Analysis

The Future of Travel After the Coronavirus Pandemic

Travel and tourism will be changed forever. We asked seven leading thinkers for their predictions.

coronavirus-travel-Brian-Stauffer-illustration-3_2
Brian Stauffer illustration for Foreign Policy
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.
As we enter the first summer of this new era of pandemics, a tenuous easing of travel restrictions has begun. This month, the countries of the European Union will reopen their internal borders, and they plan to allow travel from outside the block some time in July. Singapore and China have begun permitting essential travel between them, but only for passengers who test negative for the coronavirus, use a contact-tracing app, and don’t deviate from their itinerary. Iceland will allow tourists, but it plans to test them for the virus at the airport.

Grounded for many months, airlines are beefing up their summer schedules—though the number of flights will be a fraction of their pre-pandemic frequency. Airports are still mostly ghost towns (some have even been taken over by wildlife), and international long-distance travel is all but dead. Around the globe, the collapse of the tourist economy has bankrupted hotels, restaurants, bus operators, and car rental agencies—and thrown an estimated 100 million people out of work.

With uncertainty and fear hanging over traveling, no one knows how quickly tourism and business travel will recover, whether we will still fly as much, and what the travel experience will look like once new health security measures are in place. One thing is certain: Until then, there will be many more canceled vacations, business trips, weekend getaways, and family reunions.

To look beyond the summer and help us think about how the pandemic will permanently change the way we travel, Foreign Policy asked seven prominent experts to look into their crystal balls.


The Collapse in Travel Will Bring Long-Term Changes

by James Crabtree, associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj.

Just as mass unemployment leaves indelible scars on labor markets, so the current global travel collapse will bring long-term changes to patterns of international movement for both business and pleasure.Countries with strong pandemic records will deploy them as tourism marketing strategies: Discover Taiwan!

Airlines and hoteliers hope nascent “travel bubbles”—small groups of countries reopening borders only among themselves—and “green lanes” for pre-screened travelers, such as those with antibodies showing immunity to COVID-19, will allow a gradual re-opening. They also hope that roughly normal travel will then resume next year. More likely is that a new system of interlocking safe zones will operate for the foreseeable future, or at least until a vaccine is widely deployed.

Travel will normalize more quickly in safe zones that coped well with COVID-19, such as between South Korea and China, or between Germany and Greece. But in poorer developing countries struggling to manage the pandemic, such as India or Indonesia, any recovery will be painfully slow.

All this will change the structure of future global travel. Many will opt not to move around at all, especially the elderly. Tourists who experiment with new locations in their safe zones or home countries will stick to new habits. Countries with strong pandemic records will deploy them as tourism marketing strategies—discover Taiwan! Much the same will be true for business, where ease of travel and a new sense of common destiny within each safe zone will restructure investment along epidemiological lines.


The Pandemic Caused Us to Fast-Forward Into the Future

by Vivek Wadhwa, fellow at Harvard Law School, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and co-author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation, to be published in September.

Over the past month, I’ve spent time with more CEOs than I would meet in a year. They were relaxed, engaged, and attentive. We could brainstorm on ideas for them to reinvent their companies without having gatekeepers or naysayers torpedo the discussions. These were the most productive talks I’ve had with C-level executives—and as you may have guessed, this was all done from the comfort of our homes.Our business meetings, family vacations, and leisure activities will increasingly move into virtual worlds.

Two months ago, it would have been inconceivable to be meeting over Skype or Zoom; now it is the norm. The pandemic caused us to fast-forward ten years into the future and there is no turning back. This is the way a lot of business communications will stay.

We may not realize it, but the videoconferencing technologies we are using are right out of science fiction. Remember the TV series The Jetsons? We now have the videophones that George and Judy used.

The next leap forward will come from virtual reality, which is advancing at breakneck speed and will take us by surprise. Our business meetings, family vacations, and leisure activities will increasingly move into virtual worlds. A trip to Tahiti or Mars, perhaps? The holodecks from Star Trek are on their way.


Travel Could Become Unaffordable for Many

by Elizabeth Becker, the author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.

Overnight, much of the world went from over-tourism to no tourism. Since then, locals have seen how their lives have improved without those insane crowds: clear skies with vistas stretching for miles, a drastic reduction of litter and waste, clean shorelines and canals, and a return of wildlife.Whatever our income level, travel will take a greater slice of our disposable income.

But business after business went broke without those tourists, revealing how much the global economy depends on non-stop travel. The economic devastation will mean far fewer people can afford to travel. Whatever our income level, travel will take a greater slice of our disposable income.

So be prepared for two dramatically different trends.

Some national and local governments will redesign their tourism strategies to keep down crowds, keep more money in the local economy, and enforce local regulations including those protecting the environment. Many health protocols will become permanent.

Other governments will compete for the shrinking tourist dollar by racing to the bottom, allowing the travel industry to regulate itself, using deep discounts to fill hotels and airplanes and revive over-tourism.

Smart travelers will trust places with good governance and health systems. They will take fewer trips and stay longer. They will see this pandemic as a forecast of what’s to come from the climate crisis. They will act like responsible citizens as well as passionate travelers.


