After a year of border closures, country-wide restrictions, and stay-at-home orders, hope for the American traveler is finally on the horizon. President Biden says there will be a vaccine for every U.S. adult come May. Countries around the world are cautiously re-opening for tourists. And after slashing flight routes last spring, airlines are now adding them back to their schedule. We’re on the cusp on being able to go somewhere, and we’re dying to go this summer: a survey done by luxury travel company Virtuoso found that 60 percent of respondents planned to take a trip by Labor Day, and travel booking apps like Hopper are seeing a three-digit percent increase in seasonal searches. Meanwhile, the TSA is preparing themselves for the anticipated boom. Recently, they announced a nationwide-recruitment effort to hire 6,000 new employees by summer’s start.
But what will leisure travel look like in a post-pandemic world? Will everything go back to normal, or does a new normal await us instead?
“If we expect things to go back exactly as they were in 2019, we’re all going to be disappointed,” says Misty Belles, managing director at Virtuoso. “The reality is that much like September 11 forever changed travel, so will COVID-19.”
Masks, Belles says, are here to stay. Why? While wealthy countries will be able to vaccinate 75 percent of their citizens by the end of 2021, it’ll take developing countries several more years to reach that target. (And even then, the virus will likely still lurk in corners of the globe— “COVID-19 will likely be with us forever. Here's how we'll live with it,” read a recent headline in National Geographic.) So facial coverings will still be necessary to stop the spread and protect the most vulnerable among us.
That also means “six-feet apart” will continue to be a golden rule. “Hotels that once prided themselves on beautiful and inviting public spaces will likely continue to encourage social distancing by limiting the seating options and opportunities for people to linger,” Belles hypothesizes.
Prepare to pack your passport and Pfizer record: Destinations like the Seychelles and Iceland recently announced that vaccinated visitors can enter without quarantining and move without restrictions. Meanwhile, luxury liners like Crystal Cruises are requiring all guests onboard to be fully inoculated. That rule may apply to flights too: in November, Qantas Airline’s CEO made waves when he told CNN they might "ask people to have a vaccination before they get on the aircraft.” Belles expects more countries, and companies, to follow suit. “Health passports will likely be required, meaning another document to keep current for traveling abroad,” she says. There’s no consensus on what these health passports will look like—whether you need to show a physical card, or submit an online form—but proof, in some shape or form, seems likely to be required.
It’s not only how we travel that’s going to change, but where we travel. Warren Webster, CEO of Atlas Obscura, says they’re seeing a strong interest in remote destinations rather than urban ones—a lingering effect of the pandemic, as most people are anxiously crowd-averse. “As countries open up, safety is still a top concern, so visiting areas where you can be outside a lot are high on the list.”
Many people, he says, are also looking for far-flung destinations after a year of staying home. “Post pandemic travel will also be a time of very meaningful travel, where people will really want to make it count—visiting less-known destinations, getting out and exploring more, finding ways to make memories with family and friends,” he says. Among the trips Atlas Obscura offers, one to see the Northern lights in Russia and another in Sardinia are garnering particular attention. (Belles seconds that: Virtuoso’s clients are expressing significant interest in Italy, as well as Australia.)
“If there's a silver lining to the pandemic in travel it's that travel will be even more purposeful and special,” Webster adds. “We didn't know what we had 'til it was gone, and this will be the time to get out there.”