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The Road Ahead: How COVID-19 has changed the way we travel

Americans are poised to begin traveling again. But how we travel and where we go will not be the same.

The Road Ahead: How COVID-19 has changed the way we travel
[Photo: jacoblund/iStock; Artturi Jalli/Unsplash; Nextvoyage, Alex Azabache/Pexels; rawpixel]
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This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we’ll experience the world after the pandemic.

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For the past several decades, the world has felt increasingly accessible. In the 1990s, led by RyanAir and EasyJet, low-cost airlines began turning second-tier airports into jumping-off points for cheap global explorations. The 2000s ushered in the points-and-miles credit card era, transforming workaday road warriors into world-savvy jetsetters. In 2008, Airbnb launched, making it possible for travelers to “belong anywhere” while sleeping affordably in the homes of locals. And then Instagram arrived, followed by selfie stick-wielding influencers who obsessively mapped the globe’s most beautiful coves, peaks, villages, and beaches, inviting others to follow.

By December 2019, if you had time and disposable income, the world’s hidden corners were more or less available to you, for better and worse. Travelers can bring money and fresh energy to a destination, but they can also love it to death, as places like Venice and Machu Picchu know all too well.

That all changed, of course, last year, when the world went on lockdown. Air travel dropped 60% globally, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Hotel occupancy in the United States was down 33% from 2019. International tourist arrivals worldwide, which had reached 1.5 billion in 2019, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, plummeted 74% to just 381 million. The organization estimates the loss in international tourism receipts due to COVID-19 to be $1.3 trillion, putting at direct risk up to 120 million tourism jobs—and a vast number of ancillary ones. When the world stops traveling, the repercussions are enormous.

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As vaccinations roll out across the United States and other parts of the world, Americans are poised to begin traveling again. But, as we explore in this package, how we travel and where we go will not be the same. And the places we visit will be inexorably altered.

The idea of digital nomadism—setting up a virtual office from just about anywhere—has been popular in the more wanderlust-filled corners of the travel world for the past decade. But when offices closed last year, the pipe dream became a possibility for many. After suffering through a spring that CEO Brian Chesky described to Fast Company executive editor Benjamin Landy as driving 100 miles an hour then hitting the brakes (“There’s no safe way to do that. Things are going to break”), Airbnb leaned into the kinds of rustic retreats and longer-term stays that appeal to nouveau nomads. It ended the year with a record-breaking IPO that has made it the most valuable hospitality company in the world. Chesky now sees global nomadism—a world where people can work from any home—as key to the future.

He’s not alone. Destinations from Estonia to Barbados have been introducing long-term travel visas to entice newly remote workers and revive local economies that have decimated without traditional tourism. Hotel companies, as well, are embracing nomads by introducing new long-term stay properties and products aimed at travelers who want to treat hotels more like homes. The trend is likely here to stay. According to a Fast Company-Harris poll of 1,105 people across a spectrum of income brackets, 57% of people plan to travel out of town while working remotely when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

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When international borders closed, domestic travel also came into the spotlight. For Americans, that has meant a renewed—or perhaps entirely new—interest in the great outdoors. In North America, there were five times as many first-time campers last year than the year before, according to the private campground company KOA. Indeed, one of the few bright spots in the travel industry over the past year has been companies aimed at camping and glamping. Camping booking platform Hipcamp became a boon to the landowners that list their properties on the site, while #vanlife startups Cabana and Kibbo found traction amid the crisis. And Getaway, a hotel company that rents cabins in the woods outside major metropolitan areas, reported an occupancy rate of 99% in 2020—unheard of for most hotels, even in the best of times. Fast Company senior staff writer Elizabeth Segran, who has been spending time at Getaways throughout the pandemic, offers an inside look at the appeal of these tiny, WiFi-free cabins.

The fate of some types of travel remains unclear. Industry watchers are bullish that business travel will return in some form, despite Bill Gates’s prediction last November that more than 50% of such trips will be eliminated in the post-pandemic world. But as my colleague Kristin Toussaint reports, companies are using this opportunity to reassess how they deploy workers, along with both the financial and carbon footprint of corporate travel. Prior to the pandemic, carbon emissions from aviation, though only 2% of overall global emissions, were growing faster than predicted by the United Nations: by 23% from 2013 to 2018. A 2020 study found that 50% of those emissions are concentrated among just 1% of the world’s population: the super travelers, who include many corporate road warriors.

Arguably the most urgent question mark of all hangs over those further-flung destinations that have traditionally relied almost exclusively on international travel: places like Peru, Kenya, Fiji, Thailand. Even though many international borders are now open to Americans, the U.S. State Department currently has Do Not Travel advisories for 80% of the world’s countries, most of them due to the continuing spread of COVID-19—and lack of vaccine penetration—in these places.

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Destinations that are blessed with the kind of natural beauty that draws high-spending travelers from around the globe are now riding on fumes economically. The Indonesian island of Bali, in particular, takes in an estimated 53% of its revenue from tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. In the second quarter of 2020, 90% of the island’s tours and travel providers had closed, and many of the hotels that remained opened were running at less than 10% occupancy. The ripple effects from this have been profound: unemployment and a return to subsistence farming on an island that had previously held the promise of upward mobility.

Indonesia’s borders remain closed, though the country is reportedly considering allowing international travelers to visit Bali by the end of July. Many hotel general managers remain skeptical that they’ll see any significant return of international visitors until 2022.

International travelers will inevitably return to Bali—and the rest of the world. We will get back on planes, sleep in hotels and other people’s homes, mingle with locals in restaurants and bars. We will hoard our points and miles and post about our adventures on social media.

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But we will never see the world in quite the same way again.