Post-Covid-19 Travel?

Expect Continued Radical Uncertainty
(Updated: 8 May 2020 – FYI: This is a bout a 12-minute read)

In my 2010 book On the Origin of the Species homo touristicus, I made a few bold predictions at the back of the book, spanning the next few decades on what the future of travel might look like.

Right there on page 344, was this 2020 zinger: “Due to the recent fear caused by the spreading global pandemic that earlier began in Asia, international air travel contracts by 30% for the second year in a row. People just don’t want to take the chance of getting sick.”

And here we are. For weeks we travelers have watched in horror as the world closed down, like shutting off the lights in your house, one room at a time.

First, we saw British Airways, Iberia, Air India, and a few other international airlines, stop flying to/from China on January 25th. American, United and Delta followed their lead a week later.

Next came the Chinese travel entry bans: on January 24, the Marshall Islands became the first to do so, followed in rapid succession by Hong Kong, Malaysia & the Philippines (January 27), Laos, Sri Lanka & Singapore (January 28)…US restrictions went into effect on February 2nd. (Foreign Affairs recently published an interesting piece on the counterintuitive results that travel ban have.)  

Finally, came the outright border closures. Initially only restricting travelers who had recently visited any suspect virus destinations, beginning March 11th (Slovenia/El Salvador); followed by wholesale border closures to non-residents/citizens on March 12th (Slovakia/Poland/Kuwait). On March 18th, the Canadian-US border was mutually closed. And on March 31st, the US State Department issued a Global Level 4: Do Not Travel Health Advisory. As I write, 72 % of the world’s borders are now officially closed. The drawbridge was now up. The prospect of any travel anywhere frozen.

Just over three months into the pandemic now, the personal carnage is devastating, over 276,000 global deaths and 4,000,000 Covid-19 cases worldwide. For some obvious reason, the United States has been hit especially hard hit with almost 80,000 deaths!?

In but a few months, the pandemic has upset a decades-long travel boom and one of the great cultural and economic phenomena of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The travel explosion we have seen evolve over the last 50 years has shrunk the planet, created hundreds of millions of jobs, transferred billions helping to lift millions out of poverty, and created millions of meaningful personal connections and profound experiences. But today, that merry-go-round has ground to a sudden halt. It is staggering:

> Amtrak ridership is down 95%, US airline passenger service has declined 96%…not since 1954 have so few people flown…hotel occupancy hovers around 20%;
> The EU bloc’s internal borders remain closed for leisure travel, with no prospect of an imminent reopening or decision likely before at least the end of May;
> By late-April, more commercial aircraft were in storage than in flight, today, over 17,000 planes, two-thirds of the world’s 26,000 passenger aircraft were grounded;
> Argentina on April 27th banned all commercial flight ticket sales until September;
> Virgin Australia became the first bankruptcy domino to fall on April 21st;
> 96% of all worldwide destinations have introduced travel restrictions & 100 million jobs are at risk;
> Hong Kong’s hotel occupancy rate has plunged 98%;
> Tourism revenues fell by 95% in Italy and 77% in Spain in March alone;
> The US State Dept. stopped issuing passports on April 2nd;
> Germany just extended its warning against any worldwide travel until June 14;
> Global happenings, like The Global Scavenger Hunt, the 2020 Summer Olympics, Germany’s Oktoberfest, Spain’s running of the bulls, Cannes, SXSW and Burning Man, were all cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Mecca is closed!

Fact is, our very mobility is a vector for disease spread with trains, cruise ships, hotels and airplanes being the antithesis of social distancing. The safety of international travel, both for the traveler as well as the impending destination inhabitants, have been brought into question. Would you let a stranger who could be infected into your house? Who among us wants to mix it up in lobbies, terminals, foyers, and security lines?

It is obviously premature to see what lays over the horizon yet—when a vaccine, effect therapy/treatment and pandemic cure will exist; but unquestionably, the world of travel has changed. It will never be normal again; for that I am 100% certain. It took three years for travel levels to return to pre-9/11 levels, and correct me if I am wrong, but this seems a lot worse and global in perspective!

When 10+% of the global economy and over 1 in 10 jobs worldwide are tourism related (by way of comparison, the global oil & gas industry is but a paltry 3.8%!), the impacts are being significantly felt everywhere, especially when you consider:

> Thailand derives 22% of its GDP from tourist receipts, Greece over 20% and Egypt about 15%;
> Eight of ten jobs in Bali are tourism-related, and it supports 75% of the Maldives economy;
> The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), predicts a decline in international arrivals of between 58% and 80% this year; a global loss of 120 million jobs and $2.1 trillion in travel-related revenue is imminent;
> The US. Travel Association projects the US to suffer a $1.2 trillion economic loss due to the travel downturn.

