2020 was a year of travel ironies–niche domestic travel markets became mainstream; barren tourist cities demanded fewer visitors return; new airports opened without passengers; and the grounding of everyone helped people with disabilities travel better.
It was the year that the travel industry flipped spectacularly on its head:
Planes flew tons of botox and cheese, not people
Demand for international air travel fell 90% meaning there was less cargo travelling in the bellies of passenger planes. Many airlines such as Delta, American and United started cargo-only flights and some, such as Ethiopian Airlines, even managed to make enough money from transporting cargo to break even.
American Airlines’ vice president of commercial cargo, Roger Samways, told CNN that they had never seen botox “quantities of this nature” being shipped to the U.S. and Chris Busch, United’s managing director of cargo for the Americas, said there was “still plenty of mozzarella coming out of Italy” despite the higher cargo prices.
New airports opened without passengers
Germany’s Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BBA) opened after an eye-watering eight-year delay and coming in at double the original budget because of engineering issues–as reported by Deutsche Welle, 90 kilometres of cables weren’t installed correctly, 4,000 doors had been numbered incorrectly, the escalators were too short and the roof of the airport was twice the allowed weight. Plus the lights literally couldn’t be turned on because of a technical glitch.MORE FOR YOUVirgin Galactic Heading To Space Friday December 11thWhat Jim Simons – One Of The World’s Most Successful Investors – Can Teach Us About FintechHow The Edge Drives Innovation In 3 Major Industries
And when it did open, its vast retail centre didn’t have any customers (Germany had just entered lockdown) and Berliners were invited to come to the airport to not travel–volunteers were needed to help stress-test the airport, to identify any problems before any real passengers arrived.
Traveling became meta
People began taking day trips to stare at cruise ships which were moored outside ports around the world, including in the English Channel, during an international no sail ban.
And on land, inactive airports became the fascination, like Teruel in southern Spain, which grew in size as crew began parking the hundreds of planes turning up because they had nowhere else to go.
Mobility issues improved for disabled passengers
Whilst traveling can be challenging for people suffering from specific conditions, there have been some positive outcomes from the pandemic. Condé Nast reported on how the flexible cancellation policies now in place are a game changer for people suffering from degenerative illnesses, where symptoms can sometimes be so severe and so sudden, that people cannot travel at a moment’s notice.
The need for physical distancing means that more doors are being programmed to open automatically and more contactless check in systems help people with slurred speech or those without full use of their arms (the latter has incidentally hindered deaflbind people who rely on touch to navigate). It goes without saying that reduced passenger numbers have resulted in more space between people, helping people to move around better with canes or mobility vehicles.
The travel underdog became king
River cruises, camping and RVs gained ground, moving from niche markets to the most in demand. Peer-to-peer RV rental company RVshare has seen a large rise in bookings–80% of its rentals have been to first-timers. Getaway, a company that offers socially distanced cabins–another pre-pandemic niche–had a 260% increase in bookings in May and June. Pitchup.com, which offers campers access to over 6,000 campsites in the EU and the U.S. reported that bookings for summer 2021 are already up by 500%. River cruising even became something to crave; the epitome of simple, slow, safe travel.
But the newly arriving tourists into these sectors changed the market, not the other way around–demanding better food options (sites began offering food trucks, people arrived with pizza ovens) and better creature comforts (pitches with electricity were essential, inflatable tent and sleeping bag sales boomed).
It wasn’t surprising; throughout 2019, glamping holidays had already risen in prominence, accounting for 60% of the camping market in EU countries. People had already started wanting the wilderness–but with added creature comforts–and the pandemic simply accelerated the change, particularly when people realised they could pack more into an RV.
Less air travel messed with the weather
There were some unexpected side-effects of less people flying around in the air; it became more difficult to track weather patterns and forecasts. Since 1998, an automated process has been using aircraft to gather 700,000 observations of air temperature and wind speed and direction on any given day–when planes are flying.
In April, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts reported an 80% drop in meteorological readings due to the lack of commercial flights in the air. By October, The New York Times reported that whilst data from aircraft had increased in recent months as air travel picked up, it was still considerably less than pre-pandemic months.
People couldn’t view islands they wanted to buy
As everyone yearned for social isolation, secluded islands became the new must-have. Millionaires hunted down luxurious atolls, overwhelming island brokers, as reported in The New York Times, but there was also renewed interest in islands available to the everyman–some with a more approachable price tag of $80,000.
The snag? It can be tricky to view an island in the middle of a pandemic (the sanitary reasons, the quarantine) and it’s even harder to settle in.
European tourist cities voted for fewer visitors
As reported by Condé Nast, cities from Vilnius to Athens, Brisbane to Bogotá, Paris to Prague have pedestrianized during the pandemic, reshaping policies towards sustainable tourism, turning to students to rent properties rather than tourists.
As reported by The New York Times, Venetians had long been calling for changes to the tourist regulations in a city literally sinking under the weight of its visitors. Many saw the pandemic as a way to reshape the tourist industry and campaigners had cause to celebrate in August, as some cruise ships abandoned Venice’s Grand canal as a departure point and replaced it with Trieste and Genoa for future trips. But it’s hard to replace the 1.6 million disembarking visitors each year and the city of 50,000 residents will struggle to fill their Airbnb rooms.
The same is true of Barcelona’s groups who once wrote “Tourists Go Home” on the city walls and are now worried about an expected 15% cull in businesses and the closure of 25% of its restaurants.
Some travel companies decided not to travel
Many travel companies, finding it difficult to stay financially afloat, struggled to take bookings. Others, like Trafalgar, actively took a ‘Do Not Travel’ stance, asking all travelers to “take active, personal responsibility for our impact on our shared world.”
Travel became the biggest hot potato
The year has been defined by arbitrary travel deadlines and people negotiating wiggle room around them. No flights? Take the bus. The ferry isn’t allowing foot passengers? Take the Eurostar across the Channel. Quarantine starts on Saturday? Arrive Friday.
In late October, The Cut talked about Americans who were still traveling internationally, navigating travel bans, quarantines and ever-changing travel restrictions. Some travelers went further, using loopholes to head to Alaska to get through the closed U.S.—Canadian border or traveling to France via an ‘in transit’ U.K. loophole.
Whilst some argued that traveling was putting people at risk, others argued they were supporting the beleaguered restaurant, travel and hospitality industries, which was reported to be losing $3 billion each week in the U.S., according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Not to mention the British corner shops, the French tabacs, the stores at train stations, the kiosks. National Geographic made clear that it was the only reason many Caribbean islands opened up to American tourists and much later, Africa and south America; the risk of losing peak tourist season would be too economically severe.
As people learned to navigate the travel roulette, the question of if people could travel became replaced by a bigger one, should they? As Fourth of July and Thanksgiving roadways turned into Covid-19 highways, the camp of civil liberties clashed violently with those arguing for the protection of public health. Heading into Christmas, the issue of travel shaming and blaming really just comes down to a person’s individual risk tolerance.