kong residents returning from adjacent parts of mainland China, and so had to rebook at another hotel. Then his airline, a European carrier, suddenly canceled his flight with no new dates. Upon reading his post, a traveler who will be heading from Geneva, Switzerland to Hong Kong on Qatar Airways promised to report back.

These communities may become more and more necessary as Hong Kong- and Singapore-style travel rules—multiple rounds of Covid testing, two-week enforced quarantines, GPS monitoring—become more common elsewhere.

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Traveling in the short-term

Perhaps the most important piece of advice for people considering long-haul international travel now: Don’t, if you can possibly avoid it. But if you must, remember that leaving a place is usually going to be easier than returning to it, and if things can go wrong, they likely will. You may not be allowed to board because your Covid-19 test says “date of sample” instead of “collection date” or is partially in French. (In the meantime, someone in a quarantine group somewhere may have some advice for you.)

As people are vaccinated, some short-haul regional travel could resume later this year, including quarantine-free bubbles like the one Australia and New Zealand just temporarily suspended—particularly if governments and airlines can standardize ways to verify testing, as well as vaccination status for passengers with a Covid-19 “passport.”

A number of different vaccine passport efforts are underway (see a list compiled by Quartz here). The World Economic Forum has developed CommonPass, while Singapore Airlines has begun testing a digital health pass based on the Travel Pass framework developed by the International Air Travel Authority. Singapore Airlines said it’s offering the digital health pass right now to travelers from Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, who will be advised of designated labs where they can get tested. Their results will come with a QR code that airline workers can scan, rather than having to parse test reports from unknown labs in multiple languages.

Separately, Singapore Airlines is also piloting a “one-stop shop online portal” for some passengers to book pre-departure tests and store health information. “Covid-19 tests and vaccinations will be an integral part of air travel for the foreseeable future,” the airline said via email. “This is a faster and more secure way to validate a passenger’s health credentials than the existing protocols.”

For now, most efforts will likely focus on pre- and post-travel testing. But while the pandemic temporarily made most passports “weak,” the fact that rich countries will be vaccinated far more quickly and widely than poorer ones means that mandating vaccines for travel too soon would make traditionally “strong” passports stronger, and “weak” ones weaker.

A big question mark is hovering over events involving global participants like the special edition of Davos, which Singapore is scheduled to host in person in May, or the rescheduled 2020 Olympics, which Japan is trying to host in July and August.

“We think that the last thing to return, and probably more like 2022, is large conventions with a lot of delegates from all over the world flying into a particular location,” said Buiring. “I think that will take some time.”

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The age of staycations and weekend trips

Most people who are traveling at the moment by choice are not going very far, and that’s likely to be emblematic of this year.

The US Bureau of Transportation recorded a decline over the 2020 Christmas and New Year’s holiday travel season for almost every category of travel except for one: destinations between 50 to 500 miles away, or up to about five or six hours’ driving distance. Though their numbers were small, Americans took about 24% more of these types of trips in 2020 than in the previous year—with nearby national parks proving a popular destination.

The world over, travelers who might otherwise have opted to travel outside their own countries now have turned to “discovering or rediscovering” the places they live in, said the Marriott’s Buiring.

Buiring scours hotel occupancy rates for clues to how confident or jittery travelers are. And while “it literally changes week by week,” he still describes his sentiment about the outlook for travel this year as “clear-eyed optimism,” noting that travel is resuming gradually in phases.

The first kinds of trips to return, he says, have been staycations at hotels around one’s own city and “nearcations”—trips to destinations reachable by drives or short flights. In China, people have flocked to cities like Chengdu in Sichuan province, famed for its food, or the luxury beach resorts and duty-free shopping zones of Hainan Island, also known as China’s “Hawaii.” In India, they’ve taken flights to the Portuguese-influenced beach state of Goa or driven to Himalayan destinations. In Thailand, the government made support for domestic travel part of its stimulus last year, though many resorts have shut again due to a resurgence of cases.

Recovery has been particularly strong in China, which brought the virus under control with severe and long-lasting lockdowns by summer last year. Last week, Guangzhou’s airport, in southern China, announced it was the world’s busiest in 2020—a crown that usually belongs to Atlanta. In September, Marriott saw hotel occupancy there hit around 67% (pdf, p. 2), which was slightly above the level the same month in 2019. And for the most favored destinations, that number was around 80% for the quarter, according to Buiring.

In many cases travelers are opting for luxury hotels, or snapping up more luxurious hotel rooms than would typically be booked first—since in many places hotel attractions, such as gyms or swimming pools, are off limits. Of course, the popularity of splurges may reflect just who has the money and the time to spend right now. Leisure travel has always been a luxury—and that’s more true than ever because of the pandemic.

The company is now watching to see what happens over the Lunar New Year holiday, which this year falls in the middle of February. The first lockdown in Wuhan came at the start of last year’s holiday, and while the situation is far better now, a resurgence of cases in parts of the country, and advice from officials to avoid unnecessary travel, could mean this quarter is more muted than the last quarter of 2020.

People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak line up outside a Gucci store at the Sanya International Duty-Free Shopping Complex in Sanya, Hainan province, China November 25, 2020. Picture taken November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Image: Reuters/Tingshu Wang

The silver lining

It’s hard to think about silver linings in a situation that has cost tens of millions of people their earnings, and dented countries’ entire economies. But they do exist.

For places that were facing severe over-tourism, such as parts of Thailand and the Philippines, or the south of Spain, the pandemic may be a chance to reset and restore tourism more sustainably. Travelers themselves may be inclined to venture forth in ways that just happen to be better for the environment.

“There was obviously a movement before the pandemic for countries where people travel a lot to reduce their carbon footprint, particularly around flying. I think that is going to dovetail with the return of travel in that people will not want to go to places that there are lots of people,” said Boland. “That’s good for the environment, that’s good for those communities as well, it means travel will be better spread around a greater number of countries and destinations.”

Numbers are also going to be limited because once international travel returns, it’s going to be more complex to plan and far more expensive than it used to be, if you factor in multiple tests and perhaps a quarantine at a specific kind of hotel—which, in some cases, might be a golf resort. Though some hotels are offering to offset the costs of tests against room service or other amenities, these are not generally going to be budget choices. So people will travel fewer times in the year—which should keep the interest in local destinations high—but go for longer when they do.

Travelers will need to be extra careful when they start to book those first international trips later this year because the threat of disruption will continue to be high as countries tinker with entry rules in response to case infection numbers—and travel insurance will not cover such cancellations as a Covid-19 trip hiccup is now a foreseeable event. Given that, old-school travel agents or tour operators may be the best bet, says Boland, because at least you’re guaranteed a person to talk to when things go wrong (which they will). In some regions, including the UK and Europe, tour packages are mandated by law to offer certain protections. That is not always true of trips planned via aggregator sites—many travelers lost money last year on trips booked that way.

While it may not yet be the right time to actually put money down on future travel, Buiring says there’s already a clear sense that travelers are planning for two kinds of trips once cross-border travel is a reality again. One is “must do” travel to see family and friends—in his case that would be to see his mom and sister in Europe. The other might be a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to a dream destination—the northern lights, the Galapagos, the Azores, or Iceland. Or maybe resuming a crazy motorcycle trip across a continent.

For travel editor Boland, it’s a trip to see his family in Ireland. “It’s less than an hour flight from where I am, but it’s practically impossible for me at the moment because of the requirements to quarantine when you’re there,” he said. “So…all I would like to do is travel—we’re talking 50 minutes—on an airplane to see my parents,” he says. “That would make me happy enough.”