When the world clued into the severity of COVID-19, travel was one of the first things to go.
In an effort to curb COVID-19 transmission last year, governments around the world encouraged people to avoid all travel deemed “non-essential,” whether by plane, cruise, or car. According to CNBC, 97 destinations fully or partially closed their borders and 65 countries or territories temporarily halted flights last April. Millions of people in North American axed their 2020 travel plans.
Young people, in particular, have had to deal with multiple crises in their lifetimes, each one worsening their financial prospects. Many are burnt out, scared for the future, and struggling with the mental health costs of a pandemic that has forced people to isolate indoors. In many countries, they can’t visit their friends, let alone travel. People have given up on overseas job opportunities, and many of us have loved ones who we can’t visit.
Leisurely travel is hardly a priority during a global health crisis, but it is yet another thing many people have had to do without. “Generally speaking, it’s not as challenging to lose some things compared to others, but it is possible to grieve the loss of our own future, our own health—anything we consider valuable,” Katherine Shear, the founder and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia School of Social Work, told the New York Times.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as vaccination campaigns continue to ramp up around the world, people are starting to daydream about where they want to fly—Ibiza, Hong Kong, maybe Cape Town?—even if they’ll still have to wait a long time before they can do so safely and ethically.
Governments are also considering short-term solutions, including vaccine passports and bubbles between countries, to get people travelling sooner. They’re working with travel industry leaders, too, who are trying to keep their stunted tourism industry afloat. Compared to 2019, flight demand is down 65 percent, and the industry has suffered $118 billion in losses, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing nearly 300 airlines, or 82 percent of total air traffic.
Here’s what travel will look like in the near future—and when it will feel “normal” again.
When will travel come back?
Many countries are already open to travel. Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil implemented various health safety measures, so they could start welcoming international tourists after the first wave of the pandemic eased up last year, said Markus Ruediger, an IATA spokesperson, while the European Union has a coordinated, rolling list of countries whose citizens can and cannot enter the bloc.
Brazil, Costa Rica, and the U.S. also have fewer restrictions than Canada, where international borders are closed and residents returning have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Peru has disallowed flights that last longer than an hour, Ruediger said.
Australia and New Zealand have a semi-open travel bubble that allows some Kiwis to fly into parts of Australia without needing to quarantine upon arrival. According to an Australia department of health spokesperson, COVID-19 is not decreasing consistently enough around the world to reopen borders further for now. “Before international travel can recommence, we need to ensure that Australians are protected by minimising disease being introduced into the country or high levels of immunity post vaccination,” the spokesperson said.
With all the variation, it’ll likely take a year or longer for international travel to climb to pre-pandemic levels, experts say, though their estimates vary. As usual, those with flexible, stable, and well-paying jobs are more likely to enjoy a post-pandemic normal sooner. They’ll probably be the first to travel in the near future, and rich countries with access to vaccines will likely enjoy a tourism industry boon earlier than the rest of the world.
“Shutting down aviation was the easy part; restarting and recovering will be the hard part,” Ruediger said. He estimates domestic flights won't climb back to normal until 2022, while international flights won’t bounce back until 2023 or 2024.
Not only will airlines and airports have to continue devising and implementing new safety protocols—rapid COVID-19 testing and quarantine measures, for example—they also have to fire up airplanes that have been in storage for a year, which takes time to do safely, and rehire staff, Ruediger said. Governments are also considering ways for vaccinated passengers to bypass COVID-19 safety protocols when travelling, including by setting international standards for proof of vaccination or COVID-19 test results.
What will travel be like at first?
Bryan Del Monte, the president of the Aviation Agency, an ad agency focusing on aviation, aerospace, and defence based in Minnesota, said travel could start ramping up as early as the fall, and expects a “massive crush” of people racing to buy flights and go overseas when travel becomes widely available. It’s possible that demand for travel will be so high that many people won’t manage to book flights at the beginning—it’ll be first come, first served, he said.
“It could be crazy. We’ll see,” Del Monte said.
He suggested the travel surge could last a year as companies rush to reboot their airplanes and services, and struggle to match demand from people consumed with post-pandemic wanderlust. “We will eventually work through all these problems,” Del Monte said. “But I think we’re two years away from when things are really back to normal.”
Del Monte worked in the industry during the post-9/11 era and post-2008 financial crisis era. It took a couple of years after each cataclysmic event for travel to readjust, he said.
Will travel be more expensive?
