Coronavirus: Will the COVID-19 crisis be a long-term boost for domestic travel?
When the world ground to a virtual standstill in May due to coronavirus lockdowns, international tourist numbers collapsed by 98 per cent compared to 2019, according to new figures from the World Tourism Organization.
Across the European Union, holiday plans were shattered and tourism plummeted, as countries hurriedly closed their borders in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The shutdowns have cost economies dearly, but a new Dailyrater poll carried out by Redfield & Wilton Strategies shows many Europeans agree that it was the right thing to do. And most respondents in all four countries surveyed – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – now plan to spend their summer holidays at home or travelling within their own country.
"It's impossible to say how long this period might last. Certainly, this year is not going to be anything close to normal in terms of travel," said Rosie Spinks, tourism editor at travel industry publication Skift in London.
According to our poll, the Germans were those most intent on going abroad for their holidays before the pandemic, and more than two-thirds of Italians, French and Spaniards had some kind of travel plan, whether abroad or domestically.
Now 61 per cent of Germans say they aren't going anywhere, and a similar proportion in Spain are staying put. The Italians and French are slightly more adventurous, but more than half of them have no travel plans whatsoever. In all four countries, only between 8% (for Spain) and 15% (for Germany) of respondents are planning on going abroad.
Beyond the fear of falling ill in a foreign country, there’s a growing concern for those who do plan to travel that they may face mandatory quarantine when they return home, as already ordered by the UK and Norway on travellers coming from Spain.
While the tourism industry is reeling all around the world, some nations might be able to somewhat offset the loss of foreign tourists by a surge in domestic tourism.
Spinks says France, Italy and Germany are at an advantage here. They’re nations with a high appetite for travel and a more comfortable income to do so, compared to less wealthy countries like Montenegro whose economies depend heavily on foreign tourists and will be hit especially hard.
Foggy future of international travel
So might we see a long-term shift towards domestic travel and away from international holidays?
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the airline industry, has warned it doesn’t expect the sector to recover to its pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
Passenger traffic was down more than 86% in June from the same month a year ago, following a drop of 91% in May, according to IATA.
"I think certainly the appetite to change travel overseas is going to come back when it's safe. I don't really have much question about that," said Spinks.
However, she expects the pandemic to leave "a sort of psychological legacy" in the minds of holidaymakers.
"Before the shutdown in March, no one really thought it was possible for a person from a country in Western Europe to get stuck abroad," she explained.
Yet thousands of travellers found themselves scrambling to find a last-minute flight home – sometimes at sky-high rates – or seeking repatriation via their embassy. The European Commission says nearly 600,000 EU citizens have been brought home throughout the pandemic thanks to consular cooperation.
"I do wonder if the memory of that (…) may leave this sense that travel is a little less seamless than perhaps we thought it was," Spinks said.