When Will Travel Be Back To Normal? Sooner, Rather Than Later

Updated: 09/25/2021

“The world is never going back to 2019. And if the world is never going back to 2019, it means the world of travel is not going back to 2019,” said Brian Chesky, but I don’t see it this way. So, it begs the question, “When will travel be back to normal?”

I would say it’s only a matter of time before travel goes back to 2019.

Now you may ask, “Who’s Brian Chesky?” Well, he’s the co-founder/CEO of Airbnb, so he knows about travel. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still disagree.

Friends and family send me videos and pictures where things look like they did pre-Covid.

People are going to concerts. Others are traveling to cities for short vacations. Most of the media I’ve seen shows a United States that has, in a way, returned to normal.

And the people living there are thinking that way, too. Although a recent rise in cases has the potential to change that.

Juxtapose this with areas of the world still struggling with Covid-19, and you have a strange scenario.

The countries of the world that travel the most – the United States and parts of Europe – are ready and eager to travel.

Meanwhile, the top destination countries (many in Asia) — China, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and others — remain closed or “partially open.”

Many in the travel industry are predicting a slow return or no return at all. But, with the early signs we have, is that going to be the case?

Flight data shows a strong return

Experts in the aviation industry predicted the travel industry would rebound slowly.

“I anticipate public health officials will still encourage social distancing. Airlines might continue blocking middle seats or limiting the number of people in premium cabins,” said aviation expert Henry Harteveldt.

In reality, almost all airlines had stopped blocking the middle seat as far back as March.

Airlines are racing to meet the demand the travel rebound has placed on them, expanding their offerings and opening more seats to meet the travel craze.

Some are paying their employees double due to staff shortages.

Traveler data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the United States also signals a return to normalcy in the United States.

While the numbers are still below what we saw in 2019 before the pandemic, the number of travelers through TSA shows promise for the travel industry.

Looking at the data from September 10th-September 23rd, an average of just under 1.6 million travelers per day passed through TSA checkpoints at airports.

During the same time in 2019, an average of just under 2.3 million travelers per day passed through TSA. For not being out of the pandemic yet, that’s a strong rebound from last year and a recovery toward 2019 numbers.

While a little more than half a million fewer people per day are passing through TSA compared to 2019, it’s worth mentioning that only 54% of the population is fully vaccinated, and current cases are at the second-highest level been at since the pandemic began.

When travel is discouraged if you’re not fully vaccinated, and the requirements needed to travel if you aren’t vaccinated are an unnecessary inconvenience in most people’s eyes, these numbers indicate a strong comeback for travel.

A similar pattern is beginning to emerge in Europe also.

Unfortunately, international travel — a huge source of revenue for Europe — is lagging behind due to restrictions that remain in countries around the world.

But with that said, as the weeks pass, more European countries are opening to foreign visitors, which will kickstart their international tourism revenue.

Helping to curb the loss from international tourism, domestic tourism is picking up the slack.

Europeans are looking to travel within Europe as the restrictions are more relaxed for members of the Schengen Area, with estimates that domestic tourism will account for around 83% of inbound arrivals in Europe. This is compared to 77% in 2019.

In addition, 70% of Europeans said they plan to travel at least until January of 2022.

Half of these tourists plan to visit another country. Even more, one in two Europeans plans to book a trip once they are vaccinated.

While many of them plan to stay on the European continent, the data is promising for a return to travel.

With time, the restrictions will begin to fade, and people will rediscover the ease and convenience of travel.

If anything, being stuck in one spot allowed people to appreciate how easy it was for them to go where they want in a relatively short amount of time.

Search data reveals a similar pattern

Another metric to look at is Google’s search trends.

With Google being the most highly-used search engine, looking at the various trends will help give a glimpse into people’s thinking, or at the least what they’re searching on Google.

And what do you find?

Most top traveling countries – Finland, the USA, Canada, Denmark, and more – have increased searches for flights and hotels that are returning close to pre-pandemic levels.

Globally, searches for hotels are higher than pre-pandemic levels, signaling at least an urge to travel. Searches for flights are down, which isn’t shocking as most countries have restrictions or limited flights.

However, if you look at the trend, it’s quickly climbing back up toward normal levels.

