How Covid-19 will change travel in 2021

The initial distribution of Covid-19 vaccines may not equal a swift return to mass travel, the writers say. And until the vaccines are widely distributed, rigorous testing will be a key part of the travel experience.PHOTO: AFP

Will I need to prove I've been vaccinated to travel?

(NYTIMES) Last month, Qantas Airways announced that once a coronavirus vaccine was available, passengers hoping to fly on the airline would need to prove that they had taken it. Mr Alan Joyce, the airline's chief executive, described the need for proof of vaccination as "a necessity".

"I think that's going to be a common thing talking to my colleagues in other airlines around the globe," he said.

Indeed, many airlines are testing technology to streamline the health documentation process, including mobile health apps such as CommonPass, ICC AOKpass and VeriFLY, to ensure travellers can present their health data in a secure, verifiable way.

It's not known yet whether some kind of universal health form or certificate will be required to travel, because that would need participation from various countries and organisations, but that's happened before.

The International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, known as the carte jaune or yellow card, was created in the mid-1930s by the World Health Organisation. Versions of it were used as proof of vaccination against diseases such as yellow fever, typhus and smallpox, and many countries still require proof of certain vaccinations when travelling.

Today's apps have to address a host of issues around carrying health data, including privacy and standardisation. For one thing, nobody wants to carry around a printed health record that could contain sensitive information, in addition to proof of testing or vaccination. For another, such records could be forged with image-editing tools. And in this increasingly global world, a traveller's health documents could be written in a language that is unfamiliar to an airport official.

The Commons Project, the non-profit that is developing the CommonPass, has said that its app connects with websites for medical facilities, and those sites then load verification of the completed test or vaccine record into the app, limiting the amount of private information that is shared. Others are taking a similar approach.

A common request from people across the industry is for governments to work together to standardise testing and vaccination requirements. For example, travellers who are vaccinated in the United States should know that their vaccination and documentation will be valid in Thailand and vice versa.

How long must I wait until travel picks up?

With approved vaccines being administered in Britain, Canada, the US and elsewhere, industry insiders are hopeful that people will transition from searching for trips online to booking them.

"A safe, effective and well-distributed coronavirus vaccine is the linchpin for a return to travel normalcy," Mr Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, an online booking platform, wrote in a recent e-mail. "Great news on the vaccine front is great news on the travel front."

But the initial distribution of the vaccines may not equal a swift return to mass travel. While some experts believe that pent-up demand will have people rushing in large numbers to book "vaxications", others, including Dr Anthony Fauci, the US' top infectious disease expert, think the return to travel will be gradual.

Until Covid-19 vaccines are widely distributed, rigorous testing will remain a key part of the travel experience - before and after travelling. (Expect testing to be offered as an amenity at a growing number of hotels.)

Meanwhile, cruise lines are reporting strong bookings for next summer, and airline travel is expected to pick up in the second quarter of next year, with international travel outpacing domestic trips, according to travel marketing firm MMGY Global, a significant change from bookings for this year.

When will I be travelling for business again? And what about my frequent flier miles?

This was the year business travel flatlined, taking with it airline, hotel and convention hall profitability. For a time, it also jeopardised those loyalty point balances coveted as freebie currency by frequent business travellers and many others, as miles and credit card points seemed less valuable when no one was travelling.

But point programmes are far from dead, experts say, citing better booking terms, the growing value of loyal customers to travel companies and the advent of creative programmes that may allow you to spend points more easily on things other than airline tickets or magazine subscriptions. In these largely stationary times, such programmes are keen to retain existing members.

Most analysts expect any near-term travel recovery to be driven by leisure travellers desperate for a vacation or to see family, not by business fliers.

Apart from health concerns and corporate travel freezes, "business travellers need a place to go to and currently office occupancies are very, very low, so there is no real reason to travel to a city", said Mr Jan Freitag, national director of hospitality market analytics at CoStar Group, a commercial real estate firm, pointing to data that shows office occupancy averaging around 24 per cent nationally in the US.

He expects business travel to pick up in the third quarter of next year, while consultancy firm McKinsey pins the full recovery to 2023 or beyond.

If I need to cancel, will flexible policies still be around?

As the coronavirus crisis crushed travel, flexibility swept the industry, from airlines to cruises to recreational vehicle rentals and hotels, as operators aimed to assure potential travellers they had little to lose - financially, anyway - in booking.

Airlines came a long way in bending to consumer sentiment, offering fee-free changes even on non-refundable tickets as passenger volumes plummeted; they remain down nearly 70 per cent compared with a year ago.

