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The long-awaited return of travel

Remember the hashtags #travelgram and #travelphotography? Perhaps relics of an Instagram of old, they’ll soon be making a big comeback. The World Tourism Organization expects international tourist arrivals return to pre-pandemic levels in Europe and the Middle East in 2023, and for international tourist arrivals as a whole to reach between 80% and 90% of pre-pandemic levels.

Although many regions experienced travel and tourism recovery in 2021, many people were put off from traveling because of what the experience would entail. International flights were available throughout the year and people were confident that tourist destinations that welcomed visitors took necessary pandemic precautions, however the experience would be a shadow of what it was in previous years. There was little urge to travel to a far off destination if it had become a temporary ghost town.

For many people travel is much more than being in a different location. It’s about the vibe and experiences people take in during their visit. Without the usual buzz of people around and shops closed, travel just wasn’t the same.

Pilots walking away from a plane

Naturally the airline industry suffered, resulting in large redundancies and shifting staff to different departments. Deals were offered that wouldn’t be on the table if they weren’t desperate for revenue. Etihad Airways, for example, was offering passengers who bought a voucher in June 2020 a credit of 50% in August 2020. This meant if someone bought a voucher for $500 in June 2020, they would get a credit of $250 in August 2020, and so could book a flight that cost $750.

By April 2020, 14,400 passenger planes around the world had been placed in storage; 65% of the global airline fleet. Some airlines showed a more vulnerable side, explaining how they were struggling. For example Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia, published an eye-opening statement about the financial situation of his airline: This is possibly the biggest challenge we have ever had to face. We have no revenue coming in, 96% of our fleet is grounded and we still have significant ongoing financial commitments such as fuel suppliers and leasing agents. 

Multiple countries relied on tourism to make up large percentages of their GDP. Mexico and Spain relied on tourism to make up 15.5% and 14.3% of their respective GDPs. A massive 60% of The Maldives’ foreign exchange is derived from tourism. But in times of difficulty, there was adaptation. People quenched their thirst for travel through digital means. Walking tours that were once provided in city centres went virtual and were accessible through Zoom and Skype. Amazon launched Amazon Explore, a virtual tours and experience platform. AirBnB launched Online Experiences, live interactive tourist sessions by guides around the world. Digital tourism had arrived.

Air hostesses in a plane

As much as virtual experiences helped relieve the travel bug during the height of the pandemic, there was nothing quite like the real thing. And when travel slowly started to recover in 2021, things were different. The huge appetite for the unknown and taking risks was gone. People wanted familiarity, safety and risk aversion, resulting in an increased demand for domestic and regional vacations. ‘Open’ locations such as beaches and rural areas were also favoured because population densities tended to be lower than in crowded cities. And as places slowly opened up, the travel bug grew stronger and you’d hear more about how people wanted to get out there again. As early as May 2020, SkyScanner reported that 79% of people surveyed were more likely to visit their dream destination once restrictions were lifted.

Reduced international travel brought about another benefit. By April 2020 daily global carbon dioxide emissions had decreased by 17%. The stark reduction in global emissions showed what the world could look like with reduced emissions – clearer skies, cleaner air and rivers, and thriving wildlife. And while the travel bug grew throughout 2021 and 2022, it was understood that people would be more conscious of our carbon footprints and would want to look for sustainable travel opportunities. Today, Google Flights lists the carbon emissions produced from each flight and provides a list of low-emissions options.

Carbon emissions produced by a flight from London to Singapore, provided by Google Flights

And now here were are. International tourism is expected to rebound and return to the closest it’s been to pre-pandemic levels. Some analysts predicted a new Roaring Twenties once the pandemic had subsided; a compensation for the limited social interaction that had been imposed on societies because of lockdowns. Perhaps this is taking shape in the form of travel.

But one thing is noticeable. Prices are a lot higher than before. Travel is making a comeback and people are raring to have their bucket list aspirations fulfilled, but as the World Tourism Organization says, Tourists are nonetheless expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home in response to the challenging economic climate.

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