On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.Five days later Boris Johnson told the nation “now is the time to stop all unnecessary travel”, and the next day Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, announced that British nationals were officially advised against non-essential foreign travel “for an initial period of 30 days”, later extended indefinitely.
Within a month travel had become all but impossible, and a global industry worth £6.9 trillion and employing 334 million people simply stopped. A partial reopening in July 2020 revealed the turmoil created by the competing forces of business and academia, with one side arguing that millions would lose their jobs and the other, more stridently, claiming that millions would lose their lives.
Those of us who dipped our toes into overseas trips in the brief windows of the months that followed found ourselves in treacherous waters in which cross-currents of government incompetence met riptides of regulation that threatened to leave us marooned on some foreign shore.
• When are Passenger Locator Forms being scrapped?
• Do I have to wear a face mask on a plane?
We endured staggering policy U-turns — remember Spain, anyone? — sensationalist science and the officially approved greed of opportunistic test providers who gave cowboys a bad name. Yet exactly two years after the skies darkened, the sun has re-emerged, the world has mostly reopened, and this week even ultra-isolationist New Zealand announced the raising of its portcullis.
Airlines are dropping the mask mandate, pre-arrival test requirements are being abolished and, most significantly, on Friday the government stood down the infamous Passenger Locator Form (PLF). According to Abta, public confidence is surging, with its latest research showing that 57 per cent of people in the UK have a holiday abroad booked within the next 12 months and demand is close to the levels before the pandemic.
Does that mean we’re back to normal? Not quite — the battered travel trade must now weather the winds of war, an energy crisis that’s brought the return of the fuel surcharge, soaring inflation and the biggest rise in the cost of living in 30 years.
And Covid-19 has left its own long-term effects, changing the way we travel, for good, for bad and in ways that we could never have foreseen.
Overcrowding blighted Angkor Wat in Cambodia
The end of overtourism
While reports of its death may be premature, Covid has at least temporarily stopped the virus-like scourge of Instagram-led overcrowding that blighted destinations from Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice to Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and Iceland.
The hiatus has given authorities time to reconsider the value of mass tourism, with Venice — which had an estimated 25 million visitors in 2019 — introducing a long-threatened theme park-style entry fee of up to £9 this summer. Amsterdam’s city hall has said, “We do not want to go back to what we saw before the pandemic,” and Prague has warned the pre-Covid stag crowds to stay away.
Some destinations, however, can’t wait to welcome tourists back, with Siem Reap in Cambodia — home to the Angkor Wat temple complex — spending £115 million on infrastructural improvements during lockdown. It aims to attract 7.5 million foreign visitors a year by 2035.
Overcrowding negatively affected Venice
A more sustainable future
In 2019 the travel industry’s biggest challenge was the transformation to sustainability. Offsetting emissions by paying for trees to be planted clearly wasn’t enough, and the industry knew that it needed to shift from a business model based purely on profit to one in which social and environmental concerns were given equal precedence — the “triple bottom line” framework.
The hiatus forced by the pandemic gave everyone the opportunity to consider their direction, but it was COP26 and the resulting Glasgow Declaration last autumn that really set alarm bells ringing. “Travel companies have realised that offsetting really isn’t that effective,” said Charlie Cotton of the net-zero consultancy Ecollective, “and now the people I’m speaking to in the industry are better informed and more committed than ever to achieving net zero.”
For many that’s meant redesigning their holiday offerings to minimise negative impacts and maximise benefits. “We’ve been busy reviewing our itineraries to reduce the carbon emissions and dial up the positive impact on the planet and local communities,” said Darrell Wade, the founder of Intrepid. “We now have our largest-ever range of domestic trips and we’ve introduced new experiences that support First Nations and indigenous communities around the world.”
So far, so good, but it’s nowhere near enough. “Overall the travel industry has been more concerned about repairing its bottom line,” Wade said. “Some have even cut back their sustainability teams.”
