Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Although travel should begin to normalize in the year ahead, a timeline remains uncertain. (iStock)

Just a year ago, travelers were so busy planning their vacations that they hardly had time to look up from their keyboards. We were going places! Experts predicted another big year for tourism. But then the pandemic hit, closing borders and paralyzing travel for the rest of 2020.

What happened? And, more important, what will happen next year?

It’s difficult to describe 2020 without hyperbole. Stay-at-home orders and quarantines effectively stopped travel. According to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 71 percent of hoteliers said they won’t make it another six months without further federal assistance, given current and projected travel demand. No one is keeping a tally of airline layoffs, but by most counts, they are in the tens of thousands.

And the cruise industry? What cruise industry?

The road ahead is just as unsettling. When will governments distribute vaccines and open their borders? Is it safe to plan a trip for the summer, or should we wait until late 2021 — or later? What will travel look like in the coming months?

First, a look back at how travel imploded. It happened so fast, just as spring break was getting underway. The covid-19 pandemic closed cities, states and countries, leaving travelers hunkered down in their homes.

“I’ve never seen such a massive event of cancellations, refund requests and chargebacks,” recalls Casey Halloran, CEO of Namu Travel Group. “The early weeks of the crisis were a near-total panic industry-wide. From airlines to trip insurance and hotels, the entire system broke down. We simply weren’t prepared for anything like this global pandemic.”

For travelers, it was the worst kind of waiting game. Trapped at home and sometimes unemployed, they hoped for quick refunds so they could pay their bills. Some travel companies, lacking the funds to pay out all refunds, rewrote their refund rules and applied them retroactively. That certainly kept this consumer advocate busy.

“2020 will forever be known in the travel industry as the year we hit the pause button,” says Marla Fowler, a travel adviser with Glass Slipper Concierge, a Disney-focused travel agency in Corpus Christi, Tex. And while the disruption was complete, she says, “it also provided time to reflect and regroup, and we found both travelers and travel suppliers looking for ways to travel safer, smarter and, quite simply, better.”

The travel industry hit the pause button hardest on refunds. And that points to the biggest takeaway for travel agencies, tour operators, airlines and other businesses: They need a better way to handle refunds quickly. The current system doesn’t work.

For travelers, one big lesson of 2020 was to never vacation beyond your means. Use only your disposable income to pay for a leisure trip. You never know when the next crisis will hit.

So how about the future? Vaccine passports, travel corridors and, hopefully, the end of covid-19, are in our future. But no one knows when those things will happen.

“If 2020 has been about uncertainty and fear, 2021 will be about regaining confidence,” says Michael Altman, program director and instructor of hospitality and tourism management at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

It’s difficult to understate the significance of 2020 and how it will affect next year. A study by Accenture, a multinational professional services company, projects that changing consumer behavior will redistribute more than $3 trillion in spending — including $318 billion from the airline industry if the continued slump in air travel persists.

Another possible change: In 2021, you may have to prove you are healthy enough to travel.

“Travel providers — including hotels, airlines, rail providers, ride sharing and car rental services — may require travelers to disclose their covid-19 health status until a vaccine is available and widely adopted,” predicts Mike Koetting, the chief product strategy officer at SAP Concur, a travel management company. “This could range from covid-19 or antibody test results, including rapid testing right at the gate or rental car pickup, to proof of vaccination once it is broadly available.”

But starting to travel again is complicated for many people. Consider Patti Pizzimenti, a retired medical worker who lives in Somers, Conn., and loves to travel. Her doctors warned her against flying during the pandemic because of her age and health. She and her husband canceled several trips to Florida and are holding nearly $1,000 in airline vouchers.

Even with a vaccine and an “all clear” from her physician, Pizzimenti still won’t fly.

“I feel like I can’t trust airlines to give correct information regarding their air-purifying system,” she says. “I believe it will take a few years before the travel industry gets back to normal.”

That is a common sentiment among travelers as they cautiously schedule their next trips. You can’t be too careful. Yes, all this waiting could kill the travel companies that rely on revenue from travelers like Pizzimenti. But it’s better than killing the travelers.

Mahmood Khan, the professor who directs the Virginia Tech business school’s program in hospitality and tourism management, says the travel recovery will take three years. He says the industry will spend 2021 assessing the damage and 2022 planning for recovery. “And if things work well,” he predicts, “2023 is when a new travel horizon will appear, as long as the economy moves in the right direction.”

If there’s one thing 2020 has taught travelers, it’s that there’s no sure thing when it comes to travel. I witnessed thousands of bucket-list tours and cruises get torpedoed by the virus, particularly this spring.

“One positive outcome of the pandemic is that 2020 has really shown people the importance of living in the moment,” says Eyal Carlin, the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s commissioner for North America. “It’s important, now more than ever, not to wait, because we don’t know what the future will hold.”

No one could have known what would happen this year, and no one knows what will happen next year. But travelers have learned a lot — and the lessons continue.

Read more from Travel:

Read past Navigator columns here