Coronavirus vaccines will help the journey recuperate, however it could take years for them to totally recuperate, consultants say
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Will a beleaguered travel and tourism industry – one of the hardest hit by the pandemic – recover soon as news of multiple effective Covid-19 vaccines at the end of the tunnel shed some light in 2020?
Possibly, sources say, but they warn that travel can take years to fully recover, and regardless of when, it will likely look different than it did before the pandemic.
"The news of a potential vaccine promises a trip in 2021," said Julie Hall, AAA spokeswoman. "But … travelers need to focus on knowing the risks of travel and exposure in the here and now."
Brian O'Connell, an analyst at InsuranceQuotes.com, takes an even more moderate stance. "I'm just not optimistic about traveling in the first half of 2021 – even if a vaccine is mass-produced during that period," he said. "Caution is the buzzword as it will take months for the vaccine to become fully available in the US and abroad."
Steve Hafner, CEO of Kayak.com, said he thinks "people are more of a wait and see … until one of these vaccines comes out."
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However, the online travel agent saw a surge in searches – if not purchases – immediately after pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced its Covid vaccine was 95% effective on Nov. 10. The next day, search queries increased by 27% compared to the previous week. he said, but opted for a "more modest" weekly growth rate of 6% in the days that followed.
Still, Hafner said the increased search queries were a good sign.
"I am very optimistic that after these vaccines have been distributed, people's perception of travel will change towards positive," he added.
"I'm confident that there will be a knock on wood by the second quarter [of 2021]," Hafner said of a recovery from the trip. "If we're really lucky, we'll see it in the first quarter."
A survey by travel insurer Allianz of 4,300 customers earlier this year found that 49% would travel again with a proven vaccine. Meanwhile, 42% said approval from health officials would be enough.
"The promise of a high-potency vaccine is good news for the huge pent-up demand for travel and should provide consumers with yet another reason to feel more secure when booking travel for 2021," said Daniel Durazo, Allianz director of marketing and communications. He expected luxury and adventure travel to be popular next year as consumers want to book revenge trips after all the plans canceled earlier this year.
Indeed, ValuePenguin's travel expert Stella Shon, dubbed the national "cabin bug," might encourage some to book sooner rather than later, she said. "You are ready to travel," Shon said of vacationers. "It's interesting that more than half of Americans have stayed in a hotel or apartment despite what went on – but obviously with heightened security measures."
If mass vaccination is instituted, personal safety practices like social distancing could wane, Shon added, although she predicts consumer demand for an "OCD cleaning level" for travel property for some time. "I think people are aware that these things may not have happened before and they should happen whether or not there is a pandemic."
A survey by Tripadvisor and Phocuswright in October found that 63% of travelers said they were more likely to consider a hotel's health and safety practices before booking than before the pandemic.
Kayaks Hafner believes that changes in the way travel products are offered are more permanent than the behavior of individual travelers. "I think [travel] will return to more traditional patterns," said Hafner. "Paris is becoming popular again.
"There will be a return to equilibrium, if you will, but there may be a shift," he added what types of travel consumers choose. Hafner plans to switch to local stays, road trips, last-minute bookings, longer stays and increased use of non-hotel accommodation – at least for the next 12 to 18 months.
What can prove to be permanent is the way tour operators and destinations are offering this product.
"The role of technology as Covid is increasing. The introduction of this technology has changed a lot, not only in the travel sector, but also in the hospitality industry in general," said Hafner. "The whole idea of touching dirty menus or interacting with airport kiosks has disappeared in the rearview mirror, in my opinion, and people won't come back to it."
Kayak, which at one point laid off 25% of its workforce and whose business is down 60% year-over-year, has optimized its online offering. The online agency rolled out itineraries, off-hotel accommodation options, and information on flight flexibility and international Covid-19 restrictions and regulations.
"Our services have never been better," he said. "I'm really proud of the way we innovated this year."