Now, I must admit that the contrarian in me is currently also mulling over the notion that maybe even wanting to return to normal, to the baseline metric of what travel had become pre-Covid-19, may not actually be what is in best for the world!? The all too real sins of mass tourism travel-generated problems (negative externalities) such as: overtourism, pollution, climate change, superficial hedonistic consumption patterns, lack of passenger and consumer rights, exploitation (sexual and poverty-based), cultural evisceration, environmental destruction, local cuisine displaced by global chains, and industry-wide lip service to sustainability, clearly demand addressing. Is now the time to finally address those very real concerns, I wonder?

What does post-pandemic travel even look like? For certain, everything we do will change: the way we fly, the hotels we stay in, what destinations we visit, what we want to see and do, the way we dine, the amusement parks and sites we visit, the cruise lines we sail on…will all come into a new light with a virus looming. The very why we travel will change with some travelers self-assessing their own individual risks, most deciding to curtail travel indefinitely. Will non-essential leisure travelers ever come back? It is early, but here is what we do know:

> 40% of flyers say they may wait at least six months until after the outbreak is contained to travel again;
> 54% of Canadians would hold off visiting the U.S. until there is a vaccine;
> Only 5% of Canadians and Americans say they would be comfortable traveling to their neighboring country over the 2020 Christmas season;
> In mid-April, 70% said they may hold off on traveling until their personal finances are in better shape;
> Only 1 in 3 said they hope to travel with three months of restrictions being lifted.

Psychological effects will linger a long time…and the fear factor and individual risk tolerances will be every traveler’s main concern: How will we social distance; and is it even logistically and financially possible? No doubt all travelers will be a tad hygiene squeamish about being in close proximity to other people (sitting in a cramped space next to total strangers), with trust and confidence being the key solution…and knowing that good things take time, but bad things happen quickly, cheap and widespread, instantly available, and highly accurate testing being the only thing that will give people confidence to travel. Even so, social stigmas will keep people with simple colds and/or seasonal allergies at home. America especially, is a consumer confidence-driven economy, and without it you have no sales.

So then, in our continued state of radical uncertainty: What might the future of travel look like? Here are my best guesses, both micro and macro:

> World travelers have seen masks on people for decades elsewhere, expect every traveler to wear masks during the pandemic’s run from door-to-door.

> Technologically, look for more cameras and thermal sensors inside terminals, stations, platforms, and gates to help regain that trust we will all be looking for. A Faustian bargain trading our nominal privacy for safety.

> Financially, with a patchwork of differing procedures and rules to content with while traveling (False positives being statistically normal; What if you fail one?), look for more travelers un-self-insurable to purchase specially tailored travel insurance that allows them an escape hatch to cancel their trip for any reason.

Just as 9/11 changed the way we fly with new security measures, so too will the Covid-19 pandemic. Flyers will be confused with new different, time-consuming and complicated health-related airport screening procedures; added to our already different, time-consuming and complicated TSA security screening procedures. Look for four possibilities: 1) remote thermal scans or temperature takers (although mass screening devices are often notoriously inaccurate, ineffective and intrusive and gives passengers a false sense of security); 2) random instant test swabbing; 3) immediate blood tests (Emirates Airlines recently tested passengers for coronavirus at check-in in Dubai, using a ten-minute blood test), and 4) you may be required to carry a so-called immunity passport after a series of negative antibody testing—like a Yellow Fever certificate—to fly, or even enter another country. (On April 19th, Chile announced that it will become the first country to issue “immunity cards”, and the EU is tentatively calling them “Covid-19 Passports.”)

> One question will be the TSA’s willingness to protect your health at the cost of your security, in their willingness to relax 100 milliliters of liquid standards allowing travelers to carry hand sanitizer aboard?

Once aboard, all passengers and crews will be required to wear masks and expect most to carry wipes and thoroughly wipe down their tray table and seats before sitting down ala Naomi Campbell; even after the airlines will most surely deep clean between each and every flight (aka disinfectant fogging). Some airlines may reconfigure seats, maybe even eliminating middle seats altogether—although Frontier is charging people to sit next to an empty seat! Window seats will be in big demand—and now cost extra! Far-UVC ultraviolet light virus destroyers will be deployed to clean plane cabins; and automated self-sanitizing (ultraviolet lights?) in lavatories will be employed after every passenger use. Airline air filters will be cleaned and upgraded more regularly. We may even see on-board “hygiene attendants” whose sole job is to keep everything sanitarily safe in the cabins. Whatever changes inevitably occur, with airline margins a meager $3 per passenger per flight, fares will obviously increase.

