Initial predictions that COVID-19 would follow a similar timeline to Sars, and die out within six months, have been scrapped and industry experts predict a slow lift in travel bans at the end of 2020, weak passenger numbers during 2021 and some recovery for the travel industry only in 2022. The reality is that travel as we know it – is no longer.
While lockdowns and travel bans have proved effective in flattening the curve, they will not entirely eliminate a virus that spreads more easily than glitter in a pre-school. This leaves communities open to multiple waves of infections and customers remaining anxious about leaving their homes unnecessarily until wide-scale global herd immunity is achieved, or an effective COVID-19 vaccine has been developed, tested and distributed internationally.
Many facets of our industry will need to be completely reinvented. Touring, and large coach groups in particular, are under particular threat. Clients are expressing anxiety about travelling with strangers. We have always considered our Earth Wanderer 12-18 group sizes small, but in a post-COVID-19 world we now have to assess the cost-implications of reducing these numbers further and are now brainstorming scenarios where clients will be comfortable travelling together. Our prediction is for an increase in multigenerational family group travel. Small villas and guests houses, chartered in their entirety, are likely to be chosen over accommodation in large hotels. We also expect to see increased interest in tailor-made tours and self-guided departures due to the reduction in contact that these options offer.
Culturally immersive experiences have been a matter of pride for Earth Wanderer. We incorporate a range of local transport and authentic eating experiences into our tours. But we now have to question whether clients will be comfortable with the level of interactivity these experiences offer. This leads us to believe that we will see a return in popularity of private transfers and à la carte meals.
The importance of being fit and healthy to fight COVID-19 has been well documented, which means that it is likely that agents can also expect an increase of interest in active tours in the future. Both walking and cycling tours involve very low levels of contact.
There will also be a big shift in the age of travellers, with under-50s expected to be the first to resume travelling. Higher earners will also rebound sooner. This group will have been less affected by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Domestic travel will rebound first, because there is less dependence on air travel and clients are more comfortable with the health care systems in their own countries. We expect regionalism (where clients travel to a particular destination and explore it in depth) to recover faster than cross-border itineraries. We also expect that clients will initially gravitate to rural regions over city stays to reduce social exposure. Last-minute bookings are also expected to soar in popularity due to the high levels of uncertainty around travel bans and flight schedules.
South Africans are presently being forced to rapidly adapt to a digital lifestyle. This means an increase in online product research and bookings and a reduction in physical visits to travel agencies. So, investing in technology and upping your online presence during this time is therefore an absolute must.
Tour operator brochure production will also be affected. Committing to costly, annual brochure productions will no longer be practical at a time when products need to be constantly adapted around travel restrictions and fluctuating passenger demand.
The good news is that reports are already showing an increase in searches for self-catering options compared with 2019. While only a small glimmer of hope right now, this is a sign that travellers are determined to travel again as soon as they are able to.
Director of adventure operator Earth Wanderer, Sarah Robertson, has over a decade of experience in the retail, wholesale, airline and media sectors of the travel industry. She holds a BCom in Marketing Management and a Diploma in Travel and Tourism and has been a regular contributor to Travel News for over two years.