As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions and shift their approach to accepting COVID-19 as a manageable part of everyday life, the travel industry is growing hopeful that this will be the year that travel comes roaring back.
Travel agents and operators have reported a significant increase in bookings in recent weeks for the spring and summer seasons. The World Travel & Tourism Council, or WTTC, which represents the global travel and tourism industry, projects that travel and tourism in the United States will reach pre-pandemic levels in 2022, contributing nearly US$2 trillion to the US economy. The council also anticipates outbound travel from the United States will increase; it projects bookings over the Easter holiday period to be up by 130 per cent over last year.
“Our latest forecast shows the recovery significantly picking up this year as infection rates subside and travelers continue benefiting from the protection offered by the vaccine and boosters,” said Julia Simpson, president and CEO of the WTTC. “As travel restrictions ease and consumer confidence returns, we expect a welcome release of pent-up travel and demand.”
While uncertainty remains over the course of the pandemic and government policies on mask mandates and testing requirements for travel, the industry is seeing a strong desire among travelers to take big bucket list trips this year, particularly to far-flung international destinations and European cities.
“Travel is no longer just about ‘going somewhere’,” said Christie Hudson, a senior public relations manager for Expedia. “Coming out of such a long period of constraints and limitations, 2022 will be the year we wring every bit of richness and meaning out of our experiences.”
Here are some of the trends you can expect to see.
AIR TRAVEL: FEWER RESTRICTIONS, BUT MASKS STAY ON
Flying in 2022 looks poised to be much like flying in 2021: Reminiscent of pre-pandemic normal at times, infuriating at others. A primary difference is that there will be more people on planes and in airports – 150 per cent as many passengers are expected to fly this year as did last year, according to The International Air Transport Association, which represents nearly 300 airlines.
In terms of where you can fly, you’ll have more options than last year. Destinations that have long been closed to most travelers, including Australia, the Philippines and Bali, have started reopening. Airlines have been gradually adding back old routes and expanding with new ones. In the spring, American Airlines, for example, plans to add six new routes from Boston. JetBlue will soon fly direct from New York City’s John F Kennedy International Airport to Kansas City and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, among other locations.
You’ll still need to check the latest entry requirements before flying internationally. There are currently more than 100,000 health and travel restrictions in place, according to Meghan Benton, a research director at the Migration Policy Institute, which tracks them. Though that’s around the same number as a year ago, she noted, there has been a move away from quarantines and outright bans of non-essential visitors toward vaccination and testing requirements. Recently, a growing number of destinations, including Britain, have also reconsidered the merits of entry testing.
That flight for a summer getaway could cost less than it did before the pandemic. Fares are down 18 per cent from 2019, according to Airlines for America, which represents seven major airlines. In January, the cost of international airfares purchased hit an all-time low since Hopper, a booking app, began tracking them in 2014. Predicting whether, when and where they will rise is harder than it was before the pandemic, however, as new variants, evolving health threats, travel restrictions and pandemic psychology have upended traditional pricing patterns. Fortunately, most airlines are continuing to waive flight change fees on all but basic economy flights, said Brett Snyder, the founder of Cranky Flier, an airline industry site.
When flying in the United States, everyone will need to wear a mask until at least late March. That’s when the federal mask mandate is set to expire. It has been extended before and could be extended again. Dr Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, is among those who have said that masks on planes should be here to stay. Gary Leff, who writes about air travel for View from the Wing, a site focused on air travel, said he agrees with the betting markets, which predict that the mask mandate will go away by the November mid-term elections. Regardless, there will be more alcohol in the air. On Feb 16, Southwest will serve drinks for the first time in two years.
LODGING: HOTELS FIGHT BACK, SOMETIMES WITH ROBOTS
This may be the year travellers return to hotels. In a report for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Oxford Economics, an economic forecasting company, expects total bookings to nearly equal 2019 stays, though a significant source of revenue – more than roughly US$48 billion spent before the pandemic on food and drink, meeting spaces and more – will largely remain missing, given the continued slump in business meetings and group events.
