All those who had written off travel as a Covid casualty can take heart. Imagine this: when Carnival Cruise recently announced that it would begin running cruises again from August 1, its bookings shot up by 600 per cent as compared to last year. Even as anxiety and uncertainty have become everyday companions these days, intrepid travellers seem to be shrugging off their excess baggage of fear as they look to resume their travels.

“It’s safe to assume that hotels, hospitality and the travel ecosystem at large have been officially rebooted. COVID-19 has left no choice in the matter; instead it has created a new reality for the foreseeable future, and as such, every company that operates within this ecosystem has to respond to and prepare for fundamental changes to business operations,” says Saurabh Rai, executive vice-president, South and South-East Asia, West Asia, Africa and Australasia, Preferred Hotels & Resorts.

Travel, both for leisure and business, has undoubtedly changed forever. “The September 11 attacks in the US changed aviation security forever, and the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai changed how hotels and public spaces protect themselves. Covid will change the way we will travel long after the cure is found,” says Rohit Kohli, managing director, Signature Tours by Creative Travel.

The drastic changes don’t seem to have deterred people’s longing to hit the road though. A global future travel survey conducted by Preferred Hotels and Resorts in April, among members of the brand’s loyalty programme, reveals an incredibly positive attitude towards travel in the second half of 2020. According to the survey results, more than half the respondents confirmed that they would book a trip this year as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. A similar proportion of respondents opted to travel regionally or domestically.

This insatiable appetite to travel will manifest itself into introduction of more travel products and packages complying with the “new normal”. People will seek out more private and personalised experiences. “There will be a higher appreciation for responsible tourism,” says Kohli. When the dust settles, he says, the first to recover will be luxury travel for people with a higher spending power who value life experiences equally. Cheap and large group tours with packed buses will not be seen for a long time because of social distancing regulations.

Closer home

Most people will start with baby steps and begin by exploring one’s own backyard, with driving holidays and road trips leading the way. This promises to be one of the leading trends for travel in the post-pandemic world. “Domestic travel is likely to see a surge over the next year or even longer, continuing at least until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus. International travel will take longer to recover and will do so with short-haul destinations,” says Kapil Chopra, founder and chief executive officer, The Postcard Hotel. For instance, Indians are likely to opt for the neighbouring countries of Bhutan and Sri Lanka as travel destinations.

Transformative travel

Along with a surge in domestic travel, people are also likely to prioritise experiential and transformative travel. While this trend was evident long before the pandemic, it is likely to increase as limitations of travel make each holiday more meaningful. “Experiential travel will bounce back in a new form, embracing education, self-expression and activities that connect travellers to a destination in a more meaningful way—this segment is unique in its ability to inspire,” says Rai. In such a scenario, “small boutique hotels that focus on authentic and immersive local experiences are already ahead of the curve,” adds Chopra.

Desirable destinations

According to Rai, sustainability will be a consideration. Destinations that provide unique cultural experiences that demonstrate a commitment towards the local environment and community are likely to do well. “It is very likely that nature-based travel will be most in demand, especially properties that offer secluded, private experiences, away from the cities,” says Chopra. In addition to destinations like wildlife parks, mountain retreats and offbeat coastal properties are likely to be top choices. “In the luxury sector, Thailand, Bhutan, Scandinavia, Maldives and parts of Africa stand to gain,” claims Rai, although he does caution that these destinations will need to ensure sound health and hygiene practices to attract the cautious traveller.

The new traveller starter pack

Technology will be a critical enabler of health and hygiene-assured travel experiences. Some remarkable innovations in this space are already operational in hotels.

So what will all of this mean for the traveller? Air travel—once it does open up for outbound travel—will involve face masks along with sleep masks on flights, longer queues for customs clearance with, probably, a few medical tests. Turkish Airlines recently announced new ‘guidelines for safe travel’ and two new in-flight services to protect the health of its guests. The services include distribution of “hygiene kits”, containing a face mask, disinfectant and antiseptic tissue, and appointment of “hygiene expert” cabin crews to enforce on-board hygiene practices and social distancing.

At a price

According to Subhash Goyal, chairman, STIC Travel Group, representing the largest pool of international airlines as their exclusive GSA in India, pricing will be affected. “The likely increase in airfares will have to be borne by the traveller,” he says. Unlike airlines, hotels might not raise rack rates absurdly high, feels Neeraj Govil, senior vice-president, South Asia Marriott International. “Pricing is derivative of the very near term, say three to four months. Mariott is not going to lead with a price rise. A lot of the changes are cost intensive, but some can be mitigated by different processes, while others will be absorbed by partners or by the businesses themselves and only a tiny fraction by the guests, if at all,” says Govil.

But some changes will rankle more than others. For those flying business class or first, there will be no hot or cold towels or a steady flow of champagne. These privileges will be replaced by single-use packaging and individual bottled beverages served sealed.

Covid is going to make its presence felt as much up in the air as it does on the ground.

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