The frustrating and liberating ways travel is returning in 2021

The frustrating and liberating ways travel is returning in 2021
Image: David Huang for Quartz
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💡 The Big Idea

Travel in 2021 is going to be a stop-and-go journey, as governments and businesses try to figure out an equitable plan to get things back to normal. Here’s the TLDR to our guide on travel in 2021.

🤔Here’s why

1️⃣  Travel will slowly start to return in 2021—but it won’t be any fun. 2️⃣  Expect tests for Covid-19 to become the norm, 3️⃣  as a myriad of organizations work to standardize vaccine passports. 4️⃣  Staycations will dominate, if China is any example, 5️⃣  while the return of large in-person events presents a moral quandary.

✍ The details

1️⃣ Travel will slowly start to return in 2021—but it won’t be any fun.

As the first vaccines began to be approved and administered late last year, officials, businesses, and travelers began hoping that the great travel freeze of 2020 might begin coming to an end. But all too quickly, 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.

What we do know is that 2021 is going to be a bumpy ride, as governments and businesses try to figure out an equitable Covid-19 testing and vaccine “passport” regime that can 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.”

2️⃣ Expect tests for Covid-19 to become the norm.

If you’re traveling internationally this year, you should expect to show a negative Covid-19 test at some point during your journey; today, at least 160 countries require a negative Covid-19 test for entry. But that process is a bit of a mess, since no two countries or airlines are adhering to the same protocols. There are efforts to standardize these throughout the industry, paving the way for future requirements that will become a staple of international travel.

The current situation is analogous to air travel after Sept. 11, 2001, when countries and airlines took years to get on the same page about security screening, said Carlos Ozores, an aviation industry consultant with the firm ICF. Now, passengers worldwide don’t think twice about removing their shoes and emptying their water bottles. That’s how we’ll eventually feel about flashing our documentation around Covid-19.

3️⃣ A myriad of organizations is working to standardize vaccine passports.

Traveling in the future will likely mean flashing an app to show a negative Covid test result or proof of vaccination. But to make this happen—a necessary step to getting travel back up and running—it’s up to airlines and organizations to figure out the how. And that’s far from simple. While a great showcase of ingenuity and responsiveness, the free market for Covid-19 passport solutions creates problems. Experts contend that when it comes to travel health credentials, being understood across borders matters more than choice.

4️⃣ Staycations will dominate, if China is any example.

While the country seemed to recover quickly from the pandemic, international travel remains out of the question for most. So local authorities and travel agencies are making the most of the opportunity by promoting local destinations for citizens, including patriotic routes that trace the history of the Communist Party and some of its most prominent figures.

The efforts are reviving the local economy, diverting the buying power of China’s rich back home. Duty free goods and shorter working weeks in some cities are among the enticements being offered to domestic tourists.

5️⃣ The return of large in-person events presents a moral quandary.

In the Covid-19 world, putting on any major global event like Davos or the Olympics is fraught. Organizers must weigh the ethical risks that any given gathering could turn into a spreader event against the potential gains, economic or otherwise. If risk is present even for outdoor events bringing together people who haven’t traveled internationally—it’s surely magnified by having participants from multiple countries, nevermind if it’s held indoors. If an outbreak linked to the event occurs, organizers and officials will have to publicly justify why they felt it was necessary to go ahead rather than play it safe by postponing or going online.

Whether Davos and the Olympics will both go forward this year is anybody’s guess. But the day that such conferences can happen again in any location without factoring for quarantines or temperature checks at venues, is the day we’ll know we’ve truly put the pandemic behind us.

📚 Read the field guide