Appetite for travel will return, but it will be different

How is COVID-19 going to change the future of travel? Rajesh Chandy, Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development was joined in conversation with Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet, and George Looker, Project Officer at the Wheeler Institute, to discuss how the pandemic is impacting the travel sector and consider some of the long-term implications.

  • Travel will return, but it will be more local;
  • After the crisis, greater consideration needs to be taken to prevent over-tourism;
  • There is a risk that competition will fall, prices will rise and the customer experience is worsened;
  • Meaningful action needs to be taken to ensure behaviours change and carbon emissions don’t go back to pre-crisis levels;
  • People should focus on restarting trips to the developing world and countries that depend on revenue from tourism to support communities that are reliant on tourists.

“Having been at home for 105 days and counting, I’m getting very itchy feet”

As could be anticipated, Wheeler was travelling when the pandemic hit and the world started implementing lockdown measures. Upon returning early from his trip to Yemen, on the island of Sutra, he had to self-isolate and quarantine in an AirBnB in Australia for 14-days, to prevent his wife Maureen from also having to go into isolation. His normal way of life has been disrupted, having been at home now for 105 days, so he admitted to having very itchy feet.

Wheeler thinks that travel will return, but initially, it will be confined to local trips. While he agrees with AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky’s statement that ‘travel as we once knew it is over’, Wheeler is convinced that travel will come back, and cited evidence from historic challenges to the travel industry which indicates people will return once they feel confident again. Looking back at the aftermath of 9//11, and even the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in Britain, there have been instances where travel has been hit and returned eventually. While this pandemic is a bigger hit than anything in recent history, Wheeler is confident there will be a resumption in the future.

While Wheeler thinks he’ll be back to travelling once the pandemic has been resolved, he thinks people should take this moment to reflect and consider some of the improvements that can be made in the way we travel. He has been outspoken in the past about the impact of over-tourism and now thinks we should take it a bit more seriously. There will be lots of things that change, just like how we have to remove our shoes and limit our liquids as a response to the threat of terrorism, likewise, we will have to adapt to the new reality of a post-Coronavirus world. He suspects we will have to prove our health and show vaccination certificates whenever we are move from region to region.

“Wave goodbye to the minibar and the breakfast buffet”

The impact of coronavirus will have some large impacts, such as changing travel patterns, as well as subtle ones, such as the end of minibars and the hotel buffet. Hotel operators are going to have to work to reassure customers that the environment they are staying in is safe, which will have to go further than providing hand-sanitiser. Wheeler believes there will have to be a series of experiments, such as European countries opening up air-bridges with specific countries, to test the health impact of travel and build up confidence that routes should be permanently reopened.

“Travel will come back… but only for those who can afford it”

Wheeler has fears about the impact the pandemic will have on consumers, with airlines and hotels going out of business, there will be fewer competitors in the market, which would lead to an increase in prices and a worse customer experience. Wheeler does not want to see young people locked out from travelling due to price rises. He is worried that travel may revert to being something for the privileged and well-off but also knows from experience that it is the penniless that are the most intrepid. Wheeler also thinks there will be people who have defied lockdown measures and have snuck across borders despite supposedly being shut out; he looks forward to reading the accounts of their travels and hearing about what people did during the lockdown.

These events and the uncertainty surrounding travel during the initial stage of lockdown was a great advert for the use of a travel agent, according to Wheeler, who was highly impressed with their support when suddenly everything was thrown up in the air.

“Turning the world upside down has shown a way forward to deal with carbon emissions”

We’ve been discussing climate change for years, but all we’ve seen is carbon emissions go up and up. Now that we’re in a situation where virtually every flight in the world is grounded, we’ve found out that we can reduce the impact on the environment. It isn’t comfortable, but hopefully the experience can help cut unnecessary travel. Wheeler thinks this could be in the form stopping boozy trips to the other side of Europe, which wouldn’t be a bad outcome from the pandemic. Moreover, Wheeler wants people to pay more attention to the quality of their local environment, especially as there’s going to be more domestic tourism in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19. Furthermore, as Governments seek sources of revenue to pay for measures related to COVID-19, Wheeler thinks that travel companies will have to pay their fair share, such as airlines and cruise ship operators having to pay more tax on fuel.

