Counting on ‘endemic’: The travel industry readies for a potentially new phase
By Ceylan Yeginsu
In Britain and Denmark most coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, including mask mandates; Austria and the Netherlands have eased lockdown measures despite surges in cases, and in late January, the European Union recommended that vaccinated residents should not be required to undergo testing or quarantine when traveling between the 27 member states.
In the United States, major travel industry groups have called on the federal government to eliminate the testing requirement for U.S.-bound vaccinated travelers, saying that the measures fail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The call to loosen pandemic restrictions and the actual relaxation of measures comes as health experts across the world have determined that, while the now-dominant omicron variant is highly contagious, it is causing lower rates of severe disease, especially among people vaccinated and boosted. This has led to a growing chorus of voices — from the prime minister of Denmark to President Joe Biden’s former pandemic advisers — calling for a change in approach to the virus, to accept it as a part of everyday life to be managed, not a deadly scourge requiring lockdowns and stringent preventive measures.
That message has been resonating in the world of travel and among industry representatives, who frequently borrow a public health term to make their case to ease travel restrictions.
“When I use the word pandemic, I think of the two years where we sheltered in place, but endemic is very similar to what I’m doing now — traveling for business as an entrepreneur, but also for vacation and seeing friends and family that I’ve missed,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, a co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, a New York-based travel consulting company.
If the coronavirus becomes endemic, it would be a permanent fixture of our lives, like the seasonal flu. But that would not necessarily mean it is no longer dangerous.
“Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people,” said Michael Ryan, the emergencies director for the World Health Organization last month, addressing questions about vaccine equity at the World Economic Forum. “Endemic in itself does not mean good — endemic just means it’s here forever.”
And in countries with low vaccination rates and high caseloads, the situation is not the same. Coronavirus measures have been reinstated in parts of North and West Africa where infections have surged in recent weeks. Only about 10% of the African continent’s population has been fully vaccinated. And many Asian nations — even those with high vaccination rates — remain largely closed for leisure travelers. Other countries that recently reopened, like Thailand and Vietnam, still have restrictions in place.
Still, the possible shift in mindset — to learn to live with the virus — has given the travel industry in Europe and the United States a boost in recent weeks, as have the increasing numbers of travelers booking spring and summer trips. In a bimonthly travel sentiment survey taken in mid January by Longwoods International, a travel market research firm, of 1,000 Americans who traveled for business or pleasure before the pandemic, 91% of respondents have travel plans in the next six months, and 25% said that the pandemic is no longer influencing their decision to travel. In data recorded last week and to be released Tuesday, said Amir Eylon, president and CEO of Longwoods International, 31% of respondents reported that the pandemic is no longer influencing their decision to travel.
“Thirty-one percent is the highest it has ever been,” since the company started the tracking survey in March 2020, Eylon said. “It’s an early indication that the travelers are going through a change of mindset.”
This comes after domestic leisure travel had a strong year in 2021, rebounding well after extraordinary losses in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that promotes travel to and within the United States.
“We can’t put our lives on hold forever because of this virus, we need to learn to live with it and for my family that means we’re ready to start exploring the world again,” said Deborah Lynn, 58, a math tutor from Washington, D.C., who plans to take her first international vacation since the start of the pandemic to London and Croatia in March.
A new normal for some?
On Feb. 1, Denmark became the first country in the European Union to lift all domestic restrictions and announced that COVID-19 will “no longer be categorized as a socially critical sickness.” Unvaccinated travelers or those who do not have a certificate of recovery from the coronavirus, however, will still be required to take a coronavirus test to enter the country, and quarantine measures remain in place for those arriving from high-risk countries.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced the nationwide changes in a recent national address.
“Tonight, we can start lowering our shoulders and find our smiles again,” she said. “The pandemic is still here, but with what we know now, we dare to believe that we are through the critical phase,” she said.
Over the past year, Britain had in place some of the world’s most stringent entry measures, with multiple test and quarantine requirements, as well as mask mandates and vaccine certificate requirements for nightclubs and events. Last month Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted almost all of these measures, citing “the phenomenal success of our booster campaign and the extraordinary efforts of the public.” As of Feb. 11, vaccinated travelers will no longer need to take a test to enter the country.
On a recent crisp winter evening, London’s Covent Garden, a popular tourist destination for dining, shopping and entertainment, was bustling with crowds of mostly unmasked people. Some passed through, while others stood relaxed outside a cluster of local pubs, drinks in hand.
Daisy Addison, the manager of the Round House Pub, said the easing of travel restrictions and gradual reopening of theaters in the area is bringing tourists back.
“We can hear lots of Dutch, Spanish, French and Italian voices,” she said, adding that American tourists were yet to be seen. “People need to have the confidence to travel again.”
