Does coronavirus herald the demise of tickbox tourism?
Prior to March 2020, travel was easy, relatively cheap and often throwaway.
Increased disposable income and a booming low-cost aviation sector had made the world more accessible than ever, fuelling mass expansion of the travel market. Destinations like Amsterdam, Florence and Barcelona were buckling under the weight of more tourists than they could handle.
This was the era of tickbox tourism. Travellers were able to cross off mainstream destinations on the tourist map with relative ease, country-bagging as they went along, often not recognising that this wasn’t the best way to get to know a place or its culture, not to mention the environmental impact.
I know because I have fallen down that rabbit hole.
All this all changed with the global coronavirus pandemic. Countries sealed their borders and locked down their citizens, and the airline industry came to a virtual standstill. The stimulation and exploration once provided by travel to distant lands had to be found closer to home
As many countries tentatively reopen their borders and the airline and hospitality industries make plans to resume business in a way that protects their customers, and their profit margins, we need to ask what travel will look like in a Covid-19 world.
Will our travel habits revert to those of pre-coronavirus times or, more importantly, should they change?
The cost of flying in a Covid-19 world
Airlines are desperate to get flying again.
To increase passenger confidence, and in compliance with advice issued by national aviation regulators, operators are putting in measures to enable social distancing and to sanitise their aircraft. However, it is speculated that this will come at a financial cost to the passenger, at least in the short to medium term.
Some airlines, including the budget carrier EasyJet, have discussed removing the middle seat in a row of three to enable social distancing. But, equally, other airlines, RyanAir amongst them, maintain that implementing this strategy would necessitate a sharp increase in fares. The jury is out.
As the virus infection rate spikes and diminishes, to maintain capacity within healthcare systems, governments will need to turn lockdown measures on and off accordingly. Windows of opportunity to travel will be limited and unpredictable, lasting only weeks or even days. With seats on some airlines already limited due to social distancing on-board and shaven schedules, we could see sharp fare increases during those precious windows.
However, the situation may be a little more complex and more fluid than this.
A major determinant on the airline supply and demand curve is the number of buyers. With consumer confidence low, to entice travellers to take to the skies once again, we may see airline promotional sales, at least in the short-term.
Flying will be less attractive …
But price is not the sole consideration when deciding to fly post-lockdown.
Air travel will not be what is was pre-coronavirus. Face masks for passengers will be encouraged by most major airlines and will be mandatory for some. Not much fun on a 12-hour flight.
To facilitate speedy boarding, hand luggage will be severely restricted and on some airlines, you will need permission to use the toilet. Covid-19 may also spell the end of the inflight magazine,
But before you board a plane you will need to navigate the airport. Health screening, including temperature checks, is likely to be the new normal, and there will be an increased focus on self-check-in to minimise contact with ground staff.
These checks will not stop when you reach your destination. You may have to look forward to further health screening – many airports already check people’s temperature on arrival – and various certification schemes are being explored.
… but the fortunes of road and rail travel will boom
In the face of these challenges of flying, at least in the short to medium term, I expect non-flying trips to boom. By contrast, holidays by air will become more of a special event: rarer, longer and certainly more considered.
Domestic travel will be the first to recover first. There’s no border control and you can take the train or drive
Rail travel is likely to surge in popularity. Although there will be measures in place on trains to keep people safe – for now, wearing masks on trains is compulsory in the UK and USA – they are less crowded and less stressful, even in pre-Covid times.
Travelling by road will also be more attractive.
I expect road trips to become more common and car hire to rise, as travelling in your own sanitised bubble presents a lower risk than public transport. This could also mean the popularity of campervans and caravans to surge (I know one person already who has bought himself a campervan).
Less tickbox tourism, more offbeat destinations
Once lockdown ends and travel is possible, I for one will not be rushing to visit big, crowded honeypots such as Venice or Dubrovnik. The thought of standing cheek to jowl with other tourists is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat!
But this is by no means a bad thing.
Many parts of our planet have been blighted by overtourism and fast travel. Although an extreme means to an end, coronavirus may persuade travellers to spread their wings into lesser-visited places. Ultimately, this is a more ethical and environmentally responsible way of travelling.
The popularity of cruises will sink (pun intended)
The cruise industry has not come out of the coronavirus epidemic very well at all and may face the greatest challenge in bouncing back.
