How to Think About Travel When the World Stops Traveling

We're in the woods right now. Industries have frozen. A global pandemic has grounded travel and taken economies to their knees. As a society predicated on motion, we're in new, uncharted territory. What awaits on the other side?

Parked airplanes line runways typically reserved for flight. Once bustling hotel lobbies sit empty. Disney’s gates remain closed indefinitely.

As someone who has spent the better part of the last decade traveling and working in the travel industry, a world where movement as a leisure activity has come to a screeching halt due to COVID-19 is a surreal and unfamiliar place.

In addition to being a $10 trillion industry and employing 10% of the world’s workforce, travel is deeply personal for many. It is inextricably linked to some of life’s most meaningful moments.

Travel is also transformative. It’s not simply something we do, it changes us. Some would argue that it has become an inseparable part of the human experience.

Leading futurist Ross Dawson agrees, “Humans need to travel. It is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human.”

But it hasn’t always been that way. Historically, travel was primarily reserved for one of four things: necessity, conquest, pilgrimage or as a luxury of wealth. The introduction of affordable, commercial airliners changed everything.

A trip around the globe that took explorer Ferdinand Magellan three years in the 16th century, was reduced to less than three days by the mid-20th century.

In 1950, there were an estimated 25 million tourist arrivals worldwide. By 2018, this number exploded to 1.4 billion annually.

It’s easy to point to gradual improvements in the affordability of travel as the key driver in its meteoric growth. For the past several decades, however, global wages have experienced minimal growth or decline. In the U.S., workers have wrestled with wage stagnation since the 1970s.

And yet, travel continued to grow.

Multiple events tested travel and tourism at the dawn of the 21st century. 9/11 fundamentally altered the way we travel, while a global recession temporarily put it on hold. And then, again, it continued to grow.

Make no mistake, our current predicament is very different.

No magic elixir will return life to the way it once was. Our future will be markedly different from the past. We must fundamentally change the way we travel in order to make it possible once again.

A recent Destination Analysts study of Americans quarantined at home offers a hopeful glimpse into the travel’s resilience. 63% surveyed expressed sentiment that they can’t wait to get out and travel again once the COVID-19 situation is resolved, while one-third revealed that they will reconsider the types of destinations they visit when they do.

The overwhelming desire to return to traveling isn’t entirely unexpected when considering our underlying motives of why we travel in the first place.

While much uncertainty still exists, most experts agree: The way we travel will look different when the world re-opens.

When the World Starts Traveling Again, It Will Be Closer to Home

Ready for fewer flight routes, longer security lines and pre-flight health screenings?

New health and safety measures are likely to complicate air travel for the foreseeable future as airlines work to incorporate necessary changes. Technology will be key. Among measures expected: Electronic passports, IDs and boarding passes, biometric scanners and yes, even, cleaning robots (The Jetsons, anyone?). Wide deployments will help limit physical contact between people and surfaces, easing anxious traveler’s fears.

Hospitality companies will share in this new normal, with a few forward thinking hoteliers such as Hilton, Accor and Marriott already announcing new deep cleaning initiatives and brand standards that focus on hygiene. 

“How can we do things that overlay that next level of expectation of cleanliness?” was the question asked by Hilton brand leader Phil Cordell, and the guiding principle in developing the recently announced CleanStay partnership with Lysol and Mayo Clinic. 

With nations understandably cautious in re-opening borders, 78% of  travelers hesitant to journey internationally anytime soon, and 43% saying their next trip by air won’t be until 2021, regional and local trips will likely lead travel’s resurgence. 

Road trip lovers, rejoice. 

While slower than flight, automobile travel provides more than a few advantages.

      • No need to check in hours in advance, or pay for extra leg room.
      • Save the $32 spent on bottled water and a bag of chips. Eat real food at local favorites.
      • It offers something no upgrade fee or boarding priority can buy when you take a flight – control.
      • No need to take off your shoes, unless you choose to. For comfort.
      • Meticulous seat wipe down routine optional.

This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed across the globe in Japan, where travel is on the road to recovery.

Hoshino Resorts, operator of luxury Japanese properties, has already promised a shift in its approach to target domestic travel. “We are going to review our services,” the company’s chief executive said in a recent interview, “to accommodate local people’s preferences.”

Other hoteliers will likely take a similar approach, as a return to pre-pandemic volume for airline travel is estimated to take anywhere from two to five years.

Micro-Travel at a Crossroads

Weekend trips were big business for a booming travel industry last year.

More flights to more destinations meant more opportunities for globe-trotters to hop a red-eye for a well-planned, last minute getaway. These micro-trips, two to four day travels to domestic and international hot spots, limited expenses by employing clever flight times and optimal usage of time zones.

With airlines slashing 70% of seat capacity and grounding roughly 16,000 planes since January, last year’s it movement could find more difficulty scoring deals.

While experts go back and forth on what less travel now means for ticket prices in the future, many agree that the perceived cost of travel will change. Travelers will more regularly ask, “Is it safe to travel here?” and not just “How much are flights?”

This shift in mindset will directly impact micro-travel.

Instead of three or four trips spread throughout the year, we could see a return to fewer, bigger and more meaningful vacations.

A More Sustainable Way to Travel

Perhaps one of the most salient realizations to come out of a world without travel is the recognition of our ability to explore and move freely as a privilege.

Will the loss of mobility remind us that the ultimate goal of travel isn’t consumption?

How we travel is just as important, if not more, than why travel. The relative ease of movement as tourism exploded hid the damage that congestion and repeated foot traffic dealt to historical sites and communities.

As the traffic jams on Mount Everest have subsided and Venice’s canals are clearer than they’ve been in decades, we have the ability to reset. And, hopefully, reconsider how we travel more sustainably moving forward.

Mount Everest Traffic Jam

We can start by choosing destinations and hotel brands actively working to ease their footprint, and being more thoughtful about our transportation choices.

This may require some of us to change our ideas of adventure, and venture off the beaten path. And, that’s okay.

We should consider a slower, more meaningful approach to travel. Explore authentic connection with the places we visit. This is only possible when we take the time to understand its people, culture and natural beauty in a purposeful way.

Translation: Don’t do it for the photo. Do it for the experience.

Renowned world-traveler Anthony Bourdain famously spoke of travel as not just something you take with you, but where you leave something good behind.

We’ll get back to traveling, but when we do, we have a responsibility to do it right.

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