The Freedom to Travel Is Vital to the Post-Pandemic Recovery

by Alexandre de Juniac, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and a former CEO of Air France-KLM.

It’s too early for long-term predictions, but when the first travelers return to the skies, they will find measures that have become commonplace adapted to flying: reduced personal contact, enhanced sanitization, temperature checks, and social distancing. And where sufficient distance isn’t possible—onboard aircraft or in airports—masks will be required.Measures that have become commonplace will be adapted to flying: reduced personal contact, enhanced sanitization, temperature checks, and social distancing.

Within days of 9/11—the last great inflection point for aviation—flying resumed securely. But two decades later, we are still ironing out some of the inconsistencies and inefficiencies of security procedures. This time, months of being mostly grounded have given the airline industry more time to plan and prepare.

With the support of IATA and others, the International Civil Aviation Organization developed a global restart plan to keep people safe when traveling. Restart measures will be bearable for those who need to travel, with universal implementation the priority. It will give governments and travelers the confidence that the system has strong biosafety protections. And it should give regulators the confidence to remove or adjust measures in real time as risk levels change and technology advances.

The freedom to travel will be vital to the post-pandemic recovery. My hope is that we will come out of the crisis with a better passenger experience by moving people through airports more efficiently and increasing confidence in health safety. I am optimistic that this will be a winning result for travelers, governments, the airline industry, and the economy.


We Forgot How Fundamental Travel Was to Modern Life

by James Fallows, a staff writer for The Atlantic and the co-author, with Deborah Fallows, of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

Because the process of travel was so routine and often so aggravating, people of the pre-pandemic era rarely concentrated on how fundamental that process—high-volume, high-speed, relatively low-cost human movement—was to the very idea of being modern.What might be lost with a long interruption in easy-connectedness is only now becoming evident.

Students took it for granted that they could aspire to an academic program in a different region, country, or continent—and still go back to visit their families. People who had emigrated permanently, or left their countries for a few years of work or adventure, knew that their homeland was still in relatively quick reach. Children saw their grandparents up close. Families could gather for weddings, births, graduations, funerals. Businesspeople from remote locations went to conventions and conferences to make deals and coordinate plans. The world’s cultural and touristic attractions became open to people from all corners of the globe. For Americans, air travel and international exposure were once such rarities that the now-absurd-sounding term “jet set” actually meant something when it was coined in the 1950s. The commodification of travel allowed people of ordinary means to compose a “bucket list” of sights they wanted to see—and to assume they’d be able to.

Before the lockdown, it was easy to recite all the harm mass travel had done, from the throngs overwhelming Venice or Machu Picchu to the standardization of hotel-and-airport life worldwide. What might be lost with a long interruption in easy-connectedness is only now becoming evident.


There Will Be a Boom in Domestic Travel

by Rolf Potts, the author of four books, including the bestselling travel-philosophy primer Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.

One startling detail about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is that areas with concentrated outbreaks are called hot spots—which is exactly the same phrase the commercial travel industry has used to denote popular and fashionable destinations. This uncomfortable parallel reminds us that travel, in our globalized era, enabled the spread of the virus in a historically unprecedented way.I doubt the desire to go to so-called hot spots or top-ten-list destinations will drive the next wave of travel.

For many people, travel is synonymous with vacations—and that’s fine, but somehow I don’t see vacationers as the model for post-pandemic travel. A constant source of travel headlines in recent years has been tourist overcrowding in places such as Venice and Bali, and I doubt the desire to go to so-called hot spots or top-ten-list destinations will drive the next wave of travel. It will be the desire simply to go, and to figure things out along the journey. Think road trip or backpacking adventure, not package tour.

No doubt the new world of travel will see a boom in domestic travel. Many will go by van or recreational vehicle—and that makes sense, given that one is a lot more self-contained when one travels that way. International travel will also return—and it will be pioneered not just by savvy backpackers and independent travelers going on their own pace and seeing how the journey plays out, but also by working-class folks around the world seeking out family back home, whether that’s in Nigeria, Ecuador, or Poland.


We Will Keep Traveling Because Curiosity Cannot Be Expunged

by Pico Iyer, the author of 15 books that have been translated into 23 languages, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.

For all our good intentions, we are creatures of habit—and of increasingly diminished attention spans. And COVD-19 has reminded us how little we can confidently say about tomorrow, or even tonight. But my suspicion is that, for better and worse, we will be traveling—and living and making predictions—in June 2021 much as we did in June 2019.For better and worse, we will be traveling in June 2021 much as we did in June 2019.

To some extent, we have to. I was obliged to take three flights in the middle of the pandemic, from Osaka to Santa Barbara, where my 88 year-old mother had just emerged from hospital. A few weeks earlier, I had to fly from Japan to California—for a day—for a public event to which I had long been contractually committed. It would be a blessing for the environment if we all traveled less. And anxiety about travel will be greater next season, and prices higher. But globalism, having spread from person to person for so long, cannot be reversed. Cultural curiosity cannot be expunged. My trips to North Korea have shown me what happens when people cannot get to see the world first-hand.