Travel operators will have to think about their public image to encourage people back. Looking at the cruise ship industry, for example, Wheeler they will have to work hard to regain public sympathy, especially the way they take advantage of tax breaks through flags of convenience and the environmental impact of their fuel consumption. In Wheeler’s mind, these companies are going to have to come back as cleaner operations before people use them again.

“Right now, you’ll have all of these once busy destinations to yourself”

One of Wheeler’s main concerns is the impact lockdown measures are having on the developing world; away from people who are comfortable working at home in the developed world. Businesses where suddenly the number of international tourists has dried up have been hit by a sledgehammer. This does not have to be a permanent setback, indeed, according to Wheeler, this is the time to go. Not only to support these fragile economies but also to take advantage of visiting places when there are fewer other tourists and no crowds.

Wheeler has been looking into the impact of over-tourism in places like New Zealand and taking examples from cities such as Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam. New Zealand has been sold as being a place that has a natural environment but was in danger of being overwhelmed by the joys of tourism and the money it brought in. There’s going to have to be a balance once travel restarts between those who are going to be desperate to earn money and those who want to protect the natural environment. Wheeler cites large international tour tourism as a segment that will have to change, where people travel for travel’s sake and don’t really engage with local tourism. There are going to have to be goals and guidelines after the pandemic and people will have to think carefully.

“We should get back to countries that need our support… we need to reach out to the wider world once the doors reopen”

Wheeler cites examples from other crises, such as the earthquake in Nepal, which devastated the country, but after a while, there was a push for people to return and bring money back to the country. Further down the line, tourism businesses will need us to support people in frontier markets that are dependent on travellers spending money in their region to fund livelihoods of entire communities. This crisis has hit the world in the widest possible sense and while we are cut off from parts of the globe that we’d normally be able to travel to, we don’t know what’s going on in these places; Wheeler implores us to reach out to the wider world once we can.

“Zoom meetings are a poor substitute for meeting people face-to-face”

As we do more work from home, we will become more accustomed to Zoom meetings rather than travelling for work. However, Wheeler finds virtual meetings a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction, so he suspects that once normal life returns, we will see business travel return. But he also thinks that people will move out of cities to where houses are cheaper rather than being close to the office now that they can do a portion of their work from home every week. Wheeler also suspects that health considerations will push people to the ‘sharp end’ of the aircraft if they can afford it so that they have a greater distance between them and other passengers.

Wheeler thinks that more people will try and do things by themselves as a consequence of the pandemic. For example, people might go on more cycling holidays where you are by yourself, you’re safe and you’re going to places that aren’t going to be overrun by tourists. He sees ‘do it yourself’ travel, with road trips and other self-organised elements as a potential growth area for people wanting to travel.

Tony Wheeler’s conversation with George Looker and Rajesh Chandy is part of the Wheeler Institute’s COVID-19 series – bringing together the expertise and experience of our extended community to understand, illuminate and offer solutions to the challenges created by COVID-19. Our differentiating factor is the role of business in addressing these challenges, with a focus on the implications and actions for those in developing countries. 

If you’re interested in following the Wheeler Institute COVID-19 series, read more about our conversations here.

Rajesh Chandy is the Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. He is Professor of Marketing at London Business School, holding the Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship.

Tony Wheeler is is the co-founder of Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guidebook publishers, which he set up with his wife, Maureen, in 1973 after travelling Asia’s ‘hippie trail’. Since then, Wheeler has worked on numerous Lonely Planet titles including the award-winning India guide and the best-selling Australia guide. The couple, who reside in Australia, sold 75% of their stake to BBC Worldwide in 2007, before selling their remaining equity in 2011. In 2008, the couple set up the Planet Wheeler Foundation to support development projects that focus on education, health, human rights and building communities in the developing world. Wheeler was also involved in establishing Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas, an initiative that helped gain UNESCO City of Literature status for the city.

George Looker is a Project Officer at the Wheeler Institute and a former MBA student at London Business School, graduating in 2020. He has made several contributions to the Wheeler Institute Blog and COVID-19 series.


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