News footage of cruise ships blocked from entering ports in the early days of the pandemic, passengers incarcerated in their cabins, is seared on the memory of many people. Customer confidence needs to be restored, and it doesn’t help that much of the high-volume cruise companies’ target audience is in the older, higher-risk category
But with this challenge there comes an opportunity.
In no small part, the cruise industry has contributed to overtourism, calling at the same ports and pitting destinations against one another. I have visited Santorini on a cruise, an experience I would not wish to repeat. Whilst this is a swoon-worthy destination in its own right, the addition of thousands of cruise passengers on any one day turns it into tourist hell.
To control the spread of the coronavirus, destinations such as these have the opportunity to limit the number of passengers that can disembark and to levy the kinds of tariffs that Venice is implementing.
I expect sweeping changes across the cruise industry.
The free-for-all, self-service cruise buffet that hardcore cruisers adore may be a thing of the past, at least for a while. Instead, the crew will serve passengers to prevent virus transmission.
Cruising may be off-limits for high-risk passengers and more robust health-screening introduced. Itineraries may be adjusted and the embarkation and disembarkation process reviewed to avoid herding passengers in close proximity to each other.
The silver lining in this dark cloud is that we can expect deep discounts on fares to entice passengers back on board. But would you want to cruise at this time?
I have cruised from the Western Caribbean to the Baltic States, Norway’s Fjords to the Eastern Mediterranean and all have been fun experiences. But I am not convinced that now is the right time to jump on board again.
Small group travel may be less attractive
But one of the downsides of group travel is that you don’t know who you will be travelling with. During the current pandemic, I would prefer to travel with people I know versus strangers. The safety of a group tour will be subject to social distancing arrangements, the availability of medical facilities, hygiene measures, and the health of your fellow travellers.
Flexible arrangements and adequate insurance will be essential
Uncertainty can be the traveller’s nemesis, and this is a precarious time that we are living through. Flexibility in your booking arrangements and decent travel insurance will be your best friend.
It is impossible to predict how Covid-19 will play out and, in all likelihood, we will see localised future lockdowns in response to infection rates. If this happens, your travel arrangements will tumble like a house of cards.
Build maximum flexibility into your schedule by either booking accommodation on the road or select booking options that are fully cancellable without a fee. Seek out travel providers that are providing flexible cancellation policies.
For further protection, this is the one time where it might work to your advantage to book a package, either a hotel + flight or a group or package tour.
I was travelling in Japan by train when the coronavirus pandemic bit and had a difficult and stressful time getting home, an experience that taught me many travel lessons! I was silently envious of other travellers out there on a group tour. Although their trip had been curtailed, the tour operator had taken care of all of the arrangements.
Longer, slower, more responsible travel will become the new normal
All of this means that although we are likely to be travelling less, there is the opportunity to have a richer experience when we do travel. It’s entirely up to us whether we embrace this opportunity.
Aside from the challenges we face with international travel, harsh economic reality may curtail travel post-Covid. Many people have seen their livelihood diminish, or even vanish, because of the pandemic and will be left with less disposable income
Tough and more thoughtful choices may be needed, and the key will be to make these precious experiences as meaningful as possible.
So is it out with the fast-paced, multi-destination backpacking trips following a well-worn tourist trail, and the plethora of sightseeing-packed city mini-breaks? In the short term at least, I say “yes.”
Instead, look forward to a more static, more immersive experience to more offbeat destinations. I, for one, welcome a less jam-packed schedule and the pressure to tick off “must-sees.”
There is a chance that lockdown will have prepared us for slower travel. Although challenging at times, lockdown has taught me to slow down and to embrace spare time.
How coronavirus will change travel
Lockdown has also allowed me to reflect on the privilege of travel, an ability that is all too easy to take for granted.
Travel is an important part of my life and is part of who I am. It has been a consistent presence in my life and I have measured time through the countdown to the next trip.
That privilege has been snatched away from me, forcing the cancellation of booked trips. My travel ambitions are now more modest and more measured, and I like to think that I will start to value every journey and make each trip more meaningful.
Travel will be back. Livelihoods and economies depend on it and people will always want to stretch the boundaries of their imagination and experience, exploring other cultures and seeing different parts of the world
That said, it will take some time for travel to return to “normal;” to travel with the same degree of freedom and without concern as we did prior to March 2020.
But, when that time comes, just because we can travel as we used to pre-coronavirus, does that mean we should? I like to think that we will emerge into a new dawn of travel, cautiously optimistic and a little chastened.