What will travel look like when restrictions are lifted?

Industry experts weigh in with their thoughts and insights about the future of the travel industry.

With the latest United Nations (UNWTO) research showing that one-hundred percent of destinations now have travel restrictions in place, there is absolutely no escaping the hard-hitting implications that the rapid spread of COVID-19 has brought upon the travel and tourism industry.

Although there are airlines still operating, flights are predominantly repatriating stranded citizens or carrying essential supplies around the world, and many carriers are now facing the prospect of bankruptcy while seeking immediate government assistance. In addition, travellers are scrambling for refunds, hotels are finding innovative ways to use guest rooms and tourism boards are pivoting as fast as they can to steer brand awareness through virtual travel experiences that will keep them top-of-mind when restrictions are finally lifted. Simply put, there has never been more of an industry upheaval or a time of mass uncertainty.

To grasp the extent of the impact that the global pandemic will have on future travels, we tapped into travel industry leaders to see if we could shed some light on what the future of travel might look. While we may not be able to see the end to the uncertainty right now, there are clear indications that our travel habits and the tourism industry will see a monumental shift to align with a new set of expectations.

Hyper awareness to hygiene standards

Whether its scanning our fellow plane passengers for signs of sickness or carrying our own supply of travel-sized cleaning products to give our hotel room an extra wipe down, it is evident that we won’t abruptly return to our old, care-free ways. If there is one thing that has been drilled into nations around the world, it is the importance of paying closer attention to levels of cleanliness. And with most people focusing on their own standards while at home right now, venturing back outside will bring a whole new wave of awareness to the hygiene standards of other people and other places.

Ralph Hollister, Travel & Tourism Analyst at GlobalData, foresees cleanliness standards being heavily scrutinized at hotels. “Post-COVID-19, consumers will be likely to place as much importance on hotel hygiene standards as they will on price and location,” he says. “Fears over contracting the virus will live on far after the pandemic is over. Due to the large scale of many hotels, they naturally encourage gatherings of large amounts of people in relatively confined spaces. Guests will be hyper-aware of this fact when hotels re-open.”

Commenting on the need for hotels to implement good hygiene policies across the board, he says that “hotels need to determine a plan of action for deep-cleaning hotel guest rooms, meeting spaces, front desks, restaurants, fitness centers and other public areas”, and this includes “hand sanitizer stations in convenient locations” as well as “ensuring the frequent cleaning of high-touch areas”.

With many multinational hotel companies franchising a high number of their hotels, training and checks will need to become a part of a wider strategy to avoid problems at a brand-association level.

“If ongoing support and training to franchisees is not regular and concise to help them fully grasp new hygiene protocols and operations, standards may fluctuate between hotels, which will create a negative impact on a company’s image”, said Hollister.

Off-the-beaten track adventures

In recent years, the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram has played a key role in drawing attention to bucket-list hotspots around the world. Many destinations have exploded in popularity, but these must-visit places draw a crowd and —despite the cabin-fever that kicked-in as a result of social distancing — crowds will continue to be the furtherest thing from what travellers will seek when restrictions are lifted.

Pichaya Saisaengchan, Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand for Dubai and the Middle East, notes that “the tourism industry will need to adjust to a set of new norms once travel restrictions are lifted.”

Predicting a change in choices made by popularity, Saisaengchan says that “millennial travellers will most likely be the first segment to get back out there and explore the world, looking for off-the-beaten-path or lesser known destinations – such as secluded islands and national parks – in order to avoid crowded cities and tourist sites.”

Echoing earlier sentiments regarding increased hygiene standards, Saisaengchan also said that “health control requirements will become just as necessary as the long-standing security protocols, as hygiene becomes one of the top factors to consider when planning holiday trips”.

Given the economic impact of the pandemic, it is also highly likely that “the majority of travellers will search for low-cost flight and lodging options, as many would have experienced an income reduction and would therefore be travelling on a budget”, remarked Saisaengchan.

