COVID has brought the adventures of many travellers to a screeching halt. Flights are limited to extreme cases, borders are closed and much of the industry has shut down for good. Not only has COVID had a profound effect on travel in today’s world, but it will have a lasting effect long after the pandemic.
We all dream of a world where COVID no longer dictates our lives, and we’re able to hop on a flight to a tropical paradise to forget all this madness, but it doesn’t seem likely any-time soon. So what does this pandemic mean for travellers? When will people be able to travel freely again and return to some sense of normality? And before we get there, what will have changed?
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For now, worldwide travel is in an undetermined hiatus. The international tourism industry has dried up, with many companies unable to survive. Technically, international travel isn’t impossible, just highly impractical. Just take a look at how my friends at Alto Viaje managed to do it!
Currently, 74 countries are open to travellers without restrictions. But who’s willing to sacrifice an entire month worth of quarantine (2 weeks there, 2 weeks back) just for a short weekend break? Even for backpackers with time on their hands, it gets expensive having to pay 2 weeks worth of hotels every time you cross a border. Some countries allow domestic travel, though they are few and far between.
Desperate for Tourists
In the short-term, there’s one good thing that comes out of COVID, bargain prices. Much of the industry is desperate to start welcoming tourists again and will sweeten the deal just to attract them. My friends at Alto Viaje saw this in Australia, where the lack of tourists caused much of the industry to be cheaper.
Many hotels and private villas are dropping their prices considerably and offering once in a lifetime deals just to break even. The entire industry has no choice but to drop their prices to keep some money rolling in. In some ways, the best time to travel is now! But in somany other ways, it would be a very stupid thing to do.
Out of Business
It’s a sad reality that across the world, many businesses have had to shut down, both temporarily and permanently. Many hotels and particularly hostels, the lifeblood of backpackers, have shut down one by one. The customer base has simply vanished and nobody can afford to stay open.
So once mass travel becomes commonplace again, which could take a couple of years, how many hostels will be left standing? Where will the budget backpackers go?
The same is happening to aviation companies. Some have shut down for good while others have minimized their networks with fewer flights travelling on fewer routes in an effort to save costs. Airlines are also facing much less competition, thus customers have to pay much higher prices.
A year ago nobody expected countries would close their borders to the outside world, yet here we are. This could be the case for the next few years, as some countries will forego the loss of their tourist industry just to ensure the safety of their citizens. Regardless if you have negative COVID results or done the mandatory quarantine, many countries could still be closed off for the foreseeable future.
That means your options for your summer holiday destination will be very limited. Your criteria won’t be “which places are cheap?” or “which place has nicer weather right now?”, it will be “which country will let us in?”
Sooner rather than later, the world will begin re-entering a phase of normality as borders open up and tourists are welcomed. Of course, it won’t happen overnight. The world will have to endure a prolonged transitional phase as each country dips its toe in the pool before diving in.
Tourism is a $9 trillion industry which has taken an enormous blow over the last year. The industry plays heavily on the GDP of many nations including Iceland (22.8% of total GDP), the Philippines (25.3%), Jamaica (31.1%), and the Bahamas (43.3%) (1).
Many countries are desperate to open up their borders again, and an equal number of travellers are desperate to get there. Despite that, many people are going to need convincing. In the short term, companies will have to incentivise customers with bargain rates, flexible dates and better deals than ever.
This is also true for countries in general. For example, Thailand, a country which has always had strict 30-day tourists visas, has played around with the idea of offering 6-9 month visas in an attempt to bring a constant stream of tourist cash. Countries have also begun easing their restrictions, such as lifting quarantine or shortening it considerably.
Not Everyone Will Be Welcomed
At the moment, only certain people qualify for international travel, such as residents, diplomats, business people and students. As time goes on and the threat is decreased, more people will be added to that list. Nations are already adding different criteria as the needs arise, such as Austalia who wants to fast track the entry of seasonal workers to revive their suffering agricultural industry.
Sadly, the last people on the pecking order will be travellers. If tourists are allowed to enter, everyone else would also be allowed by default. Tourists simply aren’t considered a priority.
Even when the general public can cross borders again, certain criteria will have to be met. You’ll need proof of vaccinations and negative results (both before and after arrival). Countries might also require pre-arranged itineraries, pre-booked accommodations and proof of a return flight. Essentially the classic backpacker’s way of hopping from one place to another is far down the road.
One Bridge at a Time
The world can’t open by a flick of a switch. Countries will be very anxious to completely open up their borders. Instead, nations will slowly build individual bridges with other nations that have also controlled the outbreak.
Though the case numbers in some nations are still spiralling out of control, other countries have already contained the outbreak, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. These trailblazers are already in talks on forming a bridge of travel between them. Though no real strides have been made, the conversation has already begun.
Some European experts theorize that closing borders is an ineffective method of containing the virus anyway, though this is highly debatable (3). What isn’t debatable is the damage it has caused the European and wider world economy.