Leisure travellers have kept the industry afloat and in certain areas – especially mountain and coastal destinations – vacation business is booming. With record demand, rates rose at escapist resorts like the Chebeague Island Inn in Maine even in the traditional offseason months.
Now, corporate lodging specialists like Level Hotels & Furnished Suites, which has high-rise apartments in four cities including Seattle, are going after leisure travellers, touting amenities like fitness centres. And why not? During the pandemic, many travellers discovered the privacy offered by rental residences. According to AirDNA, which analyses the short-term rental market, vacation home bookings were up between 30 per cent and 60 per cent in small cities and resort destinations compared with 2019, though big-city rentals are down about 25 per cent.
Urban hotels hope to compete for digital nomads by adding stylish extended-stay properties, social attractions and better work spaces. Denver’s Catbird hotel offers ergonomic studios with kitchenettes, plus a rooftop bar and rental gear, including scooters, ukuleles and air fryers. The Hoxton chain’s Working From co-working spaces are attached to its hotels in Chicago and London.
Adapting to lean times, many hotels have outsourced operations beyond laundry and landscaping, into food and recreational services. The new app-based service Breeze works with hotels to provide room service either from on-site restaurants or neighbouring ones.
The pandemic has also hastened the adoption of automation in hotels – such as keyless check-in, digital staff communication and room delivery by robots – as a cost-effective response to the labor shortage. “High tech is the new high touch,” said Chekitan Dev, the Singapore tourism distinguished professor of marketing and management at Cornell University’s hotel school.
Hotel sustainability initiatives look to go further than “towel-washing optional” offers.
Hilton plans to introduce what it says is the country’s first net-zero hotel this year with the solar-powered Hotel Marcel New Haven, Tapestry Collection in New Haven, Connecticut. SCP Hotels, which operates seven hotels around the country, aims to go zero-waste in 2022.
The industry’s focus on leisure travelers may inspire new diversions. A hotel that can no longer afford to employ 50 servers in its events department might use the space to hold a yoga class or a talk by a local designer, according to Vikram Singh, an independent hotel consultant. “These are the experiences people remember more than whether the pillow was soft,” he said.
RENTAL CARS: STILL PRICEY AND HARD TO GET
This time last year, Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, an online service that makes and tracks discount car rentals, noticed that rental vehicles were unexpectedly scarce and overpriced for the mid-February Presidents Day break, an early indication of the post-vaccine travel rebound.
In 2022, it’s looking worse. A Feb 1 search in Phoenix for the upcoming holiday weekend showed all the major car rental companies were sold out and just two smaller agencies, Sixt and Nu, had cars, starting at US$130 a day, more than twice what they might have been pre-pandemic.
“Even last year, we didn’t see inventory this tight until a week or so out,” Weinberg said.
It’s possible that consumers have heeded the advice to book cars early after last year’s shortages. But rental agencies still haven’t been able to expand their fleets – thanks largely to slowdowns in automotive manufacturing – and the anticipated return of travel after omicron suggests more car trouble ahead.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to improve at all in the next year,” said Mike Taylor, the senior travel analyst at J D Power, a market research company, noting that in addition to higher prices, renters may be getting older cars with high mileage. According to the travel search engine Kayak, rental car rates last summer peaked in July at a national average of US$119 a day. Currently, the national average is about US$66, or 27 per cent higher than last year at this time, and a 41 per cent increase over 2019 for the same period. Searches have more than doubled compared with this time last year.
“Road-tripping is a more predictable way of travel these days, where you can avoid crowds and unexpected delays,” said Matt Clarke, the vice president of North American marketing for Kayak, which recently added search results from car-sharing sites like Turo and Kyte.
Such alternatives may have benefited from the rental car crunch. In the first nine months of 2021, revenue at Turo grew more than 200per cent, compared with the same period in 2020, according to a recent filing to go public.
“For many travellers, Turo was the least crazy option from a price standpoint,” said Turo’s CEO Andre Haddad.
For now, car-sharing sites are better bets for finding electric vehicles, although Hertz announced in the fall that it would have 100,000 EVs by the end of this year. At Turo, EV listings have grown from about 200 in 2014 to more than 27,000 in 2021.