Also, airlines have talked about making flexibility permanent for other fares, a promise that may hold out until the industry recovers to last year's levels, which industry group Airlines for America doesn't expect before 2023 or 2024.

While hotels have long had flexible cancellation conditions, usually allowing penalty-free cancellations a day before arrival, consumers this year discovered - often the hard way - the variable terms of vacation rental homes, which can range from refundable 24 hours out to refundable only within 48 hours of booking.

"Cancellation policies in the vacation rental market have not changed," said Mr Clark Twiddy, president of Twiddy & Company, which manages more than 1,000 vacation home rentals on the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

"But we've seen a significant uptake in travel insurance," he added, noting increases of up to 40 per cent.

Airbnb has announced it is working on securing a travel insurance partner to make it easy to insure bookings.

I'd like to travel with my family, what's the outlook?

According to an October survey by Vrbo, the home-rental company, 82 per cent of US families already have travel plans for next year. Sixty-five per cent plan on travelling more than they did before Covid-19; 61 per cent will most likely choose outdoorsy destinations over urban ones.

But most notable this year for families was the loss of, or pause in, multi-generational trips.

"Inter-generational travel - going someplace with grandparents - is kind of off the books for a while," said Ms Marianne Perez de Fransius, co-founder and chief executive of Bebe Voyage, a family travel website and online community of globetrotting parents. "What people are talking about is going to visit grandparents, because they haven't been able to do that."

Other patterns that cropped up this year will most likely continue to define family travel next year, including "schoolcations" that have transported middle-school Zoom classes to the beach and multi-family "pod" trips that have allowed for inter-household socialising somewhere - anywhere - besides home.

But there is one big, unanswered question: vaccinations for children. None of the coronavirus vaccines has been tested on kids, and while inoculations are being rolled out for older people first, it's unclear when they will reach children.

"If kids can't get the vaccine, one concern I've heard is about what happens with tourists," said Ms Perez de Fransius. "Are countries going to say, 'You can't come in unless everyone is vaccinated'?"

What new travel trends can I expect to continue in 2021?

Call them workcations, flexcations, bleisure, whatever. No matter the name, the longer trips that remote working facilitated this year show no signs of slowing.

"Global nomadism is going to be a huge theme in 2021," said Mr Jack Ezon, the founder of Embark Beyond, a luxury travel agency. "People are going to a destination for a month because they can work and play at the same time."

Stays of seven or more nights currently account for 17.5 per cent of the bookings for next month at The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, which reopened in the middle of this month for the first time since March. In January, stays of that length totalled 8.3 per cent.

Mr Jonathan Plutzik, The Betsy's owner, said: "Families with young children are looking for space: outdoor spaces to be with their kids and space to work remotely. Fifty- and 60-somethings are looking for those things, plus a full-service staff and places to dine and relax outside."

Until vaccinations are widespread, other patterns will also persist. Ever-changing travel restrictions will continue to make staycations and local travel among the few options for those looking to get away.

Will I ever feel safe travelling?

In the months since the pandemic took hold, people across the travel industry have been working to create policies and procedures that can apply in times of future crisis - even if that future crisis isn't a health crisis. Many companies will use these changes, particularly in health and safety measures, to woo travellers back next year.

For hotels and home sharing, perhaps the most visible change is the emphasis on cleanliness. People have learnt to deeply care about the hygiene of spaces with heavy traffic, like hotels, planes and trains, and will demand a stepped-up focus on health measures.

This approach is largely meant to put travellers at ease. Designations and ranking systems that take cleanliness and safety into account could become the norm in the hospitality industry. Partnerships with trusted cleaning-supply brands or hospitals will continue to evolve and be marketed to would-be travellers. Amtrak touts its relationship with RB, the makers of Lysol.

Beyond cleanliness and health measures, travellers' fears could be assuaged by clearer communication, flexible cancellation and rescheduling policies, and better use of technology during every aspect of the travel experience.

Mr Hussein Fazal and Mr Henry Shi, the founders of SnapTravel, an app that uses artificial intelligence to help customers book hotels with messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and iMessage, have said that to adapt to the "new world", they made tweaks to focus more on spontaneous bookings and encourage hesitant customers to chat with a live agent.

They added Covid-19 messaging and notifications throughout the process. This allowed SnapTravel to see growth throughout the year, while also easing traveller fears, and these changes would work in the event of other unprecedented crises.