As movement around the world grows more and more restricted, it’s hard to imagine what travel will look like when it eventually ramps back up.
The staggering global scale of the coronavirus pandemic makes it especially devastating, but the travel industry has rebounded from past crises and experts believe it will bounce back again.
“People haven’t changed in that they still want to go places, but they’re going to necessarily be a lot more cautious about what they do,” said Adam Blake, a professor of economics and head of research in the Department of Tourism and Hospitality at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.
“And they’re going to need not just persuading that it is safe to travel, but they’ll need to see actual physical changes made to make travel safer.”
For now, we don’t know when or how the pandemic will pass. But once the public health crisis improves, travelers will also need to see steep drops in prices to get them moving again, analysts say.
Here are eight things travelers are likely to see once the industry is able to rev its engines in the direction of recovery.
Cruises will be very cheap. But it might not matter for newcomers
Travelers who are comfortable with cruising will find very low prices as cruise lines restart service, said Christopher Anderson, professor of business at Cornell University’s Hotel School in Ithaca, New York.
The challenge will be in attracting new customers to cruise travel, “which will be essential to survival,” he said, after global headlines about coronavirus outbreaks on ships, travel restrictions and denied ports of call.
Anderson suggested that reconfiguring some of the new ships that are still under construction with bigger staterooms and less passenger density might be a way to attract new customers. Reducing buffet food service and leaning more toward a la carte dining across rate tiers might be another way to reassure travelers who are skeptical about cruise travel, he said.
Cleanliness will be addressed – a lot
“Everyone, whether it’s cruise, lodging or hotels, are going to have to change how they monitor and clean the environment that consumers interact with and communicate that back to guests in order to increase their comfort level,” Anderson said.
Jan Freitag, senior vice president of Lodging Insights for hospitality analysis firm STR, underlined sanitation as well, referencing “new, visible measures” needed to show how clean properties are.
Whether that means hand sanitizers everywhere or regularly disinfecting hard surfaces, “there will be a clearly communicated regimen to let the customers know, ‘here’s what we’re doing to keep you safe,’” Freitag said.
Hotel room rates will drop more before they come back up
Hotel rates in the US declined by 30% the week of March 21, according to Freitag, and “rates will definitely go down before they come back up.”
Historically, in times of great uncertainty such as in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks or after the end of the recession in 2009, it has taken twice as long for room rates to rebound than it did for them to drop to their lowest point, Freitag said.
He doesn’t anticipate the collapse of any segments of the US hotel industry, but there will be lodging disruption that in many cases will be invisible to guests. Hotels may change hands behind the scenes but remain operational and under the same brand.
Travelers may feel safer in hotels than vacation rentals
Anderson says one “saving grace” for hotels may be traveler discomfort with alternative lodging options such as Airbnb and other vacation rental sites because those properties may struggle to communicate and standardize rigorous cleaning standards.
“I’m going to want the safety and security of established cleaning protocols that I get from an established lodging provider,” Anderson said, so he anticipates a negative impact in the short term for Airbnb-type rentals.
Look for lower airfares and emptier planes
People will be more comfortable traveling by air if planes are less full, says Anderson.
“If we really want to turn this around, airlines have to be flying with empty middle seats and prices dramatically lower than what we had last summer,” he said.
Several carriers last week announced plans to eliminate some food and beverage service and middle seat assignments to cut costs and reduce interaction on board.
Anderson sees business travel rebounding first, followed by domestic leisure travel. Trans-oceanic travel is likely to lag, he said.
Business travel may spur recovery for airlines
While many businesses may get more comfortable with conducting meetings virtually, Anderson expects the desire for in-person dealings will help spur airlines’ recovery.
“I believe people need interaction, and it is possible a prolonged pause in regular business dealings may jump start air travel as people look to get back to business and create opportunities,” he said.
Air travelers will have more booking flexibility – for a while
Anderson expects that airlines – which extended a series of waivers and flexible rebooking options as the outbreak advanced – will continue to be less stringent with cancellation and change fees – for a period of time.
“As we get into 2021, we’ll be back to the old way I imagine,” he said.
Increased sustainability is a possible windfall
A silver lining for travel in this crisis? The opportunity to address issues that were top-of-mind before coronavirus arrived, said travel broadcaster Peter Greenberg in a recent video.
Overtourism, sustainable travel and the environment were among travel’s most talked-about topics before the spread of coronavirus.
“We can get back to this in a much more responsible and ethical way when this crisis ends,” Greenberg said.