Upon arrival at your destination, the question will now be, at least international destination speaking: Will they even let you in? Just as flying health screening procedures are sure to come, so too will pre-immigration health lines grow. Look for disinfecting booths. And expect nations to turn lockdown measures on and off as we ride the inevitable virus waves, with travelers being put off by ever-changing unilateral health-related entry rules in which every country, until a vaccine is found (12-to-18-months). Every nation will be different, knowing that keeping people (and the virus) out, is the easiest and most popular policy they can enact.

> For instance, New Zealand has proudly stated that it has all but eradicated Covid-19…Now what? Do you think they will allow travelers in? If you do go, will you be required to self-quarantine for 14-days? Who can afford to do that? Who wants to go on vacation and not do anything? (The Hawaii Tourism Authority aside funds for sending tourists away if they refuse to abide by the state’s 14-day quarantine.) Arriving passengers at Vienna International (VTE) have two options: 1) quarantine for 14-days, or 2) pay about $200 for a two-hour while-you-wait molecular biological Covid-19 test. Australia and New Zealand are discussing the creation of a “travel bubble” that only allows for exclusive travel between those two countries; or “tourist corridors” between airports and specific popular vacation spots–say allowing Germans to Palma, Muscovites to Turkish resorts, or Parisains to Tunisian beaches. Some countries will require (Argentina) that you upload a mandatory mobile app giving health authorities your location data. While others may hand out electronic wristbands (Hong Kong) paired with your smartphone to monitor your movements during quarantined periods. (Sounds a little like house arrest doesn’t it?). Thailand is now giving arriving travelers SIM cards they must use for similar monitoring. Does any of this sound like a way you want to travel? Obviously, the most enlightened thing would be a common travel protocol to avoid the confusion of different countries having different rules…but don’t expect that to occur.

> After all this, you finally arrive at your hotel. How will hotels regain our trust? A few ways: Airbnb will institute 24-hour empty cycles between checkouts and check-ins, with extra cleaning standards; hotels will have to clean rooms with hospital-grade disinfectants—anti-microbial coating?—repeatedly; and by wholly eliminating person-to-person check-in interactions and rearranging their lobbies to keep people apart. And forget those lavious breakfast buffets. All this extra hygiene and health standards will raise their costs in delivering you cleaner rooms, beds and food.

> For numerous reasons (videoconferencing, weaker sales, shakier economy, private flights) that the travel industry’s cash cow—business travelers—will be significantly reduced; as will general leisure traveler due to lack of funds. People will drive before they fly; and will travel domestically long before they travel international. Road trips and camping will grow in popularity. Asia will rebound quicker than Europe; while traveling within Europe will go old school—more trains than short-haul flights. (But what about those facing each other seat configurations?) And city walks will be bigger than single-trip Uber/taxi usage. Cruise ship marketers will offer incredible low-cost deals attempting to woo confidence among low information travelers. (Not me!)

> All the data points suggest that travel will become more inconvenient—Yes, even more inconvenient than it was!—with fewer airlines due to global business contraction flying on newer but smaller aircraft, across fewer routes to fewer city destinations, that include more layovers and awkward inflight services and seating configurations. And of course, higher fares.

And that is all the good news: that’s my bright lights when we do travel again scenario. That would become our new normal.

But sadly, whether you are a travel planner or travel procrastinator, all I continue to see is radical uncertainty. And despite whatever psychological pent up demand we all may have in our lockdown boredom, there is no magical switch to flip that will allow us carefree travel right now. No magical wishful thinking or politically-inspired fantasies will change the science or the facts; that not until we have a global Covid-19 virus exit strategy will we be able to travel again. That means, to restate the obvious, the actualization of a vaccine, a therapy/treatment/cure, and global herd immunity. Until then, we probably, smartly, aren’t going anywhere. The virus has to play itself out, and frankly, we’re just in the second inning of this pandemic. And today, as I write, tragically both personally and professionally, I don’t see any international travel in my, or my family’s future, anytime soon.

In the interim, go walking, biking, birdwatching, fishing, paddling, camping, and swimming. Rediscover your backyards. Enjoy what you got…your family, your health and the outdoors.

William D. Chalmers

Did I miss something important? Please let us know at: GSH (at) GlobalScavengerHunt (dot) com

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