Travel industry's reckoning in 2021: 'frivolous indulgence belongs to another era'
Since the pandemic took hold in March 2020, border closures and stay-at-home orders have brought economic disaster to much of the travel industry.
By this November, although some countries remained sealed to tourists – from Australia, Bhutan and China to Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam – borders were reopening, testing requirements easing and an end to Covid restrictions seemed in sight. Then Omicron swept in. Overturning plans and creating havoc all over again, the ultra-infectious new strain of the coronavirus has brought yet another round of curfews, lockdowns and travel bans in its wake.
So what might 2022 hold for one of the world’s biggest industries? We’re all probably eager for a holiday, but the new year is not getting off to a promising start. Major airlines have had to ground fleets as they seek mergers, and even holiday giants such as Germany’s Tui have had to lay off staff as bookings have shrivelled.
Smaller operators continue to struggle
In the UK, bookings platform Hoo says not even the global boom in staycations has saved the hotel industry from a 73 per cent decrease in occupancy compared with 2019. And small holiday companies everywhere – the kind with owners who know all their employees and suppliers, from airport greeters to camel-ride guides – have had an especially bleak time.
“For the last 22 months, I, my wife, sister and all our employees have been desperately worried about our jobs, our livelihoods and our futures,” says the owner of a family business organising activity holidays in Scandinavia who has asked to remain anonymous. “Every single day, it has been like waking from a bad dream only to find ourselves in a nightmare.”
Some of the changes the travel industry has had to make, as staff shrink and costs have to be cut, were inevitable, he says. “The end of the era of ridiculous turn-down services, for example. I am more worried for the industry’s current collective mental health. I know good people who are broken, good people who have given up, and others who are slowly crumbling under the weight of it all. The pressure has been relentless.”
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst has always been the travel industry’s unofficial motto. After all, these are the people who, at the best of times, routinely have to see, soothe and retain their guests through anything from cancelled flights and flooded rooms to crocodile attacks. Those companies that are surviving – just – have done so by nimbly adapting to what The Economist calls “our new era of predictable unpredictability”.
“The way we operate changed completely when the pandemic hit in 2020,” says Lisa Fitzell, managing director of UK tour operator Elegant Resorts. “Navigating through so many changes, cancellations, refunds, postponements, 100 per cent flexibility had to become our new norm. We introduced low deposits, rightful refunds, delayed balance payments. How we operated internally changed, all to be able to pivot and adapt to the ever-changing new rules and trends.”
Book today, fly tomorrow
Notable among these new trends is a desire to travel at short notice, with “a book today, fly tomorrow” approach increasingly common when holidays are feasible; a desire for remote, peaceful destinations rather than anywhere with crowds; and for group bookings. “Whether extended families or a bunch of friends, we’ve seen a real uptick in reunions and groups of 14 or more,” says Oliver Bell of Oliver’s Travels in London.
At luxury travel operator Carrier, managing director Mark Duguid is finding that his wealthy clients are keen on bigger, better, longer holidays. “Demand for secluded accommodation in sensational landscapes far from city centres is greater than ever – wilderness lodges, remote chalets, luxury house-boats, boutique hotels that are off the beaten track,” he says.