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The era of peak travel is over

Covid-19 changed the world’s jet-setting ways in the blink of an eye. It could take years to return to normal.

A collage of travel photos from across the world.
Collages by Anna Sudit; photographs by Kainaz Amaria/Vox

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Part of the Pandemic Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

For years, I’ve perfected my personal travel routine: scrubbing my tray table, seatbelt, armrests, and screen before I triumphantly sink into a sterilized seat. I typically fly more than 100,000 miles a year, and I’ve come to attribute a lot of my general good health on the road to this fastidious in-flight choreography — so what if it’s placebo effect at play? When Naomi Campbell went viral last year for her far more meticulous approach to airplane sanitation, the internet responded with mirth and mockery. I responded with admiration — and envy for the breadth of her arsenal. Why hadn’t I thought of masks and gloves?

Of course, now lots of us are thinking about masks and gloves.

Hardly any industry is untouched by the Covid-19 crisis, but travel was among the first to be affected and has been dealt a particularly brutal blow. Barely a month after worldwide lockdowns and border closures effectively sealed off entire countries from reach, many are already looking back fondly on the halcyon days of travel. Until February, the pressing existential crisis was too much of it, in fact: Booming economies and growing flight routes made the world more accessible than ever before, flooding destinations like Iceland, Barcelona, and Tulum with more tourists than they could handle. Now, the existential crisis is, well, the industry’s very existence.

“It’s going to take so long for the demand to even come close to what it was,” says Rafat Ali, chief executive and founder of travel industry news publication Skift. As recently as two months ago, he says, Skift was reporting heavily on overtourism; now, its coverage has shifted dramatically, to tracking the rapidly changing milieu for airlines, hotels, and all facets of the travel industry.

We’re still deep in the trenches of the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s impossible to predict when or how travel might resume, let alone whether we’ll feel comfortable traipsing around the world again with the kind of carefree insouciance to which many of us have become accustomed. The UN World Tourism Organization counted 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals in 2018, and, well before this crisis, had predicted 1.8 billion arrivals by 2030. With virtually all travel halted, recovery will take time. Ali is taking what he calls the long view, expecting air travel to return to early 2020 levels in five years, taking into account that the airline industry took three years to recover post-9/11, and two years to return to pre-2008 revenues after the recession.

Travel will be back — it has to be back, for too many livelihoods and economies depend on it. More than 10 percent of the global workforce is employed by the tourism industry, and from farmers who supply hotels with produce to drivers who ferry tourists around between excursions and beyond, millions of people rely on business generated by travelers. But the way we travel will undergo a dramatic transformation.

Sure, travelers are likely to adopt a disinfecting regimen that falls somewhere in between my own and Naomi Campbell’s on the sanitation spectrum (in light of recent events, she has since upgraded to a hazmat suit). But before the masses feel comfortable taking to the skies again, the classic road trip will be resurrected.

“Personal space becomes important,” Ali says. “Never, ever will we look at people who we thought were crazy, who were cleaning seats — we had a few of those people in the company we used to make fun of. Never again!”

Industry experts say technology will be a key tool in the revival of travel, with electronic passports and IDs, boarding passes, medical screening, and robot cleaners being deployed widely to limit physical contact between people and surfaces. Hotels, airlines, and especially cruises will have to determine how to give travelers personal spaces they feel they can control. And in the short term, driveable local trips to vacation rentals can ease shell-shocked travelers back into adventure.

“Airbnb-type places that you can disinfect yourself, especially in a more remote setting: I think those would definitely be the first step for us traveling outside,” Ali says. “Fear of humans and crowded places will be etched in our hearts for the rest of our lives.”

Jessica Nabongo, founder of travel firm Jet Black, became the first black woman to travel to every UN-recognized country in the world in October; these days, she’s spending more time in her Detroit home than she has in years. She says she will likely start taking domestic trips before international travel is safe to resume. “I think road trips are going to become a huge thing, especially in the summer,” she says. Like Ali, she fears that “there’s going to be a bit of corona hangover, with people afraid of going to festivals, being in loud crowds, going to airports.”

The coronavirus-induced worldwide financial crisis will also be a key factor in keeping travelers close to home, at least in the short term. “The economic impact of coronavirus will leave many people with less money to do non-essential travel,” says influencer and travel host Oneika Raymond. “I do think that more people will travel domestically, because it’s a less scary prospect and also often cheaper than a trip to a faraway land.”

Instagram feeds that have lately been filled with nostalgic throwbacks to global adventures will slowly start to be peppered with new images from those regional trips. “I think international travel is going to open very slowly,” says Nabongo. She believes that before entry to some countries, travelers may have to show negative Covid-19 testing, probably within the past 24 hours. “And I think that Europeans and Americans, for the first time, are going to feel what it’s like to have an undesirable passport — for a while, some countries, even if they do open up, may not allow the entry of American citizens or European citizens.”

