PANDEMIC

COVID-19: WHAT NEXT FOR TRAVEL?

9 April 2020

By Ian Mackenzie

We’re now three months in to what has become the world’s biggest health threat since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918. It's time to wake up before it's too late

9 April 2020

By Ian Mackenzie

So, here we are, weeks into a lockdown that shows no immediate sign of being lifted. And, for good reason given the apparent success of responsible social distancing and its effect on “flattening the curve”.

It goes without saying, however, that the global journey along this pandemic route is still in its infancy. Of course, some countries are further along with their own particular journey. Whether that’s because of their success in curtailing the outbreak (see South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Germany) or because they simply haven’t got to grips with it early enough (UK, USA).

And then there are the countries that either haven’t reported their true numbers (China, Russia) or those with high density populations that are potential time bombs just waiting to explode (India, Indonesia, Brazil). If, indeed, they haven’t already done so.

The big question everyone wants to know, of course, is when will the restrictions be lifted and when can we expect everything to return to “normal”? Especially for those of us whose lives are intrinsically linked with the freedom to travel.

Well, with my own travel horizons suddenly restricted to just wandering out to the chicken coop to claim another four freshly laid eggs, I thought I’d do some research on what the “experts” are predicting about the industry’s future. And, after throwing in some of my own thoughts for good measure, this is what I’ve determined.

Spoiler alert: It isn’t pretty.

What next?

Assuming that the implementation of social distancing has the desired effect, a large majority of the world’s potential “tourist population” will not have caught the disease and so won’t have built up any immunity to it. So, without a vaccine, they’re highly unlikely to be able to travel freely. And, according to most health experts, a vaccine is at least 12-18 months away (developing, testing, manufacturing, supplying). Then it needs to be rolled out methodically and in vast numbers. Of course, there’s no guarantee it will even work.

As a result, social distancing will probably be a way of life for at least the next two years.

Meanwhile, as countries relax the travel restrictions within their own countries, they’ll be extremely cautious about re-opening their borders to international travellers too soon. Take New Zealand, for example. The government took swift action to put the country into lockdown at the beginning of the outbreak and it appears to have paid off. To the point where its Prime Minister has declared that the disease will shortly no longer exist within the country. But, although it previously enjoyed a flourishing travel industry, and it can look forward to relaxing its travel restrictions internally, why on earth would the country want to consider allowing international travellers in just yet and run the risk of another outbreak?

Sure, quarantining for 14 days in dedicated facilities is a short-term measure. But that would be totally impractical for any large numbers of daily arrivals.

The same goes for the likes of Italy and Spain. Both countries’ health systems have been ravaged by the pandemic. Both are experiencing a surge in unemployment. But both are showing early signs that the lockdown measures are slowing the rate of daily new cases. Signs for optimism maybe.

But, even if they continue to make progress over the coming weeks and months, are they really going to be confident about allowing international travellers to roam free within their borders without a proven vaccine in place? Or at least a universal testing process that can screen foreigners at the border or airports?

The latest developments being considered include a smartphone app that tracks if a person has come into close proximity with a COVID-19 sufferer. Which would open up a whole world of potential privacy issues. But it has already been used in places such as Singapore. Could this be a potential requirement for travellers?

Meanwhile, what are the prospects for the airlines who’ll be foaming at the mouth in anticipation of guaranteed returning customers? Well, unless there’s a large domestic market for flights (such as China and the USA), or some sort of mass bailout, a large number of airlines that rely on international travel will simply fall by the wayside. This year.

And, even if routes do reopen, how will they be able to practice social distancing? Allow just a certain number of people into the airport terminal at any one time? Leave empty seats between passengers? Reduce the number of cabin crew? Not exactly conducive to making a recovery from the losses of the previous months. And don’t even try to second guess what the price of a ticket might be.

Then, of course, there are the local hotels, guest houses, restaurants and other businesses who have been run out of business by the complete shutdown of visitors. And those that do continue to operate will need to satisfy their local authorities that they are implementing effective social distancing measures.

And what of the potential tourists themselves? The economic fallout from the pandemic is already painfully apparent. Record-breaking unemployment surges are likely to intensify as the lockdowns continue to bite. And just today, the World Trade Organisation has projected a decrease in trade of between 13% and 32% this year.

Which means that, in addition to a lack of confidence about travel, there will be less disposable income for people to spend.

So, with all that to consider, it seems highly unlikely that mass tourism will return to anything like it was before until a proven vaccine is in place and the knock-on effects of an improving worldwide economy take a foothold. We’re talking years.

And, when it does return, it’ll be a trickle to begin with. Almost like a return to the pioneering days of travel in the 50’s and 60’s.

What about independent travel?

If you have your own means of transport and don’t rely on a developed tourism infrastructure, then things might become a little easier for you. That is, once you have a vaccination card or “immunity passport” you can readily flash to a border guard or police patrol unit.

Indeed, there may be an opportunity once again for independent travellers to be trailblazers when the upturn starts to take shape.

But, of course, independent travel goes hand-in-hand with travelling to places and meeting people that are off the mass tourism circuit. People who will be even more desperate to benefit from an influx of visitors and tourist currency. Yet the countries in which they live may take longer to recover from the onslaught of COVID-19 cases because of their relatively poor healthcare systems.

Grasping for signs of optimism

OK, so enough of the pessimism.

Are there any signs to be more optimistic about travel than what I’ve laid out here? Perhaps.

Firstly, there’s too much money involved for countries and businesses alike to just allow the travel industry to fall apart. So if there’s any chance of avoiding it you can be sure there’ll be a concerted effort to do so. As long as countries are prepared to co-operate with each other for the benefit of everyone.

Secondly, the search for a vaccine will be ramped up. And there’ll be huge pressure to find a way to reduce the testing time.

And finally, the worst-case scenarios about the likely number of deaths, the potential development of a mutant strain of the virus and subsequent economic collapse, may turn out to be overblown. We can only hope so.

But there’s no doubt that travel as we know it is in for an extremely rude awakening.

Although it won’t stop us from at least trying to put some plans into place. Not least because we don’t actually have a home base to return to.

But for now, my daily expedition to the chicken coop is likely to remain the extent of my travel adventures.

Hell, it might even qualify as the highlight of my day!

What did you think? Am I being overly pessimistic? Or do you feel more optimistic about travel in the future? We’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.

THANKS FOR READING!

Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

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