The travel industry has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic more strongly than almost all others. Airlines, travel agencies, hotels, tour operators and holiday rentals have all had to find new ways to cope with ever-changing travel restrictions, lockdowns and sanitary requirements. 

As we enter the second year of restrictions, the good news is that the collective desire for the travel industry to reopen is certainly there. People are desperate to go on foreign holidays and many economies around the world are reliant on the tourist trade. So what steps has the travel industry taken to adapt to the new world order? And how are the stakeholders working together to make travel friendly once again?

How the Travel Industry Plummeted During the Pandemic

In early 2020, we started to receive news that cruise ships were stuck out at sea and unable to dock due to the rampant spread of coronavirus onboard. These ‘floating petri dishes’, as they were dubbed by the press, were a harbinger of things to come. As 2020 drew to a close, there was little sign of a let up, with travel limitations still in place and lockdowns being introduced in the UK and around the world as a second wave of the pandemic took hold. 

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the unprecedented disruption caused by the pandemic led to a 74% fall in international tourist arrivals when compared to the previous year. Equivalent to one billion fewer international arrivals, that plunged the industry back to levels that had not been seen since the late 1980s.

The Effect of COVID-19 on the global tourist industry

Another indication of the impact the coronavirus has had is the decline in rental accommodation bookings. The holiday rental marketplace Airbnb saw its gross booking value drop off the face of a cliff in March 2020, when the coronavirus first started to take hold in the UK, Europe and much of the western world. In March, April and May of last year, year-on-year bookings fell by 127%, 119% and 69% respectively, before making a brief recovery during the summer.

Impact of COVID-19 on Airbnb bookings

People are Ready to Travel Again

After a year-long hiatus in foreign holidays for many people, the appetite to travel is certainly there. At the moment, there’s a lot of uncertainty about when holidaymakers will be able to travel abroad and where they can travel to. However, in many cases, that hasn’t curbed their enthusiasm. 
One poll conducted in January 2021 of more than 1,200 people, found that 82% felt they were more ready to travel now than they had been in 2020. Of those, respondents over the age of 56 were the most keen (89%) to get out there. As for when they planned to travel, the most common response (25%) was in the autumn, with 19% planning to travel in early summer and 16% waiting until late summer. Only 15% of the respondents said they were not planning to travel anywhere this year.

82% of travellers say they're more ready to travel in 2021 graphic

The Global Travel Trends Report from American Express Travel echoed these sentiments. It found that despite the ongoing outbreak, 87% of people felt happier having a trip planned in the future, while 76% have spent time creating a destination wish list while they have not been able to travel. 56% said they have missed travelling so much that they would be willing to book a trip now despite the risk of cancellation.

How is the Industry Innovating to Reinvent Itself?  

With pent-up demand continuing to grow and the roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine continuing at a pace, the travel industry is getting ready to rebound in a big way. With the bounce back inching nearer, these are some of the innovative ways that travel firms are restoring their customers’ confidence and adjusting to a new era of travel. 

(1) Vaccine passports and digital passes

One fiercely debated approach to get the travel industry back up and running has been the introduction of vaccine passports and digital passes. These are official documents that show that travellers have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recently tested negative for the virus.

The UK and the US are both considering the idea, but there has also been opposition from those who say that such a scheme would lead to a lack of equity. That’s due to the fact that the young, pregnant women and people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons would be prevented from travelling.

(2) Contactless stays 

Another coronavirus-related adaptation is the use of digital technology to create contactless stays. Hotels and other holiday accommodation providers are introducing digital applications that can be downloaded and allow guests to check-in and check-out, make payments and request other services without the need for in-person contact with members of staff. Many hotels are also making their room cleaning service opt-in, so visitors can avoid having someone enter their room during their stay.    

(3) Changes to aeroplane seat design

One innovation that’s designed to make flying safer in a post-COVID world is the ‘Origami’ aeroplane seat. The brainchild of a French cabin equipment supplier and a British seating designer, it features foldout sections that can be used to create partitions around economy-class seats. 

Leaving the middle of three seats vacant allows passengers in the inner and outer seats to create a privacy barrier between them. The partitions can be fitted to 90% of economy seats and a premium economy concept is currently in development.

(4) Hygiene as a marketing message

For hotels, holiday rentals, airlines, cruises, restaurants and bars, personal safety and hygiene standards have never been more important. Even when it’s permitted, many customers will still be anxious about travelling due to the risks it presents. To make customers more likely to confirm a reservation, travel businesses must increase cleaning, maintain social distancing, provide hand gel and communicate the steps they have taken to their customers.  

Messaging about hygiene is now featuring much more prominently for many travel firms, with safety-related messages on website homepages and hygiene information contained within pre-arrival and confirmation emails.  

(5) Shifting from international to local 

With various restrictions in place, travelling abroad has not been possible for many people over the last 12 months. However, for much of the year, travelling more locally has. That has led to a switch in strategies for many travel firms, with more emphasis being placed on the kind of facilities that are more attractive to the local market.  

One benefit of this switch is that local customers are less likely to cancel, as their plans are only affected by local restrictions. They’re also less likely to need COVID-19 tests before their trip or have to quarantine after their visit. That makes bookings much easier to come by. 

(6) Virtual reality tours

Online VR tours may be a poor substitute for experiencing a new destination in person; however, they can be particularly useful within the context of COVID. VR tours allow customers to experience hotel and restaurant interiors, outdoor attractions and more through any web browser and from the safety of their home. That can provide reassurance that travel firms are taking COVID restrictions seriously and give customers the extra impetus they need to press ahead with their plans and make a booking.

The Recovery is on its Way

Whatever it is you’re missing about your foreign holiday, the good news is that the travel industry’s much anticipated bounce back is inching ever nearer. Despite the pandemic, revenue in the travel and tourism industry is projected to increase by 54.8% year-on-year and continue to grow by an average of 13% until 2025.   

tourist recovery post COVIF-19 graphic

The enforced pause resulting from the pandemic has given the industry the chance to have a much-needed reboot. The smart companies are seeing this as an opportunity to build more sustainable and resilient practices and develop new solutions that can help them to stay competitive in the future.