Travel industry's reckoning in 2021: 'frivolous indulgence belongs to another era'

Remote destinations, last-minute bookings and group travel are some of the key trends to emerge over the past year

Wellness holidays are in high demand, with spa resorts in the Maldives, such as The Westin Maldives Miriandhoo Resort, remaining open in the pandemic. Photo: Marriott International Hotel

Since the pandemic took hold in March 2020, border closures and stay-at-home orders have brought economic disaster to much of the travel industry.

By this November, although some countries remained sealed to tourists – from Australia, Bhutan and China to Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam – borders were reopening, testing requirements easing and an end to Covid restrictions seemed in sight. Then Omicron swept in. Overturning plans and creating havoc all over again, the ultra-infectious new strain of the coronavirus has brought yet another round of curfews, lockdowns and travel bans in its wake.

New Zealand has postponed plans for a phased reopening of its borders. Dan Freeman / Unsplash

So what might 2022 hold for one of the world’s biggest industries? We’re all probably eager for a holiday, but the new year is not getting off to a promising start. Major airlines have had to ground fleets as they seek mergers, and even holiday giants such as Germany’s Tui have had to lay off staff as bookings have shrivelled.

Smaller operators continue to struggle

In the UK, bookings platform Hoo says not even the global boom in staycations has saved the hotel industry from a 73 per cent decrease in occupancy compared with 2019. And small holiday companies everywhere – the kind with owners who know all their employees and suppliers, from airport greeters to camel-ride guides – have had an especially bleak time.

“For the last 22 months, I, my wife, sister and all our employees have been desperately worried about our jobs, our livelihoods and our futures,” says the owner of a family business organising activity holidays in Scandinavia who has asked to remain anonymous. “Every single day, it has been like waking from a bad dream only to find ourselves in a nightmare.”

Some of the changes the travel industry has had to make, as staff shrink and costs have to be cut, were inevitable, he says. “The end of the era of ridiculous turn-down services, for example. I am more worried for the industry’s current collective mental health. I know good people who are broken, good people who have given up, and others who are slowly crumbling under the weight of it all. The pressure has been relentless.”

'Hope for the best but prepare for the worst'

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst has always been the travel industry’s unofficial motto. After all, these are the people who, at the best of times, routinely have to see, soothe and retain their guests through anything from cancelled flights and flooded rooms to crocodile attacks. Those companies that are surviving – just – have done so by nimbly adapting to what The Economist calls “our new era of predictable unpredictability”.

Quote
Navigating through so many changes, cancellations, refunds, postponements, 100 per cent flexibility had to become our new norm
Lisa Fitzell, managing director, Elegant Resorts

“The way we operate changed completely when the pandemic hit in 2020,” says Lisa Fitzell, managing director of UK tour operator Elegant Resorts. “Navigating through so many changes, cancellations, refunds, postponements, 100 per cent flexibility had to become our new norm. We introduced low deposits, rightful refunds, delayed balance payments. How we operated internally changed, all to be able to pivot and adapt to the ever-changing new rules and trends.”

Book today, fly tomorrow

Notable among these new trends is a desire to travel at short notice, with “a book today, fly tomorrow” approach increasingly common when holidays are feasible; a desire for remote, peaceful destinations rather than anywhere with crowds; and for group bookings. “Whether extended families or a bunch of friends, we’ve seen a real uptick in reunions and groups of 14 or more,” says Oliver Bell of Oliver’s Travels in London.

At luxury travel operator Carrier, managing director Mark Duguid is finding that his wealthy clients are keen on bigger, better, longer holidays. “Demand for secluded accommodation in sensational landscapes far from city centres is greater than ever – wilderness lodges, remote chalets, luxury house-boats, boutique hotels that are off the beaten track,” he says.

Demand for secluded wilderness holidays is on the rise. Photo: Lepogo Lodges

Original Travel, another operator in the UK, has responded to a similar desire among its clients to end “throwaway trips” with a Travel Less, Travel Better collection of philanthropically oriented “slow travel” holidays.

