The COVID-19 pandemic has brought travel to a standstill. Now that we’re playing the Will They, Won’t They game with airlines on a daily basis, the question is, Will We or Won’t We travel again? And if we do, when? And how? We asked India’s top travel experts for their opinions. Here’s what we predict will be the 10 new travel trends to look for:
1. India will be more incredible than ever
COVID-19 has affected almost every country on the planet, and each one is likely to recover at a different rate. In this climate of uncertainty, people are also more likely to choose destinations close to home, so that they can rush back if necessary. All the travel experts we spoke to agree that for the next few months, we are far more likely to choose Indian destinations to travel to. While things are constantly changing, it’s promising that Goa had reported only seven confirmed cases, all of whom are said to have fully recovered. Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, both tourist hotspots, have reported under 50 cases, while Ladakh, Andaman & Nicobar, Meghalaya and Puducherry have far fewer than that. Sikkim, incredibly, hasn’t had a single case yet.
2. But you will choose your hotels differently
There’s no denying it—you can’t wait for things to get back to normal—whatever that’s going to look like. But the truth is that things have changed. And you’ll change, too. Experts predict that you’re going to choose your accommodation differently. First, you’ll book with brands you know and trust to have hygiene systems in place to keep you safe and secure. You’ll also search for smaller properties that are centrally located, so that you spend less time in public transportation getting from one place to the next. Hotels that offer minimum ‘touchpoints’ will also fare well—hopefully no more long lines at check-in and check-out. You should be able to do it all digitally. Key cards might also become a thing of the past. As for crowded buffet breakfasts? No chance.
When it comes to your weekend breaks or long summer breaks, you’re more likely to choose secluded, boutique properties that are out in nature, away from crowded cities. You’ll also look to rent out private homes, bungalows and villas but only those that come with verifications and very high reviews pertaining to cleanliness and sanitation. Extra points if they grow their own organic veggies. But that’s not all. Perhaps this time has made you pause to reconsider your lifestyle? You’re more likely to choose a hotel that values sustainability, takes care of its workers and gives back to its local community. And if it offers wellness features that go beyond spa treatments to practices like meditation, sound healing, even better.
3. Sanitisation will be the new security
In Goa, there are talks of foreign tourists requiring a health certificate to visit. Even Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, argues for a global agreement on pre-screening travellers in their home countries before they actually board their international flights. “If you know that only carefully screened travellers were allowed on a plane, you would be more willing to accept them into your country,” he wrote recently in the Financial Times. Airlines like Emirates and Etihad are already experimenting with new procedures like mandatory blood tests for all passengers and staff.
You’d also be way more willing to stay in accommodation that you’re confident is extremely clean and hygienic. You’ll want to know that the staff in a hotel is following strict guidelines, both at work and at home. And you’ll want to know exactly how your hotel or villa owner is ensuring that. You’ll demand total transparency—and odds are, you’ll get it. If it seems ludicrous, just remember until 26/11, we never walked through security scanners to enter hotels in India. Now we do so without batting an eyelid, even handing over our purses and phones as we are electronically scanned. Health, hygiene and sanitisation will become de rigueur. The next time you walk into your favourite hotel or restaurant, don’t be surprised to see only half as many tables and chairs as you’d normally find. Social distancing will continue until a vaccine is found, say many experts.
4. Your flight ticket prices might go up
So you want to continue with social distancing, but it does get tricky on an airplane. Right now, airlines across the world are grappling with how they’re going to reconfigure seating so as to give you more room. (One likely solution will be to leave middle seats empty.) The good news is that you’re likely to have way more space in your Economy seat. The bad news is that you should expect a hike in prices. If airlines have to allow more space between passengers, their seat inventory will go down to 65 percent. That’s just about a break-even point for a flight.
So how is an airline going to make any money at all? They have little choice but to increase ticket prices. Plus, airlines have to invest in training and a number of new measures to keep you safe in the air, plus additional customer service staff to address the massive volume of queries concerning cancellations, refunds, etc.
Going forward, you can also expect aircraft to be equipped with things like surgical gloves, sanitising wipes, contact-less infrared thermometers, etc. What are you going to see less of? In-flight reading material like magazines in your seatback pockets, and less chit-chat with friendly flight attendants.