Whether some travelers will be outright banned from entry remains to be seen, but it’s certainly expected that the footloose jet-setting many have come to take for granted is over “pretty much until a vaccine comes in,” says Ali — a vaccine that is probably more than a year away. And after that hurdle, travelers may need to show some sort of Covid-19 pass, much like the yellow fever certificate I keep with me for certain parts of Africa or South America.

Government-mandated quarantines on arrival or reentry could become the norm — making international travel out of reach for people with limited vacation time. And in general, travelers are much more likely to spring for health insurance, read the fine print of their travel policies, and pay close attention to World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as they plot their travels.

Influencers in the travel space, whose identities and businesses have come to be defined by their jet-setting adventures, are taking these unexpected hiatuses as a chance to take stock, though many are still unsure what the future holds. “I’m essentially unemployed at the moment, as there’s no travel happening,” says Lee Abbamonte, a travel influencer who has visited every country. “Plus, we don’t yet know the public’s appetite for travel moving forward, as so many are losing so much money and jobs.”

Raymond is also waiting before making any plans for the future. “I’m no stranger to the art of the pivot and know the importance of not putting all of your eggs into one basket,” she says. “With that said, it’s still early days with regards to how greatly the travel industry will be affected, so I’m reserving any big pivots until the dust settles.”

In the meantime, she’s looking back on her past travels with a sense of gratitude. “I will definitely be more appreciative of the ability to travel freely and safely,” she muses. “As someone who travels for a living, it’s been very easy to take this lifestyle for granted. I’ve never been so grateful and aware of what a privilege it has been to globetrot until now.”

As we wait and watch, travel destinations will recover at their own pace. While Italy has been one of the hardest-hit nations, its legion of die-hard fans might help it rebound as soon as they’re able to return. “Italy is a country that our travelers really have an emotional connection with,” says Andrea Grisdale, who is chief executive of the destination management company IC Bellagio, and based in the hard-hit Italian region of Lombardy.

“We’re seeing a lot of people saying, ‘The minute the planes are flying, I want to be the first person on.’” But even if tourists return in droves, Grisdale predicts that the rural countryside will be more of a draw than Milan or Rome — in keeping with what might be a universal tendency for travelers to gravitate toward remote, isolated destinations worldwide.

Countries such as India have yet to reach a coronavirus case peak, and the long term implications are unclear, but its population density might turn off some travelers. “India is populated; that’s always been there,” says Shoba Mohan, founder of RARE India, a consortium of boutique hotels and heritage villas across India. “They might go back to a place like Italy sooner, and they’ll probably take a couple more months before they open up to the idea of India.” Metropolises such as Delhi had been popular for three-night stays, but now inquiries to more isolated regions like Ladakh, a scenic mountainous region in the north, may increase.

“I think what we’re going to see is more tourism to Africa, because it wasn’t hit that hard,” predicts Nabongo, referring to early coronavirus numbers emerging from the continent, though cases are still on the rise. But while the idea of heading deep into the isolated bush for a safari might be appealing, it’s too soon to tell what sort of effect the current lack of tourism might have had on the endangered wildlife. Tourism is a critical aspect of conservation efforts on the continent, and a long shutdown means empty parks and the loss of park fees.

“Animals-wise, I believe they will have the best time of their lives: no disturbance from vehicles and people, which will change their behavior in a way that nothing is bothering them,” says Hamza Raza Visram, northern Tanzania head guide for safari company Asilia Africa. “Conservation-wise, people will lose their jobs and will have to find other means of survival, and this might increase the poaching for bushmeat.” South Africa and Botswana have already confirmed an increase in rhino poaching since their coronavirus-induced shutdowns began.

For the airlines, tour operators, and mom-and-pop businesses that survive this shutdown, operations will adapt and evolve. Take a popular activity like ziplining, for example. Would you want to share gloves and helmets with others again, and are you prepared to wait while the equipment is sanitized thoroughly before your turn? Aspiring zipliners will likely be asked to spring for their own gloves and helmets, and sanitation costs might be factored into the price tag.

“Flights are going to be cheap because they’re going to have to convince people to go on planes, but costs of some things are going to have to go up because of the necessity of more sanitation,” Nabongo says.

It’s not an overstatement to say things will look very different for years to come — virtual meeting technology is already making corporations question the need for business travel; borders are being more starkly defined; retirees looking forward to traveling the world will likely tread more cautiously; and even young, intrepid backpackers raring to set out as soon as possible might keep hitting walls in the form of travel restrictions until vaccines are widely available.

But the universal grounding of global travelers has already had a positive impact on a planet wracked by the effects of climate change, and when borders do reopen, a more mindful approach to travel will likely be top of mind: fewer trips, longer trips, more meaningful trips. As we emerge from months of social distancing, we might be craving human connections — cooking with nonnas in the Italian countryside, or meeting craftsmen in rural Rajasthan, or a family road trip to Niagara Falls. “People call it the great reset,” Mohan says. “It’s creating awareness for a better kind of travel.”

Sarah Khan is a travel writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur, and Food & Wine.


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