Winter blues: Aggressive new coronavirus strain forces travel back into hibernation

Dec 22, 2020

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It’s been more than nine months since the novel coronavirus was first declared a pandemic. And despite the arrival of promising vaccines and an undeniable sense of pandemic fatigue, travel seems to be slipping back into hibernation.

Sure, there’s been an uptick in travel during the holiday season but even as the first days of winter plunges the Northern Hemisphere into its longest nights, it’s clear the world is descending into a new type of darkness.

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While some sectors of the travel industry may be more insulated than others, this pullback won’t be limited to one country or type of travel. Instead, it’s looking like a large-scale retreat that will affect almost every airline, hotel, restaurant, cruise line and destination.

And it’s happening even faster than we originally thought.

Over the weekend, chaos broke out in Europe as countries banned flights from the U.K. in an attempt to slow the spread of a new, more aggressive strain of the coronavirus. On Monday, New York requested travellers from the U.K. get tested before departure. And many parts of England — including London and its surrounding counties — became subject to elevated Tier 4 travel restrictions that limit travel within, to and from these areas — spelling the end of travel for the remainder of the year for many Britons and travellers who had plans to visit England.

And across the globe in Japan, which once seemed to be a hallmark of successful pandemic control, a third wave of COVID-19 infections has catapulted the island nation into its highest-ever healthcare alert, according to Time. The surge of new cases has finally prompted the government to discontinue its Go To Travel campaign, which aimed to reignite domestic travel.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

With new lockdowns and restrictions spreading much faster than holiday cheer, here’s what the travel industry might look like by the time your lights and decorations are packed away for the year.

Airlines burn through cash with no business travellers in sight

(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

New restrictions and thousands of flight cancellations in the U.K. alone are likely to decimate the already weak demand for air travel.

Over in the U.S., this time last year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expected to screen some 42 million passengers during the holiday season. This year, it’s news when more than one million people pass through airport security checkpoints in a given day.

Hotels face reduced occupancy and even more closures

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

With a long winter ahead of us, it’s reasonable to expect that the hotel industry will see occupancy rates drop to levels reminiscent of the beginning of the pandemic.

Over the summer, as travel restrictions were being lifted, we saw hotels in staycation destinations like Cornwall (places that many people can access relatively easily with their cars or by train) fill almost to capacity.

But according to the BBC, the mass closures, curfews and rules around having to serve food in pubs, means that one in three hospitality firms faces permanent closure, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost.

It has also been predicted that the U.K. hotel industry could take up to four years to return to 2019 levels of business, says accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Related: What your hotel stay will look like in a world after coronavirus

Cruise lines tread water as lockdowns stall comeback plans

(Photo by Faraz Ansari / EyeEm / Getty Images.)

The comeback of cruising that began over the summer in Europe started to stall in October as the coronavirus surged. And now it’s in full reversal mode.

Two of the biggest lines to restart limited sailings in Europe in recent months, MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, just announced a pause to all voyages until at least early January due to growing travel restrictions brought on by higher COVID-19 case counts. Other lines that had hoped to restart operations for the first time this month or in January in recent days have pushed back their return-to-service dates by several months.

Many of the world’s biggest cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises, now are saying they won’t restart departures in all or most regions of the world until at least March. Some lines, such as Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Windstar Cruises have pushed back their restart dates worldwide to April or May.

Related: How the experience will be different when cruising returns 

With a few exceptions, the ships that restarted operations in Europe and elsewhere in recent months remained COVID-19 free, thanks to rigorous new procedures. But cruise executives say it’s become tough to continue operating with escalating travel restrictions. Dozens of river cruise ships restarted operations in Europe over the summer, for instance, with almost no coronavirus-related incidents. But they’ve all had to shut down operations since October due to lockdowns.

In North America, cruising has been almost nonexistent since March — and is likely to stay that way until at least the spring. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has the power to stop cruise ships from sailing in U.S. waters during a health crisis, has established a road map for a return to cruising in the region that could see cruise ships sidelined for at least three or four more months.

What will it take to wake up the travel industry?

A public-safety notice that reads, “COVID-19 Rates High, SOS-Tier 4, Stay Safe” in Southend on Sea, England. (Photo by John Keeble/Getty Images)

As we’ve seen over the last few days, one step forward can quickly be met with two (or 10) steps back.

At this point, there’s little question that what the travel industry needs to truly recover is some combination of a widespread, successful vaccination rollout and more compliance with mask mandates, testing, targeted stay-at-home orders and other regulations designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Because until the coronavirus is firmly under control, travel won’t be able to rally in a meaningful or lasting way.

You simply can’t ignore the correlation between loosened restrictions, increased travel and the spike in case counts. And when there’s a rise in cases, new bookings slide and there’s a flurry of new cancellations.

So, while some travellers will inevitably keep flying and certain destinations will remain open regardless of whatever is going on around them, wide-scale, sustained improvement is likely at the mercy of science and public health policies that get the virus under control.

As we wait for full vaccine deployment, which is at least several months out (potentially not until the second half of 2021), there’s still hope for some level of safe travel. Easily accessible and accurate testing can help fill the gap between where we are and widespread vaccination.

Already, we’ve seen a growing list of destinations — and even resort hotels — shift to requiring an on-the-spot COVID-19 test in addition to mandatory pre-travel testing.

Increased rapid testing; travel bubbles; and procedures that keep travellers as safe as possible can help bridge the gap, but only when other public health measures can control community spread and lower case rates.

Searching for silver linings in the dark

(Photo by Vladimir Serov / Getty Images.)

Believe it or not, it hasn’t been all bad news for the travel industry — or for all travellers. The silver linings have been thin, and few and far between, but you can see them glimmering if you squint hard enough.

The pandemic has forced travellers to rethink the entire concept of travel. People have opted for close-to-home getaways and had the opportunity to find new reasons to love their home country. Travellers have rediscovered classic road trips, which really allow you to appreciate the journey (and the passing scenery). And for so many people, this year has brought a renewed appreciation for the great outdoors: our beaches, national parks, lakes and villages.

Though the pandemic has been bad news for many industries, it may also make travel more affordable for people in the future. We’ve seen incredible deals and value-added incentives this year, and we expect travellers to find bargains long after the pandemic is safely behind us.

If nothing else, the pandemic has really forced the travel industry to put its customers first. Many hotel chains and airlines have extended elite status and significantly altered qualification criteria for next year. Many major airlines have permanently removed cancellation and rebooking fees, giving travellers more flexibility than ever before. Resort and parking fees are on the decline. Cleanliness, space and peace of mind have taken top priority.

This isn’t to say that the pandemic has been a good thing. It hasn’t been — at all. But as we try to make sense of this long, cold winter, it’s possible to see flashes of silver in the dark. And, when the industry does emerge from its extended slumber, perhaps travel will be more accessible and consumer-friendly than ever.

Reporting by Nick Ellis, Clint Henderson, Summer Hull, Melanie Lieberman, Gene Sloan, Benet Wilson and Hayley Coyle

Featured photo by Fabian Gysel / Getty Images. 

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