After individual bridges have been formed, soon other countries will be deemed safe and will qualify to join. The number of nations will continue to grow until a network of travel is formed between a handful of countries.
Japan has already formed a travel bubble with 11 different countries across Asia and Oceania, including Australia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Currently, these bubbles are open for essential travel only e.g. business trips and residents and still require a 2-week quarantine. However, it does at least show how the concept could work and be managed effectively.
Potential 3rd Wave
If we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic its that people are incredibly stupid. We saw the ramifications of not taking COVID seriously from the get-go (just look at the UK and the US). We’ve also seen how some countries got cocky thinking things were dying down only to see numbers spike even higher the second time around. History dictates that the same thing will happen again once borders start to open.
Open borders create the potential of further spreading of the virus. That was seen in Taiwan, where a New Zealand pilot entered the country carrying the virus, causing the country’s first local case in months. What do you think the general public is going to be like once they can finally go on holiday again?
We’re all waiting for the day that COVID no longer dominates our lives. Be it in a few months or a few years, eventually, things will return to normality. However, even when it does, things will have changed forever. Travel as we once know it will no longer exist as we enter a post-COVID world.
Sky Rocket Prices
Though in the short term prices will be enticingly low, COVID has ensured that travel will become an incredibly expensive hobby for the foreseeable future.
All forms of accommodations will be more expensive as more will have to be spent on cleaning. Either way, your choices will be limited now that many hostels have closed up shop, leaving behind more expensive hotels. Thus, cheap stays will have vanished for a while.
Airlines will become shells of what they once were, running only a limited number of routes and aircraft. Priority will be given to the most popular routes, and the more obscure destinations will be left behind. With exclusivity comes an enormous jump in prices. It would take a few years for the flight industry to recover, with many predicting it might even be 2023 and beyond.
You could still find a good deal, however, some things you won’t be able to avoid. Quarantines might still be mandatory in a paranoid society, which will be your financial responsibility. Not to mention the dreaded travel insurance will become compulsory.
Will Vaccine Passports Work?
This isn’t a new concept. For the longest time, many countries wouldn’t allow entry unless you’ve received vaccinations for certain diseases. So requiring a COVID vaccine for travel isn’t a strange concept.
Some people think that having a COVID vaccine will allow you to travel freely, but that’s pretty naive. In recent weeks new outbreaks of new strains have been discovered in the UK and California. Common sense dictates that a vaccine for strain number 1 won’t work on strain 2 or 3. If the virus continues to mutate and form new strains, a vaccine won’t secure our safety.
People can’t afford to get cocky. A COVID vaccine shouldn’t be a free pass for travel. There’s still a high risk that you could get a new infection, or worse, spread a newer infection to a community which doesn’t have it yet.
A More Realistic Future
Though the idea of vaccine passports is a little unrealistic, receiving a vaccine will just be one of many things you’ll have to do. You’ll also have to carry out COVID tests both before and after arrival as added security.
Even when the virus is long gone, many minor changes will be made to our travels to minimise risks of another pandemic. Online check-ins and biometrics identities will be used to minimize human contact, while regular health screenings will all be commonplace.
Technology is the Way Forward
For modern travellers, technology and more importantly our phones play a vital role. It’s our map, photo album, travel agent and travel guides. For the next few years, they will play an even more important role.
Nations will (some already do) require you to install a track-and-trace app, just like my friends at Alto Viaje experienced once they arrived in their home nation of Argentina. These apps will know your whereabouts at all times and who you’ve potentially been in contact with. Our phones will also warn us of potential outbreaks in the area or places to avoid. They’ll also be used to prove COVID test results at airports and accommodations.
Another likely caveat of future travel is being required to pre-book everything. Places such as restaurants, bars, museums or any other attraction can only hold a limited number of people at one time. Thus, prebooking will be vital to secure a place.
Ready, Set, Go!
For the last year, most of us have already been planning our first trip once the borders open. Just like a mob on black Friday, once those doors open a swarm of people will come rushing through. For people like myself, COVID has wasted an entire year of travel, so many feel the need to make up for lost time. Booking.com has already seen an increased interest in longer trips (2), with many websites receiving enormous amounts of bookings for 2021 and 2022 in anticipation of the pandemic coming to an end.
It could be a blessing and a curse for many places. Of course, the tourist cash is always welcome and has been sorely missed. That being said, opening borders bring insurmountable risks. If countries get too impatient, there’ll be an enormous spike in case numbers, which could hit harder than ever before
The question is, how long is it going to take? At the beginning of the outbreak, not many people predicted that things would continue to worsen a year down the line. Trying to guess when things will return to normal is completely pointless. The virus calls the shots. It’s an unpredictable beast which at any moment can throw a spanner in the works.
The painful reality is that tourism as we know it won’t start getting back to normal until 2022 or even 2023. Many of us have lost an enormous chunk of our travel lives, time that we’ll never get back. But to ensure we don’t lose any more time, we have to contain and control this outbreak to the best of our abilities before we begin travelling again.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.