Google's data shows a strong surge in travel demand
Travel demand is measured by demand categories of air and accommodation. This measures international and domestic trips. The solid line represents 2021. The dotted line represents 2020.
Credit: Destination Insights by Google

Looking at the photo above, after seeing the massive drop at the beginning of March 2020, travel demand began showing a comeback as early as June 2020.

That has continued into 2021 as the demand increases. As we continue on in 2021, the travel demand continues to maintain 2019-like levels.

And, as you can see, the demand has already matched pre-Covid levels. While we can’t rely entirely on this as proof, it at least suggests normal travel is making a return.

Who will travel?

Who is going to travel after Covid? After all, Covid severely impacted the world’s economy, as we know. People lost businesses, jobs, and more. Who is going to have money to travel?

My answer: the same people who traveled before.

People I have talked with believe travel will begin to become a case of the haves and the have-nots. Those who have the money will get to have the privilege of travel.

Meanwhile, those who don’t have the money won’t.

However, hasn’t travel always been like that?

Of course, there are budget travelers and backpackers, but they are a minority in the overall travel industry. In the larger tourism and travel industry, it has always been a case of the haves and have-nots.

The top ten countries with the highest traveler output are among the 25 wealthiest countries globally.

These countries are also among the most powerful countries regarding global passport ranking. More money to travel and a more widely accepted passport make these travelers the “haves.”

People sit on a train with masks on their face during covid
Photo by Bo Kim on Unsplash

Meanwhile, poorer countries comprise the bottom half of the passport power index.

This does not come as a surprise to many reading this, I’m sure. There is a strong correlation between wealth and passport power.

Less money to travel and a passport that isn’t widely accepted make these travelers the “have-nots.”

I don’t say that to be condescending nor as a means of talking down.

It’s simply an observation of the facts and what I’ve gathered through conversations with people who have faced stringent vetting to get into countries.

These are the countries I got into with a stamp and a smile. It’s an unfortunate reality in travel – and one I hope can change in the future.

But where are people traveling?

Others have said people will become more “conscious travelers,” deciding to skip the mainstream destinations and go to more local and less touristy places to visit. We’re going to change, and we’re not going to go on those same old trips we’ve always done. Those are in the past!

Except, they are not in the past.

The top searched destinations feature many familiar names, at least from an American perspective. Cancun, Riviera Maya, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, Las Vegas, and I’m sure you can predict the rest.

You see a similar trend in Europe as they line up to return to the hotspots.

When you look at lists for top European destinations in 2021, you see many familiar destinations as well. You get the point: Istanbul, Dublin, Athens, Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona, and Paris.

Just because a pandemic blanketed the world doesn’t mean the dreams and wishes people had to visit those places died. People still want to see the Eiffel Tower, and they will. The Taj Mahal still stands, and travelers will do the same in front of it someday.

This does not mean I do not hope people will become more conscious travelers. Myself included.

The way we traveled before Covid wasn’t sustainable. We were polluting the Earth at incredible rates, and overtourism risked irreparable damage to the most beautiful places we have on this planet. One of the few silver linings we can take from the pandemic is the Earth had time to heal.

I am not optimistic about this subject, as I feel we will fall comfortably back into our old travel habits. However, we can always hope this situation provided a new perspective.

Restrictions are dropping

We have begun to see the restrictions needed to enter various countries, especially if vaccinated, become less strict or disappear altogether.

Earlier this week, the United States announced its relaxing restrictions for fully-vaccinated travelers from 30+ countries. And flight bookings increased dramatically upon the announcement of the decision.

Some European countries have relaxed restrictions throughout the pandemic, and more are joining that list.

And, if you’re vaccinated, some restrictions have disappeared altogether, like in the Netherlands.

As the vaccination rate climbs and we begin to enter a life that coexists with Covid, travel restrictions will continue to drop as countries refuse to miss out on the economic benefits.

Conclusion

The coronavirus pandemic is still a genuine threat to many countries and people worldwide. Patients are stressing healthcare systems, economies are struggling to get started, and people — who are the victims of it all — don’t know when their life will return to something that’s somewhat normal.

In other places, the return is happening fast.

And in a world that has been full of pessimism for the last year and a half, it’s nice to have a tiny bit of optimism peeking through the rain clouds.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll all be traveling and enjoying ourselves, just like before Covid.

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