“We’re already seeing activity for March and April, and that is not normal,” said Ryan Hagler, a Maui, Hawaii, resident who uses Turo to rent 10 vehicles, including six Teslas, which start around US$80 a day. “I’m assuming it’s going to be pretty busy this year.”
DESTINATIONS: CITIES ARE BACK
This March, Virginia Devlin of Chicago is headed to New York City with her daughter, a musical theater student, to celebrate two years’ worth of missed birthday trips. They’ll see Broadway shows and visit Chinatown for dim sum. Tracy Lippes, of Short Hills, New Jersey, is ready to go to Paris. “I can’t wait to stay in a beautiful hotel, shop, visit museums and eat at great restaurants,” Lippes said of her March trip. Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney in Memphis, Tennessee, is thrilled to have an in-person conference in London next month, and plans to arrive a few days early to enjoy the city with his adult daughters.
Yes, city travel is back. After more than two years of avoiding urban centers, travelers are eager to return to their favorite metropolis and swan dive into the sights, bites and sounds of a city that is not their own.
“It was a lift to everyone when the UK dumped COVID mandates on Jan 26,” said Henley Vazquez, a co-founder of FORA, a travel agency in New York City. “Bookings are spiking for classic European destinations, particularly Paris and London. Clients want to reconnect with special hotels and restaurants and simply bask in the culture.” In the United States, Shawna Owen, the president of Huffman Travel, a Chicago-based agency that specializes in luxury and family travel, is planning long weekend trips to New York City. “New York is buzzing again and clients are excited to dine at hot spots and enjoy the city’s dynamism.”
Underscoring the New York-is-back trend, travel booking site Skyscanner reports that New York City is its top booked domestic destination so far in 2022 and online travel agency Expedia has had a 13 per cent increase in searches for New York City.
As for Europe, Paris and London are the top searched international destinations on Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that tracks flight deals. Hotel searches on Expedia jumped 62 per cent for London and 51 per cent for Paris since Jan 1, and the mobile app Hopper reports that London and Paris clock in as two of the most searched international destinations for spring 2022.
With restrictions easing, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts reported an 80 per cent increase in its bookings in Paris, London and New York from December to Jan 16.
In London, the luxury travel outfit, Noteworthy, has seen bookings of its private tours to iconic British sites increase 145per cent in February over the same time in 2021. “The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee has definitely been a tourist draw,” said Nicola Butler, the company’s owner and managing director.
RESORTS: ALL-INCLUSIVES, BEYOND THE BEACH
A new breed of domestic resort is pioneering an almost all-inclusive model, taking the guesswork out of where to eat and what to do. Why “almost?” These properties don’t include alcoholic beverages in their nightly rate, and, perhaps fittingly, boast enviable wine and spirits collections. A major catalyst for the trend: Pandemic-scarred travellers wary of leaving the grounds of a resort once they arrive, according to Erina Pindar, the managing director of SmartFlyer, a luxury travel agency. “The almost all-inclusive is incredibly popular,” she said, “we expect demand to continue to be strong.”
Hotels.com reports that searches for this type of resort have increased significantly compared with the same time frame in 2019. “After the stress of the last few years,” said Mel Dohmen, a Hotels.com spokesperson, “travellers are looking for stays where they can be doted on.”
“Our clients see these resorts as a hassle-free option,” said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of the travel agency VIP Vacations. The San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, California, long beloved by luminaries like Winston Churchill and Vivien Leigh, pivoted to an almost-all inclusive model in 2020. In addition to folding the cost of meals into the nightly rate, which starts at US$2,495, it did away with extraneous charges like resort fees and parking. “We figured, with all the charges we’ve gotten rid of, what are people going to spend money on? Wine,” said Ian Williams, the Ranch’s general manager. “We’ve had no complaints. This past year has been our busiest ever.”
Given the complications caused by the pandemic, Williams and his team sought to streamline the travel process. “We want guests to check out and spend their trip home talking about what an amazing vacation they had,” he said, “not some miscellaneous charge on their bill.”