Sustainable travel choices & value shifts

Without doubt, the collective responsibility of humankind has come into focus during the global pandemic. Our planet took a moment to breathe and people began to see the power of what we can do together in times of crisis. With families forced apart, wildlife reclaiming ownership of our manmade roads and marinas, political tensions being redirected into humanitarian efforts and humankind taking a moment to pause from the rush of everyday life, it seems likely that behaviours and priorities will change.

Commenting on the shifts that he foresees, Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Guardian of the Culture at Soneva, outlines changes in spend, destination choices and traveller mindsets: “Even though the second quarter of 2020 will be the period of the greatest economic decline in history, and in spite of the fact that we are going into a recession; I still suspect that consumers will be prepared to spend that little bit extra for a unique experience as they will value the precious time with their families more, now than ever”

Shivdasani predicts that travellers “will try and recreate the bonds that they created during this crisis when they were locked down at home together”. As such, “families will either enjoy more ‘Staycations’, or they will travel to unique destinations where they can really enjoy special moments with their families.”

In order for the industry to survive, the tourism will need to become for mindful of its impact on the planet. “This crisis that we are all going through now has allowed many people the opportunity to pause and rethink their values and importantly their priorities”, says Shivdasani. “I suspect that travellers will become more health-focused, more aware of nature and more sensitive to the challenges of the planet.  It will be vital for travel and tourism to have a net positive contribution to conservation, the environment as well as the community in order for this industry, which has been my life for the last 30 years, to survive in a post-COVID-19 era”, remarks Shivdasani.

Confidence-boosting measures are a must

While it is far from certain what the wake of COVID-19 will bring, it is likely that a lift in restrictions will not spur a mass return to travel.

Commenting on the need for a restoration of confidence, Saeed Al Saeed, Destination Marketing Director for the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi), spoke about the integral relationship between a country’s response to the pandemic and its perception after the pandemic is over.

“It is difficult to predict what the tourism landscape will look like after COVID-19”, said Al Saeed, “but what we know is that consumers’ priorities and behaviours will mostly likely change as a result. Nations whose governments took the right measures to protect their populations will be fondly remembered by consumers, which puts the UAE in a good position as a nation with an exemplary response to the crisis”.

Predicting that the UAE’s efforts to protect its citizens and residents will further raise the profile of the country, Al Saeed echoed earlier thoughts about hygiene and safety: “our insights show that much of our target audience are prioritizing the health, safety, and cleanliness of destinations as the top criteria for selecting destinations for the future more than ever before. Therefore, we can predict that destinations will need to demonstrate their ability to provide visitors with premium healthcare and high levels of safety and hygiene in order to appeal to them in the future.”

Such behavioural changes, he said, “will definitely influence travel habits in the future” and this “could mean we are looking at a more health-conscious and informed travel market in the coming years.”

Mirroring responses from other industry leaders, Al Saeed said that there are “consumer studies indicating that travellers will look for less congested places to go to avoid crowds”, and “destinations with warmer climates now have more appeal due to the public perception that such climates help in curbing the spread of infections”.

Commenting on the immediate mindset of travellers and what it means for the economy, Al Saeed concluded: “we expect domestic travel to accelerate much faster than international travel, which translates to an increase in spending on domestic travel by consumers within the market.”

We will travel the world again

Having built a life and a business around her passion for travel, avid globetrotter Thuymi, Co-founder of AdventureFaktory, reminds us all that while habits will change, travel will once again rise to become the sought-after luxury that offers an escape from everyday life.

“Travellers, in general, are very resilient by nature”, says Thuymi. “By changing a few habits, such as wearing a mask and washing hands regularly”, many travellers “will continue where [they] left off” and the travel industry will “bounce back into full operation within 18 months”.

While the future of the travel and tourism sector seems so unpredictable right now, there is an unwavering consensus over the integral role that hygiene standards will play in rebuilding confidence. Those businesses who can tap into the mindset of travellers and adjust to their behavioural shifts will come out on top — if they can ride out the current wave of uncertainty.

Keep that wanderlust alive with more travel tips and inspiration from World Traveller Middle East. For the latest health updates regarding coronavirus, ensure that the information you are consuming is from an official source.