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COVID-19 could change travel – but not in the way you think

Visitors tour the Xpark Aquarium on its opening day while wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Taoyuan, Taiwan, August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang - RC2X8I93N8ZB

Visitors tour the Xpark Aquarium on its opening day while wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Taoyuan, Taiwan, August 7, 2020. Image: REUTERS/Ann Wang

Kanika Soni
Chief Commercial Officer, Tripadvisor
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Davos Agenda

  • The COVID-19 crisis has made travelers hyper-aware of safety measures.
  • Travel organizations and businesses must promote their safety protocols - and encourage travelers to also keep sustainability in mind.

In major markets around the world, it was an encouraging summer for the tourism sector. As and where COVID-19 travel restrictions have eased, tourism volumes have begun to rebound. The long-term impact on the way we travel remains uncertain to some degree, but travel planning data is providing new clues into how consumer comfort levels – and priorities – are changing. Those clues could guide other changes in our industry, changes that have a lasting impact beyond this pandemic.

Understanding how travel is changing

At Tripadvisor, the speed of recovery is something we have been tracking very closely through our own traffic and search data. This data provides a unique insight into travel planning trends around the globe.

In Europe and parts of Southeast Asia, we’ve seen domestic travel demand improve significantly this summer. At the time of writing, the number of unique domestic users clicking to book a hotel each week has even started to exceed 2019 demand in over twenty countries. Throughout the summer, restaurant traffic in most major European markets trended upwards, too.

Image: Tripadvisor

In August, near-term travel planning — a good indicator of increasing consumer confidence — skyrocketed in most major markets including the US.

Image: Tripadvisor

While these overarching demand trends are certainly encouraging, we also know that the road to recovery is likely to be bumpy. There will be further peaks and troughs to come as infection rates rise and fall. In that respect, overall tourism volumes only provide part of the picture when it comes to understanding how consumer travel behaviours have changed, and whether those new habits are merely temporary or will endure beyond the pandemic.

A report released recently by the Pacific Asia Travel Association, which features research from a host of organizations including the World Economic Forum and Tripadvisor, sheds light on how consumer behaviors in the region have shifted, and what operators need to do in response.

The report shows that health and safety precautions are now a more significant factor in where consumers choose to stay than price, and that heavily influences the type of destinations they are willing to travel to. 72% of travelers polled in the region said they are taking into account a destination’s culture of social responsibility towards preventing the spread of the virus before deciding whether to go, and 73% are looking for the opportunity to avoid crowded places when traveling.

Traffic and search trends on Tripadvisor bear this out. Nature destinations, such as national parks and beaches, have disproportionately benefited from returning demand. Campgrounds and farmhouses have also grown in popularity, and user searches for properties with outdoor activities are also on the rise.

Image: Tripadvisor

In other words, consumers feel most confident about traveling to places where contact with other people can either be minimized or controlled in a way that lowers the risk of infection.

For everyone from destination managers and government officials to individual hospitality business owners, the message is clear: prioritizing health and safety practices isn’t just the right thing to do, it is the key to giving tourists the confidence to return. It is important, then, to view new health and safety practices in the proper context. They are not simply a cost to be incurred, but rather a value proposition that should be front and center in how destinations and businesses market themselves to visitors.

Simple, highly visible changes can make a big impression on customers, such as restaurants switching from printed menus to contactless menus, or a hotel sharing a checklist of its cleanliness protocols with would-be guests in advance of their stay. On Tripadvisor, click-through rates to properties that have promoted their health and safety practices in this way are, on average, 16% greater than properties that have not.

Of course, to achieve a full recovery, there are many factors that are outside the control of the tourism industry — government restrictions, rates of infection, the speed at which a viable vaccine is developed — but that should be no reason to undervalue the importance of embracing transparency and promoting good practice. Both will be essential to the success of destinations in growing tourism numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, and beyond that, to meeting future challenges facing the industry in the long term.

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Understanding how travel could transform further

What COVID-19 has highlighted all too clearly is how important the tourism sector is to the global economy at large. It’s vital for redistributing wealth from developed economies to developing markets. Consumers are now being encouraged to see what a difference their spending can make to local businesses and communities in the destinations they visit.

Such shifts could foster even more positive change. If, as our research suggests, health and safety practices are more heavily weighted in customers’ decision-making, then there is an opportunity for us as an industry to channel consumer interest towards other practices that serve the greater good. The steps many businesses are taking now to inform and educate customers about the cleanliness protocols they have in place could be replicated to promote sustainable practices at the same time, such as how a business might be eliminating the use of plastics from its operation or taking special precautions to avoid any adverse impacts on local ecosystems.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Some countries are already seizing the opportunity to embed sustainable and responsible practices into how they market and promote their own destinations. New Zealand, for example, has created the Tiaki Promise, which invites travelers to the country to pledge behaviors that help “care for land, sea and nature” as well as “travel safely”. In doing so, they have made the act of traveling responsibly into something that enhances the authenticity of the travel experience for those visiting the country.

Local operators like Whale Watch Kaikoura have taken this initiative to heart, too. The company offers responsible whale-watching experiences to over 100,000 passengers a year, funnelling investment into the indigenous Māori community which owns and operates the tours. The success of the local economy and the protection of Kaikoura’s wildlife are inherently connected, and so the tours provide visitors with information about whale conservation and the careful steps the business takes to minimize its impact on the local sperm whale population.

The more consumers come to expect to see this type of information, the more other operators will feel compelled to adopt responsible practices that they too can promote. As an industry, we should embrace this. Our destinations and our communities will be more resilient to future challenges if we do.

Tourism businesses worldwide continue to do amazing work even in the face of this pandemic – providing employment and learning opportunities to local people, driving investment in underserved communities, helping to protect the local environment, and more. We have a chance to put these practices at the heart of the tourism industry we build back. We must not squander it.

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