Beachside buffets and watered down margaritas might rule at the traditional all-inclusive; not at the Ranch. “Every guest, if they want the Wagyu for dinner, fine,” said Williams. “Caviar? Great. Maine lobster? No problem.”
When High Hampton, a Cashiers, North Carolina, resort that dates back to 1933, remodeled in 2020, it folded breakfast and dinner into its nightly rate, which starts at US$595, “because it removes that pressure of where to dine next,” said Scott Greene, the resort’s general manager. (The amber-lit, oak-paneled dining room is always the right answer.)
The same logic has long been in place at Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain, two resorts in Walland, Tennessee. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the nightly rate – US$845 and up at the Farm, US$1,395 and up at the Mountain – along with all the snacks in the minibar. “We’re exceeding pre-pandemic occupancy,” said Matt Alexander, Blackberry’s president. SmartFlyer saw a 327 per cent increase in revenue from bookings at the two properties in 2021 compared with 2019.
WELLNESS: SEXUAL HEALING
Sexual wellness is one of the fastest growing corners of the global wellness industry, with travel increasingly part of the experience. More hotel brands and relationship therapists are offering couples retreats and beachfront sessions with intimacy coaches and guided anatomical explorations to meet the needs of travelers seeking greater couple satisfaction and personal pleasure.
“People still have stigma around couples therapy and coming to therapy, but nobody ever had a problem going on vacation,” said Marissa Nelson, a sex therapist who runs retreats in Barbados, Hawaii, St. Lucia and Washington, DC, through her company IntimacyMoons (seven days in St. Lucia starts at US$7,500). She also offers virtual sessions; even when retreats were shut down in 2020, she noticed couples were traveling – to Airbnbs or on road trips – before logging on to work with her.
Travel is a powerful tool for unlocking intimacy, said Shlomo Slatkin, a rabbi and certified relationship therapist. His company, The Marriage Restoration Project, focuses on married couples. In the past year, in response to a growing demand to combine therapy and travel, he has introduced his first destination retreats — which cost between US$4,000 and US$5,000 and take place in Costa Rica, Mexico and Miami.
“Going away is really powerful, because changing the relationship requires a paradigm shift,” he said. “The lockdowns brought out a lot of maintenance issues in relationships that need to be addressed.” Tara Skubella, a tantric guide, works with both couples and single women. Tantra, a spiritual philosophy with roots in medieval India, includes practices like tantric sex, and Skubella offers services, including chakra work, which focuses on energy points in the body. Her retreats in Costa Rica and Colorado (starting at US$499) have been mostly sold out since 2020, she said.
“It seems very aligned to COVID and breaking out of isolation,” she said. “Society is realising tantra isn’t only about sex, but about inner connection and healing.”
In March, hotelier St Regis will launch a retreat with sex coach Bibi Brzozka on intimacy, conscious sexuality and emotional awareness at the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in Mexico (US$2,680). In April, Six Senses Ibiza will host Pleasure Principles – Journey of Women’s Sexual Wellness, a six-night stay focusing on female sexual empowerment (US$4,500). They are the first sexuality-focused retreats for both brands.
FAMILY TRAVEL: GOING ON THE EDU-CATION
After two years of quarantines and classroom closures, millions of children across the country have fallen behind in class. And parents, eager for lesson plans that can supplement learning, are now seeking experiences with an educational bent when they travel.
“Previously, families didn’t ask in advance about what educational activities are available at the resorts. Now they do,” said Chitra Stern, founder and CEO of the family-friendly Martinhal resorts in Portugal. Nearly half of her new bookings, Stern said, now include questions about on-site educational opportunities for children. Last year, the luxury resorts began partnering with the United Lisbon International School to offer a two-week educational summer camp for its younger guests at Martinhal Lisbon. Courses, which are available for children ages three to 17, begin at 440 euros (around US$500).
After a pandemic dip, enrollments are on the rise for family-learning itineraries with tour operator Road Scholar, which produces educational travel programs for all ages. Options for children and their caregivers, which start at US$699 per adult and US$449 per child, include combining history and geography with spotting grizzlies in the Canadian Rockies, or learning French while taking a scavenger hunt through Paris’ Louvre.
