Predictions about 21st century travel used to invoke visions of trips to outer space and flying to Australia in an afternoon.
Forget that, the real 21st century travel picture is a dystopian one involving queues, facemasks, hygiene worries and trying to find safe personal space – whether on a flight, a beach, or in a hotel dining room. Perhaps you’ll be self-isolating in quarantine at home afterwards as well.
There are already signals about what air travel will be like, with a few carriers laying down new rules. Air France is currently introducing checks of all passengers’ temperatures using contactless infrared thermometers, something that can only mean more time spent at the airport. On its flights, masks must be worn, there is no meal or beverage service on short-haul flights and on long-haul, service is “limited” and based on pre-packaged food.
Currently, there is no standard Covid-19 air passenger protocol, so Ryanair asks passengers to check their own temperature before travelling, saying only that passengers “may” be checked at the airport. All its onboard food and drink sales will be cashless and queuing for the toilets, banned.
Air France admitted that presently, “on almost all flights, the current low load factors make it possible to separate customers as required”, but added: “In cases where this is not possible, requiring all passengers and crew to wear masks ensures adequate health protection.”
Let’s hope passengers agree; meanwhile at least one aircraft seat manufacturer, Aviointeriors, is working on transparent screens to be fitted to existing aircraft seats and another concept in which the middle seat faces backwards and is shielded from adjacent passengers.
It used to be only business class passengers who enjoyed isolation from their neighbouring travellers, now it may be the norm for everyone.
However, technology is being developed that may dispense with extensive airport screening and which ensures all passengers are healthy. The Canary Islands and the World Tourism Organisation will operate a test flight in July from an as yet undecided start point using a “digital health passport” developed in the islands.
Medical information on the Hi + Card app is uploaded by an accredited body and held on smartphones, but until key technology like this is widely available, queuing may form a considerable part of the travel experience.
Professor Dimitrios Buhalis, Chair in Tourism at Bournemouth University, describes it as “business as un-usual”.
“For many years, we were looking at how to add value to the customer at the different stages of the system. Now, safety and security is becoming number one,” he said.
Aircraft passenger-carrying capability “will probably reduce by 30-40%” and airports, passenger processing and business models will be redesigned as a result, he believes.
Assuming consumers do still wish to travel, where will they go and what will they do?
G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip said lockdown meant “we are all at ground zero in the travel industry right now”.
Perhaps optimistically, Poon Tip believes this is travel’s transformative moment. He asked: “Why fight to get back to normal when you have such a fantastic opportunity to become a transformative industry as opposed to just selling capacity?”
G Adventures is already rethinking itineraries. “We used to sell being on a crowded bus with local people as a feature, we have to rethink that now and how we substitute that with private transport.
“The older demographic are not going to be willing to go back to crowded spaces, locked spaces like cruise ships or compound resorts, those kind of things.”
Capacity in tourist hotspots will be another issue if social distancing remains the norm. Buhalis suggests some will be de-densified, for example by making narrow streets one way and designating as out of bounds small spaces where tourists cannot be socially distanced.
One big change will be in hotels, with Poon Tip believing they “will need to meet new standards that we don’t know about yet”.
Tui has already given indications of what’s to come in its properties. Check-in will be contactless and the two-metre rule will apply in corridors, restaurants and other public areas. Meal times will be extended to allow for decreased capacity, so expect several different sittings and buffets, in Tui’s words, “reduced to a minimum”. Tui said golf or tennis could take place, but there will be no football tournaments. Cruise ship-style hand gel dispensers will be placed “at all important contact points”.
For any traveller willing to put up with all this, there’s the final obstacle of what happens upon their return. The government’s edict on quarantine for all UK arrivals was vague to the point of confusion. Dale Keller, chief executive of Bar UK, which represents UK airlines, said: “We are urgently pressing for detail, which is non-existent at the moment.”
He believes restrictions will be in place “probably by the end of May”, but will a family’s two weeks in Majorca be followed by a fortnight’s self-isolation at home as the proposals seem to suggest?
Keller’s understanding is it will: “The short answer is yes,” he said.
All this points to staycations, self-drive and even rail holidays becoming more popular.
In terms of destinations, France, if it opens its border, could be a big winner, with self-drive options – particularly via Eurotunnel - and an abundance of individual self-catering properties, plus, bizarrely, no quarantine requirement on return. More determined travellers might even decide to use France as a start point for a journey to another destination in the belief they can avoid quarantine in the UK.
However, Buhalis believes France, like many countries, will be reluctant to open its doors to the British soon. “Both the UK and France have been very high in terms of the spread of the virus and I don’t think governments have an appetite to allow people to travel until we have found medication or a vaccine.”
Spain has taken a similar view and Buhalis points out that a minor drunken altercation in Ibiza involving someone unknowingly carrying the virus will put staff, emergency services and locals at risk. “Once you mix people, you’re spreading it again”, he added.
Whether it’s a ‘lads on the lash’ holiday or a more enlightened pursuit, it looks like it will take real determination by consumers to tolerate travel under the new rules – when they are finally determined - and just how far consumers’ patience and faith in the new safety measures can be stretched still remains to be seen.
How do you believe the future of travel will change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Let us know your thoughts below.