What?! International Travel May Not Resume Until WHEN?!

Shortly after coronavirus restrictions closed international borders last spring, I asked a dozen travel experts on when those borders might reopen. The immediate answer was discouraging: sometime in 2021 at the earliest. Many of those same experts accurately predicted, however, that domestic borders would reopen this summer and fall, which is exactly what happened.

So how have travel forecasts changed over the last half-year, if at all? Are there any silver linings or is there any good news on the horizon for those hoping to travel as we did in the past? And what will it take to regain access to the places we lost this year?

While there’s no easy answer to those questions, this is what many of those same experts say now: Everything is subject to change in this hesitant, inconsistent new world.

International Trips by 2024?!

While Americans can technically travel to dozens of countries now, all but a few require 14-day mandatory quarantines, negative COVID tests upon arrival, special insurance or visas, or other legal hoops that make it difficult to freely enter.

In fact, at the time of this writing, there are only seven countries that currently allow Americans to easily enter with nothing more than a simple temperature check, declaration of health, or traditional visa (Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Turkey, Zambia, Belarus, and Albania). At the start of 2020, that number was upwards of 200.

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So when will most of those borders reopen in a realistic, non-prohibitive way? After speaking with dozens of travel experts, agents, and tourism officials recently, the most optimistic ones predict Summer 2021 as the earliest for some (but not all) countries. The most pessimistic ones, including several airline CEOs, grimly predict that international travel won’t return to previous levels until 2023 at the earliest, if not later.

“Travel, as we knew it in 2019, will likely not reappear for several years—perhaps not until 2024,” says Mark Romig, chief marketing officer of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. “Based on the most recent reports, I think we all should prepare ourselves for a long, slow but steady recovery with a lot of masks and social distancing through next year.”

If the truth lies somewhere in between, as it often does, the smart money might be 2022 for that next big trip to the widest number of available countries with little to no mask-wearing or social-distancing measures in place. “Based on my clients, I believe we’re looking at 2022 for European vacations,” says Carol Kent, a travel agent that specializes in yacht charters. “In the meantime, it’s smart to plan ahead and keep the love of travel going.”

“Like Vacationing in a Hospital”

As international travel sorts itself out, the good news is domestic travel is bustling again. It might not be booming, but flights are increasing and domestic staycations, road trips, beach getaways, and appreciation for the great outdoors are nearing all-time highs.

Even some of America’s most beloved tourist cities are crawling back to life. “Charleston’s occupancy has increased 40% from the low point and our beach communities have been leading this demand,” says Halsey Ash of Explore Charleston, one of the nation’s most popular tourism destinations. New Orleans, too, is seeing similar rates, says Romig. While some cities, notably New York, are still thawing slowly, it’s not unreasonable to expect a healthy domestic recovery by next year.

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The problem—whether traveling domestically or internationally—is the number of mixed messages prospective travelers are getting from governments, health officials, and even everyday signals of daily life. That is: are we in a state of emergency (i.e. ongoing pandemic) or not? Am I still supposed to be staying home and staying safe or am I free to travel in a state of emergency?

“As long as people are worried about contracting the virus, bothered by having to wear masks and deal with longer wait times due to lower occupancy rules, I think that a lot of people will be hesitant on spending their money on half the experience,” says Bob DiMenna, a travel podcaster from New York.

So long as there is disagreement or mixed messages to those answers, we’ll never know for sure. That in turn rattles people’s confidence in travel, even as domestic and international destinations begin to welcome them again with open, albeit restrictive arms.

One veteran Disney Parks designer recently described this phenomenon when he said, “You can’t treat people like they are in a hospital.” Although well-intentioned, both masks and social distancing create “a death spiral for the travel industry,” he says, which has already laid off millions in America, with tens of thousands more expected this fall from Disney alone, not to mention additional airline layoffs.

In other words, if something doesn’t look or feel like fun, a sizable amount of the population will be turned off from it and likely stay home.

Steps to Recovery

Make no mistake, Americans want to travel the world again. “During the month of August, searches for international travel were only 6% less than the monthly average for all 2019,” says Mark Crossey, a U.S. travel analyst at Skyscanner. “This reflects the pent-up wanderlust that we all know is out there.”

But whether for health reasons, financial uncertainty, off-putting safety measures, or general confusion on when and how to restart travel, most people still aren’t booking. This is especially true of business travelers, which are a huge boon to travel in general and a necessary part for healthy airline, hospitality, and even attraction industries.

“Airlines are still reporting 75% declines in overall traffic,” reports Scott Leazenby, a full-time travel blogger. “It’s not as bad as when it first started, but airlines won’t be healthy again until business travelers return.” And it’s scary to think how long that will take, he says, especially considering how well video conferencing works for businesses.

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What’s more, full recovery will likely take longer than expected as different people start accelerating at different times, much like the last time you waited forever behind a long line of cars, well after the signal light turned green. “Just because the virus starts to slow doesn’t mean borders will instantly open up,” says Alex Miller, a travel blogger from Texas. “The day after a vaccine is released won’t make it any safer than the day before.” It’s going to take time to restart all of that, not to mention rebuild flight routes and rehire the many people that have lost jobs over the last half-year.

For better or worse, we pushed the emergency brake on a massive machine. It’s going to require a lot of patience, resilience, and adaptability to restart that engine. Thankfully, this industry has a knack for seeing things through. “It’s not in our nature to give up so easily,” says Alex Ziselman, a travel advisor from New York. That’s one of the defining traits of people who regularly cross borders and put up with disorienting situations in search of new experiences.

Before coronavirus, most people agreed that travel was worthwhile. Nowadays, many people are hesitant, even as tourism officials assure them of additional safety measures and/or plead with them to behave in ways that might not seem like fun to a sizable portion of the population. But one thing is for sure: neither travel nor society will return to 2019 levels until everyone is on the same page again.

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