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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Revenge travel’ is the phenomenon that could bring back tourism with a bang

Experts predict travelers are eager to get back out there — though others caution revenge may not be so sweet.

(Tara Jacoby for The Washington Post)

Jessica Nabongo had already planned to slow down her travels in 2020. “At the beginning of the year, I said the maximum I’m doing is 100 flights and no more than 40 countries,” she says while reciting the impressive list of destinations she hit before the coronavirus grounded her at home in Detroit.

This U.N. consultant turned professional traveler took 170 flights in 2019 — a pace she’s maintained for a half-decade in her quest to become the first Black woman to visit every country in the world. In October, she wrapped up the tour in her 195th country, but she now says she can’t imagine herself stepping onto a plane anytime soon.

As the founder of boutique tourism agency Jet Black, Nabongo has managed clients disgruntled by canceled and postponed trips. In March, she mostly heard disappointment from her network. But she’s observed a shift in recent months. The tune from her about 200,000 Instagram followers now sounds much antsier, with more and more of her online following telling her they’re planning bigger trips for 2021.

There’s an angsty new term to describe this apparent pent-up demand: “revenge travel.” And lately, many industry insiders are talking about the sinister-sounding buzzword.

Nabongo is personally “kind of flabbergasted” people would currently book international trips, but she understands their motivation. “Americans definitely have a feeling of being trapped. And granted, it’s a strange climate in the U.S. — politically, it’s like we’re living in ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” she says. “People DM me, email me and post in our comments section things like ‘I’m so ready to go! I want out of here!’ ”

That restless mood has many pro travelers and experts predicting revenge travelers could bring back leisure tourism with a bang — though others caution revenge may not be as sweet as we’d like.

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“Revenge travel” takes off in fits and starts

The concept of “revenge spending” emerged in China in the 1980s with descriptions of burgeoning consumer demand following the poverty of the Cultural Revolution. In the past few months, researchers have reapplied it to the resurgent spending on luxury goods, as strict stay-at-home orders eased across China. In April, for example, a single Hermès store raked in $2.7 million in one day in Guangzhou, a sign of how the wealthy have responded to their quarantine blues.

Revenge travel is a riff on the same notion. As with the retail sector, travel analysts now carefully watch Chinese consumer sentiment and spending since tourism restarted there. In May, a report by McKinsey & Company found Chinese confidence in domestic travel had risen by 60 percent from its shutdown lows, as much of the country reopened. Travelers have opted to stay close to home and go by car or train over flying. Reduced capacity, mandatory masks and more stringent sanitation routines are a few ways tourist sites and hotels in China have sought to lure still-hesitant travelers, according to the McKinsey report.

In the past several months, such dynamics have played out in the United States’ domestic market as well. Demand has similarly increased for driving-distance and rural getaways, with attractions and lodging properties placing a greater emphasis on cleanliness. The recent uptick in lodging bookings and RV rentals looks like the first phase of this rebound.

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That’s why experts think China provides helpful clues as to how other countries may recover. “[Chinese] domestic travel — both for business and leisure — has bounced back as airline passengers are back to around 60 to 70 percent of pre-crisis levels,” said Steve Saxon, a Shenzhen-based partner at McKinsey, in a statement to The Washington Post. June also saw a few promising signs in U.S. air travel, which remains an extraordinarily precarious business. “This is significantly driven by people being comfortable with traveling and the perception that there may be a low risk of infection when flying.”

But when coronavirus cases rise, the demand for travel also seems to fall, he observed, referencing how the mid-June outbreak in Beijing had caused more than 1,000 canceled flights in the Chinese capital. “China and the U.S. are at different stages of travel recovery,” Saxon cautioned, noting the U.S. still has a significant number of cases in contrast. “This eliminates much of the discretionary demand for travel.”

The desire to travel has only intensified

Worsening outbreaks throughout much of the United States make it almost impossible to issue predictions as to when the U.S. tourism market might recover to pre-coronavirus levels of demand. Airline executives believe it’ll take an effective vaccine. But present demand and a desire to travel in the future are not one and the same. Consumer sentiment research shows the pandemic has hardly hampered travelers’ desire of getting away, even if booking behavior has shifted to favor flexibility and last-minute planning.

A Harris Poll survey of 2,500 U.S. travelers in early May found the desire to travel had only increased as the crisis deepened. The results indicate travelers from the hardest-hit states were the most eager to travel within the following four months. Beyond concerns with public health risks, Harris Poll discovered that wanting to connect with distant loved ones and a change of scenery were key factors motivating leisure travelers in all states. A craving for different surroundings was strongest among those in regions with the most severe coronavirus outbreaks.

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In this vein, it seems the pandemic is not changing our motivations as much as it’s causing each of us to prioritize them differently. Or as one of the leading researchers on tourist behavior and psychology phrases it: “The covid-19 situation has stripped the motivational profile to its basic elements,” wrote Philip Pearce, foundation professor of tourism at James Cook University in Australia, in an email.

The pandemic has put a new spin on some of the core reasons we travel, Pearce explains. Take the motivation to relax and escape, which he has defined in his research. “Usually this motive is to forget or leave work stresses,” he wrote. “Now it is about leaving the stresses of the lived-in community and house/apartment life to be in another place where worrying about the problem of the pandemic is less pressing.”

Oh, the places you’ll (maybe, hopefully) go

Fast forward to a world when pandemic concerns are far less pressing and it’s socially acceptable to plan ambitious trips: Where might the revenge travel hot spots emerge? Right now it’s an open-ended question, but experts are forming theories.

If you track what Americans say online, classic driving destinations look primed for a much quicker recovery than international travel. Even as domestic conversations are down, road trips are trending in social conversations among U.S. travelers, according to marketers at Sparkloft Media who have analyzed millions of public posts across major social media platforms, forums and blogs to measure consumer perceptions. There are no signs that this driving trend is ebbing anytime soon.

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They report that conversations about international travel, on the other hand, are down 49 percent, with the few spikes up being negative chatter about U.S. and European Union border closures.

Some silver lining? When international travel does return, Jet Black founder Nabongo believes a “corona hangover” may leave typically overcrowded destinations that suffered from overtourism before the pandemic with fewer visitors.

“I am racing to the places I never went because they’re overrun with tourists,” she says. “I lived in Italy for three years and I’ve never been to Venice because there [were] so many tourists.”

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