Jarrod Kyte, at Steppes, concurred. “Sustainability strategy is too often seen as a distraction, not a catalyst for post-Covid recovery,” he said. “Many tour operators will revert to business as usual to deliver a profit this year, but this short-term approach will hamper the transformational changes that the industry so desperately needs.”
Self-service bag-drops are becoming the standard overseas
Self-service bag-drops, which eliminate the need to join a check-in queue, have been slow to catch on in the UK, but are becoming the standard overseas. In Norway’s 44 airports, passengers who check-in online receive via their mobile phones a barcode that they scan at the bag-drop to print their luggage tag — and that’s only the beginning of a technological evolution accelerated by the pandemic.
The next big leap is into biometric, contactless solutions that will allow us to move through terminals without showing documents. AirAsia, Austrian, Emirates, Lufthansa and Swiss are among the airlines already using facial recognition software to streamline the airport experience. It works like this: you take a selfie on your mobile and upload it to a facial-recognition platform such as Sita’s Smart Path, which then links it to your passport, allowing you to fast-track through airports by glancing at cameras.
That’s not all, according to the travel tech giant Amadeus. “Picture this: when you board a flight, a message is automatically sent to your hotel. The hotel automatically checks you in and a digital room key is dispatched to you. When you arrive, you can skip the hotel front desk and head straight to your room,” the company said. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Until you find your phone battery on 1 per cent and nowhere to recharge it.
The resurgence of the travel agent
In 2019 research by Kayak revealed that 47 per cent of us had not visited a travel agent for at least ten years. Well, why bother when it was such a breeze to book your holidays yourself online? Then came Covid, and travel switched from something you could sort out with a few clicks into a costly and often worrying confusion of shattered plans and collapsed expectations.
While those who had booked packages through travel agencies and tour operators were swiftly repatriated, those who hadn’t were stranded on beaches like rueful whales or turned away at airports because nobody had told them that they needed a Greek PLF or that the kids needed a PCR test too. “The mass repatriation in March 2020 was a stark reminder that tour operators will be there for you if something goes wrong and you need to get home quickly and safely,” said Derek Jones, UK managing director at Kuoni.
Hoteliers are outsourcing in-room dining to mobile platforms
The outsourced hotelier
The lifting of travel restrictions hasn’t made life markedly easier for the hotel industry. The collapse of business travel, lingering anxieties over city breaks and, above all, the global staffing crisis have left them struggling not only to fill rooms, but also to service them. Contactless check-in, with your phone as your key, is becoming the norm, while cleaning is on request. And with restaurants closed or opening just for breakfast, hoteliers are now outsourcing in-room dining to mobile platforms such as Breeze, which promises gourmet room service, or more familiar companies such as Just Eat and Deliveroo.
You’ll also increasingly find your laundry collected by someone in a crash helmet, and unused spaces such as conference rooms sublet to local entrepreneurs for yoga sessions, dance classes, film clubs or pop-up bars — in effect, bringing the attractions of the destination into the hotel, rather than forcing the guest to go out and find them. And in the short term, free late check-outs should come as standard.
The airline industry is bouncing back
Airlines flying high
“The pace of recovery in the airline industry has surprised us all,” said John Grant of the aviation analyst OAG. “There’s a real sense that spring is in the air, and, although airfares are set to rise this summer because of increased fuel prices and, in some cases, longer routings around Russian airspace, public demand is such that we anticipate a very strong season in both transatlantic and short-haul flights.”
That’s good for the airlines, but what does it mean for us? While carriers continue to focus on yield, their frequencies — the number of departures per destination – will remain reduced so that seats can be filled to maximise load factors and thus revenue. So book early, and don’t expect the same range of destinations we enjoyed pre-pandemic to be available this summer; airlines stripped routes right back during lockdown and, Grant said, many won’t be reinstated until 2024.
Finally, keep a close eye on the so-called legacy carriers such as British Airways (BA), Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Air France-KLM. They are desperately trying to tempt leisure passengers into the business-class seats left vacant by corporate travellers, and there will be deals — BA’s sale, announced this week, offers Club World flights to New York with four nights in a decent hotel from £1,599, and three nights in Venice with Club Europe seats from £309.
