The fallout from COVID-19 has resulted in the worst downturn for travel, tourism and hospitality in history – but don’t count the industry out yet.
In just a few months, Coronavirus has changed the world. Since China’s World Health Office (WHO) was first informed “of cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology” in Wuhan – Central China’s most populous city – the mysterious illness detected in the initial 44 patients has spread to every corner of the globe, sickening millions and killing hundreds of thousands.
With the crisis giving rise to entirely new expressions like “flattening the curve” and “social distancing,” we are advised to leave our homes as infrequently as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19. And with the requirement that we publicly remain at least six feet apart at all times, the pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of once-packed major sporting events, of conventions, concerts, and travel.
International airports like Heathrow in London, O’Hare in Chicago, and Pearson in Toronto are almost empty, save for some masked and gloved travelers and employees.
Massive layoffs… for now
Globally, every industry has been directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19. While the severity depends on the sector, the ripple effect from China – the epicenter of the virus and a major manufacturing giant – has affected everything from high tech and electronics to coal mining, oil and gas production, clothing, food, and more.
Restaurants everywhere have closed, some of them permanently; others have completely changed their business model, turning from dine-in establishments to take-out only, while some have shifted to online ordering and “contactless” delivery of groceries and baked goods to families stuck at home.
Despite governments injecting much-needed trillions of dollars into business stimulus packages to keep the global economy afloat, companies continue to be hit hard by COVID-19, especially travel-related businesses. Major travel companies, airlines and carriers including Air Canada, WestJet, United Airlines, Air Transat, Sunwing, Indonesian Airlines, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Vacations to Go, and Norwegian Air have laid-off tens of thousands of employees.
Related travel industries including car rental companies, retailers, restaurants, caterers, cleaning companies, Airbnb and hotel chains – from majors like Marriott to small rural motels – are experiencing 90 per cent drops in customer business. Most are telling full and part-time staff to stay home until the COVID-19 crisis is over, whenever that will be.
In consequence, in mid-April Canada’s opposition Conservatives called on the governing Liberal party with a plan to bail-out the nation’s ailing travel and tourism businesses, with initiatives that included refunding an entire year’s worth of GST remittances, and allowing owner-operators the chance to qualify for federal wage subsidies.
All modes of transportation, from buses to railways and airlines, have been hard hit by the pandemic, which some experts say could last from 12 to 18 months or until a vaccine is created.
While little is certain about COVID-19’s duration, one thing that is is the disastrous impact it has had on the cruise industry. Long before Coronavirus, cruise ship passengers and crews were regularly felled by any of a range of sicknesses, including viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu), Norovirus, Legionella (better known as Legionnaire’s Disease, a potentially fatal respiratory sickness), giardia, caused by microscopic parasites, Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC), and unknown causative agents.
International cruise ships are required to document and report outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness through the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is actively tracking COVID-19. This year alone, major cruise vessels affected by the virus include The Anthem of the Seas, World Dream, Diamond Princess, and Westerdam.
Some ships with COVID-19 infected crew and passengers have been refused entry at ports, including the MS Zaandam, owned and operated by Holland America.
Built in 2000, the Zaandam – with a capacity of 1,432 passengers and 615 crew – initially embarked from the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires on a 31-day luxury voyage on March 7. Promising unique experiences like the glaciers around Cape Horn in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of Chile, the once-in-a-lifetime trip soon turned into a COVID-19 nightmare.
With 1,241 passengers on board – many of them seniors – and 586 crew, the vessel served as a floating petri dish as coughing and sneezing rapidly spread infection through enforced proximity. Passengers were trapped in their small staterooms for weeks, hoping to disembark to no avail as port after port turned the ship away, and the number of infected grew.
By March 27, four passengers were dead, and almost 140 infected. When the ship finally docked in Florida on April 2, the media was on hand to record sick passengers and bodies being brought ashore by figures in hazmat suits. Other passengers and crew members had to wait aboard until April 9 before a charter flight took them home.
Hope for the future
Cruise ships, airplanes, and even buses are ideal environments for diseases to spread. Tracking illnesses and injuries aboard cruise ships, the CDC’s website includes factors contributing to the risk of illnesses, such as crowding, persons from many different countries, “semi-enclosed environments,” and the visiting of multiple ports.
Despite such precautions from passengers and crew as cleaning surfaces, hand sanitizing, and observing distancing, cruise ships are prone to outbreaks, primarily respiratory, like Influenza A and B, or gastrointestinal, like Norovirus.
There is no doubt that the cruise industry will continue taking a hit from COVID-19 in the months to come, but many in the industry are already optimistic about the future of travel. With a current world population of 7.8 billion, people will start traveling again for business and pleasure once travel bans are lifted, and international flights no longer suspended.
Recently, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) – the UN agency “responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” – stated that there will be 1.8 billion tourists every year by 2030. Pre-COVID-19, travel worldwide was increasing, growing four percent in 2019, even with major challenges to the industry such as concerns over carbon emissions and the collapse of several airlines and tourism companies, including the world’s best-known travel brand, 178-year-old Thomas Cook.
Already, industry experts are questioning the future of worldwide travel, not only in the near future when Coronavirus has become an unpleasant memory, but in the decades to come. One of the world’s best-know Futurists, Ray Hammond, recently authored a new report for Allianz Partners, The World in 2040: The future of healthcare, mobility, travel and the home. Discussing 21st century megatrends, Hammond predicts the industry will be resurrected mainly through a combination of established and emerging technologies.
The new travel
Outlining seven major future-shaping mega trends impacting the future – including renewable energy, climate change, and globalization – Hammond believes travel will come back, but shaped differently from how we know it.
Road trips will become less stressful as self-driving vehicles including RVs and campers become commonplace, allowing us to sit back and enjoy the ride. The market for ultra-high speed trains will keep growing, with predictions that the current speed of 267 miles per hour (430 km/h) set by Shanghai’s Maglev could more than double to 700 mph (1,126 km/h). They could go even faster as more companies develop ‘hyperloop’ technologies, with futuristic floating pods racing through massive low-pressure tubes.
High in the air, there’s a likelihood that soon there’ll be a new generation of sleek supersonic planes. Following in the path set by Concorde until 2003, newer planes faster than the speed of sound are expected to return. And for passengers for whom money is no object, space tourism companies including SpaceX and Space Adventures will be sending millionaires and billionaires into Earth’s orbit.
For the majority of us, traveling will never go back to the way it was – it just can’t. Expect regulators and the public alike to demand far more thorough cleaning and air renewing measures on airplanes, trains, and public transit vehicles. Plexiglas shields, already being installed everywhere from banks to convenience stores, will become commonplace at airports.
Persons toting bottles of hand sanitizer, disposable paper masks, and disinfectant wipes onto planes, trains and buses will no longer be seen as overly cautious, but responsible and practical, considerate of both their own safety and that of others.
Many travel companies are viewing the current outbreak as an opportunity. Just because they can’t meet clients, tour operators, and hotel owners face-to-face right now doesn’t mean they can’t refresh their websites, research travel trends, and contact government agencies, request financial assistance, and get news and updates from organizations like ACTA, the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies and ASTA, the American Society of Travel Advisors.
Perhaps one expression arising from the Coronavirus crisis, “The New Normal,” will become permanently embedded. One thing is certain: no politician or world health organization can say when life as we knew it will go back to something resembling the way it was pre-COVID-19.
But when it does, one thing we all know is that the planet and all its industries, including travel, will never be quite the same again.