This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we will experience the world after the pandemic.
Over the past decades, the world has felt more and more accessible. In the 1990s, led by RyanAir and EasyJet, low cost airlines began to turn second tier airports into jumping off points for cheap global explorations. The 2000s marked the beginning of the era of points and miles credit cards, turning road warriors on the job into world-famous jetsetters. In 2008, Airbnb was launched, allowing travelers to “belong anywhere” while sleeping affordably in residents’ homes. And then Instagram arrived, followed by selfie stick-wielding influencers who obsessively charted the world’s most beautiful coves, peaks, villages and beaches, inviting others to follow.
In December 2019, if you had time and disposable income, the hidden corners of the world were more or less available to you, for better or for worse. Travelers can bring cash and fresh energy to a destination, but they can also love it to death, as places like Venice and Machu Picchu know too well.
Everything changed, of course, last year when the world closed. Air travel has fallen by 60% globally, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. The hotel occupancy rate in the United States was down 33% from 2019. International tourist arrivals worldwide, which reached 1.5 billion in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, fell 74% to just 381 million. The organization estimates the loss of international tourism revenue from COVID-19 at $ 1.3 trillion, directly jeopardizing up to 120 million tourism jobs – and a large number of side jobs. When the world stops traveling, the repercussions are enormous.
As vaccinations roll around in the United States and other parts of the world, Americans are about to start traveling again. But, as we explore in this package, how we travel and where we go will not be the same. And the places we visit will be inexorably changed.
The idea of digital nomadism – creating a virtual office from anywhere – has been popular in the busiest corners of the travel world for the past decade. But when offices closed last year, the pipe dream became a possibility for many. After suffering from a spring that CEO Brian Chesky described Fast company With editor Benjamin Landy driving 160 km / h and then braking (“There’s no sure way to do it. Things are going to break”), Airbnb looked into the types of rustic retreats and longer term stays that appeal to new nomads. It ended the year with a record IPO that made it the most valuable hotel company in the world. Chesky now sees global nomadism – a world where people can work from any home – as the key to the future.
He is not alone. Destinations from Estonia to Barbados have introduced long-term travel visas to attract newly distant workers and revive local economies that have decimated without traditional tourism. Hotel companies are also embracing nomads by introducing new long-stay properties and products for travelers who want to treat hotels more like homes. The trend is likely to continue. According to a Fast Company-Harris poll of 1,105 people across a range of income brackets, 57% of people plan to travel out of town while working remotely when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
When international borders were closed, domestic travel was also in the spotlight. For Americans, this has translated into a renewed – or perhaps entirely new – interest in the great outdoors. In North America, there were five times more first-time campers last year than the year before, according to the private camping company KOA. Indeed, one of the few bright spots in the travel industry over the past year has been the businesses focused on camping and glamping. Camping reservation platform Hipcamp has become a boon for landowners who list their properties on the site, while startups #vanlife Cabana and Kibbo have found ground in the midst of the crisis. And Go away, a hotel company that rents cabins in the woods outside major metropolitan areas, said an occupancy rate of 99% in 2020, an unheard of rate for most hotels, even in the best of circumstances. Fast company Senior editor Elizabeth Segran, who has spent time in Getaways throughout the pandemic, offers a glimpse into the allure of these tiny booths without Wi-Fi.
The fate of certain types of travel remains uncertain. Industry watchers are optimistic that business travel will return in one form or another, despite Bill Gates’ prediction last November, more than 50% of these trips will be eliminated in the post-pandemic world. But as my colleague Kristin Toussaint reports, companies are taking this opportunity to reassess the way they deploy workers, as well as the financial and carbon footprint of business travel. Before the pandemic, carbon emissions from aviation, although only 2% of overall global emissions, were increasing faster than the United Nations predicted: by 23% between 2013 and 2018. A 2020 study found that 50% of these emissions are concentrated on just 1% of the world’s population: super travelers, which includes many road warriors.
Perhaps the most pressing question mark of all hangs over those more remote destinations that have traditionally relied almost exclusively on international travel: places like Peru, Kenya, Fiji and Thailand. Although many international borders are now open to Americans, the US State Department Notice not to travel for 80% of the world’s countries, most due to the continued spread of COVID-19 – and lack of vaccine penetration – in these regions.
Destinations fortunate enough to have the kind of natural beauty that draws high-spending travelers from around the world now use fumes economically. The Indonesian island of Bali, in particular, derives around 53% of its income from tourism, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. By the second quarter of 2020, 90% of the island’s tours and travel providers had closed, and many hotels that remained open were operating at less than 10% occupancy. The ripple effects were profound: unemployment and a return to subsistence farming on an island that had previously promised upward mobility.
Indonesia’s borders remain closed, although the country plans to allow international travelers to Bali by the end of July. Many hotel general managers remain skeptical about a significant return of international visitors until 2022.
International travelers will inevitably return to Bali and the rest of the world. We’ll get back on planes, sleep in hotels and other people’s homes, mingle with locals in restaurants and bars. We will accumulate our points and miles and post our adventures on social media.
But we’ll never see the world the same way again.