5. The classic road trip will make a comeback
Experts also predict that we’ll start travelling with short trips to destinations to which we can drive in our own private vehicles. An open road, your favourite tracks playing and a blue sky up above doesn’t sound too bad right now, does it? Car rental companies will likely offer great rates post-lockdown, with assurances of each vehicle having been deep-cleaned after each use. In the short-term, there might still be restrictions on crossing state borders for leisure travel, so look for options within your own state. Major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata have a host of wonderful options. Staycations will also emerge as a popular first choice, as it offers you some much-needed space and quality time in a beautiful setting—without any hassle of travelling at all.
6. A return to nature and wildlife—and a demand for responsible travel
No surprises here. As we lockdown in our apartments, grateful for our balconies, terraces, plants, even windows, we’re dreaming of things like wide-open skies, cool breeze, an expanse of ocean, acres of lush green forest, snow-capped mountains and just being in the wild outdoors. We’re marvelling at the birds we can hear chirping outside, and wondering how our elephants and tigers are doing this summer—April and May being the best time to spot them in our national parks. All of this signifies that what we’re really craving is a return to nature in its most pristine forms. That means we will likely look towards secluded places of incredible natural beauty when planning our first vacation post the pandemic. But it also means that we are more likely than ever to select those destinations and hotels that practise responsible tourism.
7. The Big Fat Indian Wedding will go on a diet
You can’t impose a lockdown on love, and even if you try, love will find a way—straight to the happy ending. New York City is now officially allowing couples to marry via Zoom. But us desis are likely to postpone the deed until we can get back out there and have a sangeet. But large gatherings are likely to still be frowned upon and make guests nervous. The solution? A series of several intimate events (50-100 people each) leading to the actual ceremony, and much smaller reception than normal. And once restrictions on travel are eased, destination weddings will be extremely popular. They naturally attract only those closest to you, and you’ll be able to take over a small hotel completely for your party, or then a wing or floor of a larger hotel.
8. Luxury will become more affordable
Another reality we’re all being forced to confront is that the economy has slowed down drastically, millions of jobs are on the line, the stock markets and the INR are plummeting. We are going to have to think hard about the money we are spending—and what we’re spending it on. Similarly, the travel industry is going to think about how they can provide us better value for our money. For luxury hotels and other services, that could mean anything from dropping their room rates to throwing in a host of perks, such as airport transfers or letting kids eat for free. If you’re looking at other accommodation options, such as Airbnbs or other rentals, chances are you’ll find them at better prices too, until things pick up. The general expectation is, the sooner you’re willing to travel, the better a deal you can expect to find once lockdown ends and restrictions are eased.
9. You will have more flexibility
Another piece of good news for travellers is that the travel industry is going to make it as easy as possible for you to book your next trip—while relaxing their usual rules and conditions. In the short-term, it’s going to be much simpler for you to book a trip, postpone it, cancel it and get a full refund. You will also enjoy the benefits of your loyalty programmes for longer. You will likely not lose your existing status this year. Airlines and hotels realise that their biggest fans and most regular customers are the ones most likely to return the soonest, so they’ll ensure they keep you. Everybody wins! Take for instance, the world’s largest hotel company, Marriott International, whose Bonvoy programme provides a wealth of perks, such as late check-outs, free stays, upgrades, lounge access, etc. In the wake of the pandemic, Marriott has announced that it would extend members’ existing statuses from 2019 until February 2022! Plus, your points won’t expire until February 2021. Loyalty will be rewarded, so don’t go throwing those membership cards away.
10. Experiences will trump products
This pandemic has sent shock waves and wreaked havoc across the world. But as you’re staying in lockdown, scrolling Instagram mindlessly, binge-watching Netflix shows, working from home, baking banana bread or trying to homeschool your kids, you’ve undoubtedly given some thought to your lifestyle. Hopefully, that means you’ve made a charitable contribution or made sure to take care of your employees and help out your neighbours. Perhaps you’ve decided to turn vegan, or buy fewer handbags, or exercise daily, or offset your carbon footprint. Maybe you’ve felt the pangs of missing your loved ones who are scattered across the world. Or sympathised with a friend who has lost someone to this disease. Whatever your state of mind, odds are you’ve realised you can do with much less than you imagined; you don’t need to buy as many things as you did; it takes very little to make you happy; and that the people in your life are the most important thing. You’re going to want to spend your time, money and energy on spending time with your favourite people, family and friends.