Fasten your seatbelts, travelers. We are in for a rough ride.
Photo: Marriott International
Fasten your seatbelts, travelers. We are in for a bumpy ride. Travel as we know it is going to be a lot different over the next year or so as the world awaits a vaccine or some other breakthrough to rid us of the coronavirus and reopen our travel horizons.
Overall, the travel industry, which has ballooned in recent years as the world economy expanded, is going to become much, much smaller in the near term. Airline ticket prices will likely soar. Weekend jaunts to faraway places will fly away. Getting through the airport is going to take longer, and require much more patience than before. Hotel stays will become dull, utilitarian and depressing with guests and staff hiding smiles behind masks. Hotels will also become more expensive. Joyful meals in popular, crowded restaurants? Nope. International travel? As residents of the country with the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world, Americans are going to have a tough time finding a warm welcome in other countries for a while. Big company events and boondoggles where you can schmooze with clients and colleagues? Off the table for at least a year.
While it’s nice to dream of breaking free of stay-at-home orders with big, glossy trips far and wide, the reality is going to be more prosaic. I don’t foresee anything close to what we experienced in 2019 for at least three years or longer. As a matter of fact, for the next couple years I think the travel experience is going to be more like what we saw in the 1970s.
First off, travel is going to become much more expensive. Airlines, hotels and rental car companies are not going to be able to discount their way out of this crisis.
In order to comply with social-distancing rules, which are here to stay as long as there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, airlines are reducing capacity on each flight by not booking middle seats. What happens when a third of a company’s inventory is no longer available? Basic economics says that when you reduce supply, prices will increase. Demand for airline seats will come back slightly, but it’s not going to pop back to pre-COVID-19 levels until there’s a proven vaccine and fliers don’t have to worry about sharing arm rests or cabin air any longer. In order to survive until then, airlines are going to have to raise prices significantly on the few flights left operating. Their mothballed fleets will stay mothballed until demand comes back. We are already starting to see this play out… tried booking a holiday 2020 trip yet? A quick scan shows that it’s not cheap.
Significantly fewer travelers means that getting through the airport screening process should be faster, but it won’t until there’s a vaccine. In addition to screening for bombs or knives, we will soon face a whole new layer of health screening. Like we’ve already seen in Dubai, passengers could have to submit to rapid coronavirus tests at the airport. Or passengers will have to get screened beforehand and arrive at the airport with a “health passport.” Temperature checks will become mandatory. Some airports are already talking about disinfecting passengers with chemical sprays or beams of UV light.
Who wants to put up with all that? These airport hassles mean that only travelers with serious business on the other end are going to put up with flying — this will be people going to visit sick or dying relatives, technicians needed to keep machinery humming, medical or scientific professionals and the like. Planeloads of kids headed to Europe for singing tours, or seniors jetting off to catch a cruise lined up at airport security? Frequent flyers taking “mileage runs?” We won’t see any of that until there’s a vaccine.
Hotels have spent billions over the last decade turning lobbies into social spaces where travelers can eat, drink, work and interact with each other. Now they are going to have to spend millions to modify those spaces to protect guests. They will also have to discourage use of public spaces until there’s a vaccine, which means guests sheltering in their “sanitized for your protection” -style rooms. And who wants to do that?
Big hotels will also have to reduce capacity — by booking only certain floors or every other room down a corridor. And imagine the problems high-rise hotels will have around social distancing on elevators? Ugh. Hotel pools are going to be another tough area for social distancing with fewer chairs spaced further apart, and rules such as allowing only one person in the pool at a time.
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I think vacation travel is going to look a lot like it did in the 1970s when I was a kid. Airline ticket prices were prohibitive for families eager for a summer vacation. And planes flew about 60 percent full. Instead of flying, back then we loaded up the station wagon and headed to the beach, the mountains or the lake for two weeks every summer.
That usually meant a day-long drive to somewhere in our state or a neighboring states. That’s what I think we will seen this summer and next summer, too. Vacations by car close to home. And instead of heading off to big resorts or amusement parks or national parks, we will book Airbnbs or VRBOs with big yards and backyard pools or private beach or lake access. Family trips by RV, relatively sealed off from other vacationers, will be popular. And like the 1970s, cheap gasoline is going to fuel the resurgence of the road trip.
There is a bright side to this murky outlook, however. Most major tourist destinations have suffered massively from over-tourism in recent years, which has frustrated locals, degraded the experience for travelers, and ruined many cherished destinations. Think of the coral reefs ruined by suntan lotion, hillsides strewn with trash, plastic and sewage seeping into waterways from overtaxed systems or wildlife bothered into near extinction. For about two more years, the worldwide tourist economy, which has been pushed to its limits, will get a much-needed rest.
Chris McGinnis is SFGATE’s senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE weekly email updates!
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