In nearby Chinatown, groups of tourists and locals sipped bubble tea, standing under the red lanterns and decorations that adorned the streets in celebration of the Lunar New Year. Restaurants were packed for both indoor and outdoor dining.
“It’s busy, but business is not quite normal,” said Madeleine Yew, the manager of the Chinatown Bakery, which has been running for eight years. Following the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, Yew is hopeful that business will return to pre-pandemic levels by next year.
Several public health researchers in Britain support the government’s current approach, voicing optimism about the prospects of staying open in the coming months.
“Tourism and hospitality have been badly hit by restrictions and lockdown and now is the time to support these industries and learn to sustainably manage COVID using vaccines, masks, testing and ventilation,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.
Concern Over Restrictions, Not the Virus
In the United States, where the vaccination rate is lower than in most EU countries, some experts say a shift in mindset — however desired — is premature. The omicron surge has begun to level off in some states, but case numbers and hospitalizations remain extremely high across the country.
“When you have over 2,000 deaths, 150,000 hospitalizations and you have people who are now getting infected to the tune of somewhere around 700,000 a day, we’re not there yet,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser for COVID-19, at a news conference last week.
But many Americans who are looking to book international travel this year are worried less about the virus itself and more about the prospect of getting stuck overseas, with a positive test result prohibiting them from flying back to the United States. (All travelers flying into the United States have been required to have a negative test result since January 2021; in December, the testing window was shortened with one day of travel in response to the omicron variant.) According to a recent survey by the personal finance site FinanceBuzz on traveler sentiment in the United States, 41% of 1,000 Americans surveyed said that getting the virus while abroad and needing to quarantine was their biggest pandemic-related concern. Thirty-four percent said they worried about catching COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also issued its highest level four “do not travel” warning for many popular destinations abroad, sparking hesitation among some consumers.
“The idea of booking to a trip to a Europe where there are no restrictions and things are back to normal is very appealing and I’m always looking for good deals,” said Bradley Ezekiel, 52, an art curator from Chicago. “But it’s a huge gamble with three kids because if we get COVID and get stranded in a hotel that’s going to be super expensive and not very fun.”
On Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association, in partnership with Airlines for America and 28 other travel industry groups, called on the U.S. federal government to remove the testing requirement.
Cautious Optimism and Investments for the Future
After the devastation to their industry over the past two years, many travel operators are hopeful that the next opening will last, and bring with it a more cohesive and coordinated approach to travel that will speed up recovery in the coming years.
“At this stage in the pandemic, the tools exist to allow us to combat this virus without crippling an entire sector of the U.S. economy in the process. Let’s use them,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors, an advocacy association representing travel advisers.
Many operators and travel organizations are preparing for a rebound, investing in new infrastructure and marketing campaigns.
“There is huge pent-up demand and an eagerness to return to leisure travel as soon as we emerge from this, so we are very optimistic about the future,” said Chris Heywood, the executive vice president of global communications for New York City’s tourism agency, NYC & Company. “We are not hesitating.”
The agency plans to advertise in 12 international markets in the coming months and reopen 14 of its international offices, which work with trade, airline and tour operator partners as well as travel media outlets. Visit Britain, the United Kingdom’s national tourism agency, recently introduced its own international marketing campaign, investing more than $13 million to target markets in Europe and the United States.
Online travel companies like Expedia and Booking.com have also made marketing investments this year, starting with advertisements in the televised broadcast of the upcoming Super Bowl game — votes of confidence that 2022 will be the year of the return of travel.
Also cautiously bullish is Marriott International, which after posting a loss of $267 million in 2020, plans to continue the expansion of its luxury segment internationally with 30 new hotels this year, as well as 14 branded residential projects in cities from New York to Belgrade.
Smaller companies are also optimistic about prospects for the next year. Keith Waldon, founder of Departure Lounge, a Texas-based luxury travel agency, is currently expanding his business, investing in new software and hiring more travel advisers in the United States and Europe to meet increased client demand.
“Our clients were already vaccinated and had their booster shots and then those who got omicron feel particularly confident now that they have super immunity and are ready to get back into travel mode,” Waldon said.
“We’ve had an extraordinary increase in travel requests just this past two weeks that are at the same level or higher than the top parts of 2019,” he continued.
But some experts say the true test will come upon the arrival of the next coronavirus variant.
“The readiness to travel is there and as EU member states are progressively lifting travel restrictions bookings are rising,” said Eric Dresin, the secretary-general of the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association, an organization that represents travel professionals in the European Union and six other countries.
“There might be some progress in the coming weeks, but I am not that confident that some member states will cooperate in the future, especially if a new variant comes about. We will have to wait and see.”