And noting an uptick in children road tripping with their parents, the Colorado Tourism Office last summer launched Schoolcations, a series of free itineraries based on Colorado road trips and designed for grades K-5. There are also more opportunities to learn back at the hotel. Family Coppola Hideaways — a group of retreats owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola — now offers the Coppola Curriculum at its properties in Belize and Guatemala. Half-day lessons cost US$150 per day for children and include courses in science (like counting bird species) and art (like local textile looming). In Florida, Isla Bella Beach Resort and Oceans Edge Resort & Marina now partner with Marine Science Camp for classes with marine scientists, geared to elementary school children (free for hotel guests). In California, attendance at the Artisans in Residence programme at Carmel Valley Ranch – taught in the apiary, organic garden and goat creamery, and starting at US$85 for adults and US$65 for children – has doubled.
For some, a desire for extra credit also means going for an extra splurge. At luxury travel agency Black Tomato, bucket-list family travel now accounts for 55 per cent of bookings, with the majority of requests falling into what the company defines as BFG travel: Big Family Get-Togethers. So the company has rolled out a family-focused education track, Field Trip, which begins at around US$5,800 per person; courses include a physics lesson at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland and a social studies-focused hike through Bhutan’s Gangtey Valley to meet a revered monk.
“Thematically, for 2022 family bookings, it’s all about intrepid adventure mixed with cultural immersion, ecological outdoor experiences, intrepid luxury hotels and even pop-up glamping setups – definitely bucket-list and remote,” said Tom Marchant, Black Tomato’s owner and co-founder.
CRUISES: SMALLER BOATS AND LUXURY DESTINATIONS
After two years of devastating losses and a tentative restart last June, the cruise industry has faced a challenging start to 2022, as the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus caused cases to surge onboard ships, forcing some cruise lines to cancel voyages and change itineraries.
But demand for future cruises is still high, especially among dedicated cruise fans. A recent survey on cruiser sentiment by online review site Cruise Critic found that 52 per cent of the 6,400 cruisers surveyed were currently looking to book a cruise, with 40 per cent hoping to set sail in the next six months.
A 2022 report on the outlook for the industry, published in January by the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group, highlighted how major companies are bouncing back from the pandemic despite recent hurdles.
More than 75 per cent of CLIA member ships have returned to service, with 100 per cent expected to restart operations by August. Additionally, 16 new cruise ships from major lines like Carnival, MSC, Royal Caribbean and Disney will launch in 2022.
One of the biggest cruise trends for 2022 is luxury expedition voyages, appealing to a growing number of travelers throughout the pandemic because they typically sail on smaller ships and steer away from crowded destinations.
“The itineraries vary pretty significantly from those of the larger, more mainstream lines,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. “Due to their size, luxury ships are able to sail to more remote destinations – so even if you’re sailing in the Caribbean, your ports of call will likely be further removed from the masses, and likely somewhere you might have never been before.”
Smaller river and expedition cruises are also expected to become more popular this year as cruisers seek out big bucket-list destinations and more sustainable ways to travel. Responding to the demand, Hurtigruten, a Norwegian line that specialises in expedition cruises, has added new itineraries to its Galápagos Islands excursions, offering a range of small-ship carbon-neutral expedition sailings that will cover the full span of the remote 19-island archipelago. “A very positive trend we’ve seen throughout the pandemic is that travellers are increasingly eco-conscious; meaning they do their homework on brands, including cruise ships, to make sure they align with their personal values.” said Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten Group.
The company is also expanding its grand expedition cruise programme, offering three unique cruises from the North to South Pole after the success of two similar sold-out sailings scheduled for the fall. The itineraries include destinations like Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, the Northwest Passage sea route, South America and Antarctica.
“After having been isolated for two years, people really want to do something they really can look forward to,” Skjeldam said. “Something perhaps more active and interesting than their normal pre-pandemic holiday.”
By Amy Tara Koch, Ceylan Yeginsu, Debra Kamin, Heather Murphy Sheila Yasmin Marikar © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.