Recovery is a long way off
It’s hard to think of a business model more fragile — more susceptible to social, political, economic and environmental shocks — than travel. Destinations can go out of fashion and their profitability is dependent on the whims of a discretionary spend. They can fall victim to terrorism, war or recessions happening far, far away; to climate events and, as recent history has shown, public-health emergencies. As Bharat Gadhoke, the head of commercial at the Association of Independent Tour Operators, put it: “Instinctively, who would want to be a tour operator?”
Yet despite its vulnerability, the industry contributed 10.4 per cent of global GDP in 2019. Reattaining that momentum from a standing start is going to take at least three years, according to some estimates, and that was before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, so don’t expect a swift return to the halcyon days of travel’s pre-pandemic golden age.
The brain drain
Against all expectations, most of the travel companies trading in 2019 survived the pandemic, but they didn’t come through unscathed. Many workers who were furloughed in 2020 have not returned, significantly reducing the expertise that made the British travel trade the best in the world. Destination knowledge and operational competence takes years to build, and no operator will deny that the industry has been weakened by the loss of key staff.
“If we are to overcome the existential threats of the climate crisis, future pandemics and geo-political events, the travel industry needs revitalising through a recruitment drive, targeting innovators and young, dynamic leaders,” Kyte said. Yet it’s not just the experts on Andean treks or the Silk Road we’re missing — we also need people who know their way around a coach trip to Bruges.
Hard times for the dotcoms
In the past two decades online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Hotels.com, Expedia, Lastminute.com and Booking.com have redefined the way we book. So pervasive was their influence that, according to pre-pandemic research by RateGain, up to 98 per cent of four-star hotels had offered their rooms cheaper on OTA sites than on their own, often paying up to 30 per cent in commission for the privilege.
That was bearable when business was good, but when platforms including Expedia and Booking.com changed their terms in 2020 to abolish cancellation charges and enforce no-questions-asked refunds, the relationship soured. Consequently, “many hoteliers chose to sell rooms on their own websites”, according to the booking engine Guestcentric.
As Malcolm Bell, the chief executive of Visit Cornwall, pointed out, when OTAs show no availability it’s not because that destination is fully booked, but because “accommodation providers have decided not to use these platforms”.
There is a global shortage of hire cars
The car-hire crisis
One effect of the pandemic that could seriously put the brakes on your travel plans this summer is the global car-hire shortage. It’s the product of a combination of factors that even Mystic Meg could not have foreseen, beginning when the big agencies sold off inventory to maintain cashflow during lockdown. They thought that they would simply restock when business returned, but a worldwide shortage of the semiconductors essential in the manufacturing of modern cars — blamed on causes ranging from US-China trade spats to soaring demand for home electronics and a drought in Taiwan — crippled the automotive industry. What few new cars did reach the factory gate were sold to the public, leaving rental fleets hugely depleted. As availability evaporated, prices soared so if you want a car at Faro, Malaga, Palma, Orlando or anywhere else this summer, book now.
A question of trust
Remember the refunds scandal of 2020, when customers were left waiting for their money back after the shutdown of international travel? The Package Travel Regulations — the instrument that drives trust in the industry — states that consumers are entitled to a refund within 14 days of cancelling a package holiday. So why were millions forced to wait months before recouping their losses or palmed off with credit notes in lieu of cash? There was a simple explanation: tour operators couldn’t give you your money back because in many cases they had already spent it. As the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) knew, “some Atol-protected travel businesses use their customers’ advance payments to fund their own operations before the customers have had their holidays”.
In other words, they were using our cash to pay their bills and got caught out. Trailfinders is a notable exception; it holds all money in trust until the client returns home and Mike Gooley, its chairman, maintains that to do otherwise is embezzlement. Other, far smaller tour operators argue that if they can’t fund operations in the way they used to, they’ll go out of business so, for the time being, the practice continues. The CAA launched a consultation last April and promised an update this spring. Watch this space.