Airlines will probably increase costs, but not necessarily in an obvious way, Del Monte said, adding “it’s not in their economic interest” to aggressively raise ticket prices. After all, many governments around the world used tax dollars to bail airlines out. “They took Uncle Sam’s money…You could price gouge, but then you end up on C-Span,” Del Monte said.
Instead, airlines could offer fewer services, take away snacks in domestic flights, squeeze more seats into airplanes, and charge more for luggage, among other penny-pinching measures. “We are going to pay more for less, and we’re already seeing that,” Del Monte said. Companies could also raise fees slightly to cover additional sanitization or COVID-19-related measures, he added.
Who will get to travel?
Studies have repeatedly found that women, racialized people, and many frontline essential workers have experienced the brunt of the COVID-19 economic crisis. But it will be those who took fewer financial hits, and have time and money, who will be able to pay for vacations sooner. “There’s going to be a lot of people who, economically, are still going to be under the thumb for a long period of time,” Del Monte said.
Globally, freer international mobility, particularly for luxury travel, won’t be safe until countries work together to vaccinate at-risk groups around the world. VICE News previously reported how rich countries are hoarding vaccines, which delays vaccinations in poorer countries and risks extending the pandemic for everyone.
The U.S. has already vaccinated nearly 20 percent of people and said it won’t share doses until everyone in the country is immune to the virus. Canada has also said it is prioritizing its own citizens, and is even pulling vaccine doses from COVAX, a global vaccine sharing program that subsidizes vaccines for poorer countries. The result is many countries may not get full protection from COVID-19 until as late as 2023 or 2024.
University of Alberta infectious disease expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger previously said full-blown travel won’t return until every country is safeguarded from the virus. “What country have you gone to—that you want to go to again—that hasn’t had a good vaccination campaign and is a place with higher transmission and higher risk?” Saxinger said last month. The risk is that greater mobility will allow mutant strains of COVID-19 to travel, which threatens efficacy of existing vaccines and our collective ability to end the pandemic.
Will we need vaccine passports?
To account for slow vaccination rollouts, Israel, Denmark, and Estonia are pushing for digital proof of vaccination as a way for people to get into stores, attend concerts, and fly, while U.S. President Joe Biden is looking into the possibility as well, Politico reported.
But many experts are concerned about the privacy and human rights concerns that arise with vaccine passports. It’s why Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hesitant to jump on board, despite the push from provincial leaders to give vaccinated people special privileges. Australia’s department of health is considering options like the vaccine passport, but is also aware of concerns that need to be addressed.
Vaccine passports “are not the panacea I think people wish they could be,” said Dr. Katrina Plamondon, a professor with the University of British Columbia Okanagan’s nursing school and global health specialist.
Governments can’t compel people to get vaccinated, and some people—those with certain allergies, for example—may not be able to get the jab at all. “If we create some pathways of an open society for people who are vaccinated and close pathways for people who are not, there might be conflicting human rights issues,” Plamondon said. Right now, health care professionals can’t refuse to help a non-vaccinated person, but if various businesses—restaurants, theatres, airlines—are increasingly able to do so, it could open the door for “complex legal equations,” she said.
Plamondon said a lot of the restrictions currently in place could be tweaked instead. Planes, for example, haven’t been major incubators of illness. The biggest problem has come from travellers who don’t know they’re sick, land in a new country, then spend time in close contact with people inside its borders. “We could have some greater degree of openness,“ Plamondon said, adding that today, we have better COVID-19 testing capacity and know more about how the virus spreads, so we don’t necessarily need to keep the same restrictions that were implemented at the pandemic’s onset.
Vaccine passports also point to a global inequality problem. “When I hear about short-term, short-sighted measures like the passport, they seem appealing...but there is an absence of thinking about the global nature of the pandemic and the consequences of really wealthy countries behaving with internal self-interest and causing global harms,” Plamondon said. “The world won't feel as it did before until the pandemic is declared over.”
Del Monte said the uneven global vaccine rollout could result in “sticky” travel rules: People may need to get clearance to travel to various countries, or could face different quarantine rules when they return home that are dependent on the COVID risk levels associated with the places they visited. “After it gets to a point where vaccines are widespread there won't be so much in the way of restrictions,” Del Monte said.
Plamondon said countries acting in their self-interest will actually prolong the tourism drought. “The travel industry will continue to suffer and be restricted by the inherently global nature of the pandemic and the fact that the vaccine isn't being equitably distributed,” she said.
“I haven't been able to see people I love in a long time; I want the border open, too,” Plamondon added. “ If we are acting as if this isn't a whole global issue then it slows trajectory down for everyone.”
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.