The rise of 'slow travel'

Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers in the UK, says the main change he’s seen is around ethical and sustainable tourism. “Clients now are looking to get the maximum holiday out of the minimum air travel. They’re asking for trips such as our walking with bears tour in Slovakia that give back to local communities through homestays, local drivers and local guides.”

And if people do commit to a long-haul flight, they want to make the most of it, says Jeremy Clubb of South American specialist Rainforest Cruises. “We’ve witnessed a huge increase in the average price spend on experiences – 180 per cent, in fact. Is that due to people having more disposable income from not going on vacation for the last 22 months? Or are they splashing out because they feel they deserve it after a challenging period? Who can say? But people are certainly embracing bucket lists.”

Even the best-planned trip can go horribly awry, of course, and travellers are becoming more risk-averse. “We’re meeting many new clients who’ve never used a tour operator before and who have realised the benefits of an experienced navigator,” says Tom Marchant of luxury travel company Black Tomato.

True Traveller’s Covid-friendly insurance has also benefitted from this shift, says managing director Tim Riley. “People are really taking the time to read their policies now.”

In search of wellness

A handout photo of the two-bedroom Water Suite at Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru in Maldives (Courtesy: Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru) *** Local Caption ***  WK03JA-TR-INSIDER-MALDIVES.jpg

Unsurprisingly, wellness holidays have enjoyed robust bookings. Spa resorts in the Maldives, such as the Joali and the two Four Seasons properties, have remained open for much of the pandemic. And from The Queen of Retreats’ hideaways to mainland Greece’s Euphoria Retreat, which launched its Feel Alive Again programme to help guests “negotiate the post pandemic world with fresh energy and vigour”, small, tranquil spas have survived by providing a true refuge for those desperate to escape the stresses of lockdown.

Yacht charter companies have proven to be the pandemic’s great survivors, however. "Demand has increased dramatically,“ says Nicholas Dean of charter and management company Ocean Independence. “It’s the wholly exclusive element – the ultimate bubble. Clients have their own crew, their own chef and no need to go ashore. Nothing else is even remotely similar for those wanting to travel in safety.”

“We’ve seen a much bigger demand for superyachts, especially for multigenerational family groups,” agrees Dora Vulic of Sail Dalmatia. “There’s also more awareness around environmental initiatives and our newest fleet reflects that. Solar panels, water purifiers, hybrid-electric engines and much less plastic on board are now commonplace.”

Demand for superyachts, such as this one seen at Dubai Harbour, has increased exponentially. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The pandemic has been a major catalyst in the digitisation of travel services, with documentation, room access and proof of vaccine status all moving to our phones. Lynn Hood, chief operating officer of Focus Hotels, points to an increase in simplification, especially with hotels’ food and beverage offerings, and a move away from cash payments.

Yet it’s changing attitudes that may prove the most directional in 2022.

The small things in life

“I think people are more considerate than before the pandemic,” says Sean Moriarty, general manager of Hotel Quinta do Lago in the Algarve. “It’s made everyone appreciate the small things in life. People care more about the planet.”

Vale do Lobo Ocean golf course at Hotel Quinta do Lago in Algarve, Portugal. Photo: The Leading Hotels of the World

A philosophical Ted Wake of Kirker Holidays elaborates: “We have all become much more aware of what an extraordinary privilege it is to be able to glide effortlessly from A to B. And in the future, we will perhaps elect to ration ourselves, treat ourselves to more authentic experiences, take slow travel seriously. Frivolous indulgence belongs to another era.”

Perhaps the last word, however, deserves to go to Raki Phillips, chief executive of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development: “Even before the pandemic there was an epochal shift in tourist aspirations, a growing ennui with the homogenisation of travel, the creeping sameness of every destination – and a desire to escape the resort mindset.

“Covid only accelerated that change. I think it’s important for destinations now to really embrace the qualities that define them. That’s the key to sustainable, transformational travel.”

Updated: January 5th 2022, 2:28 PM