The pandemic gives a lifeline to experiential travel

Zabir Rahman
There will be lasting shifts in destination choices once travel restrictions are lifted, with lesser known spots likely to become more popular
Associate Editor at Unravel

There will be lasting shifts in destination choices once travel restrictions are lifted, with lesser known spots likely to become more popular

Only six months ago, it was prudent to plan a holiday and create lasting memories with family and friends. Dreamy destinations would often appear as one scrolled through any social media platform, and not anybody would have forecast that travel will halt in its tracks – almost in a flash.

In no time, travel restrictions were everywhere. Airlines parked their planes and a few travel apps decided to show solidarity by superimposing a surgical mask on their logos that appeared on users’ device screens.

Being confined indoors may have stopped people from going on holidays, but it hasn’t stopped us from contemplating the next big one. Research findings from leading travel portals such as Tripadvisor and Booking.com indicate clearly that travel will not be limited to only the ‘essential’. Rather, leisure travel will pick up pace, and tourism will rebound with renewed force.

Only, there will be distinct shifts in preferences and choices.

State of travel

Tripadvisor’s study provides interesting numbers. In April this year, when the lockdown was perhaps at its most stringent globally, two in three (68%) surveyed said they were still thinking about travel and where they would like to go next. Interestingly, one in three said they were more likely to be watching videos of places they wanted to visit, and 18% said they were more likely to be watching travel-related shows and/ or documentaries than before. Clearly, lockdown may have locked people in their homes, but it wasn’t able to shut down their desire to travel.

While more than 40% of respondents said their next overseas trip is likely over a year away, and 60% said they will likely take fewer trips in the next 12 months than in the 12 gone by, 41% believe they will take the same number of trips or more in the coming 12 months.

Travel will not be limited to only the ‘essential’. Rather, leisure travel will pick up pace, and tourism will rebound with renewed force.

Much of the tourism we are going to see is going to be local or domestic, for obvious reasons relating to continued restrictions on air travel that are expected. Across the board, there has been a spike in searches related to domestic tourism, including hotels. It is this segment that will drive the recovery of tourism.  Local tourism is going to be key, with signs that travellers are likely to exhibit more interest in exploring their immediate vicinity rather than a faraway locale.

So, while the tourism industry has been one of the most badly hit by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, it is fairly clear that it will also be one of the first to bounce back once travel restrictions are eased.

Change in the air

With the spread of the virus, we’ve also seen a desire among people to support their communities in various ways—be it by buying locally manufactured and sourced masks, or buying products created in local communities—to help mitigate the economic impacts of the virus.

We will likely see something similar in the tourism industry, once we see a resumption in travel. Supporting local communities has been top of mind for many and the current international travel restrictions are going to lead people to seek offbeat locations, possibly those that are closer to nature – and closer home.

In fact, a survey showed as early as March that 68% of potential travellers are eager to try exclusive local experiences; the same subset also wanted their travel dollars to benefit local communities by partaking in local tours and tourism experiences.

In many ways, this will feed into the notion of the off-beat holiday. While it is fashionable for anyone with the means to travel far and wide for a vacation, over the years, we’ve seen the millennials drive travel into a different direction – one that is experiential, off the beaten track, and in short, not particularly popular. There is a desire to be different. This crisis, in my view, pushes this notion further.

Supporting local communities has been top of mind for many and the current international travel restrictions are going to lead people to seek offbeat locations, possibly those that are closer to nature – and closer home.

A few years ago, my colleagues in eastern Canada often opted to visit resort towns in Mexico and the Caribbean; only a handful had gone hiking in the Rockies in western Canada. The gateway to the Rockies is Calgary, Alberta and in terms of flying time, Calgary and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico were more-or-less equidistant from Toronto, Ontario. But it was Puerto Vallarta that was more popular.

To cite a personal example, I am yet to visit Ladakh in North India but I have acquired some familiarity with Melaka, a resort town in Malaysia. From my observations in my immediate and extended social circles, I have found it is a common tendency to overlook places of interest in one’s immediate surroundings.

Sure, this has been changing over the years and younger travellers seek more authentic, local experiences that are not ‘created’ to meet a tourism objective. Companies such as Backstreet Academy, which curates unique local experiences for travellers – such as a khukuri (a traditional knife) making workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal; a Javanese archery class in Yogyakarta, Indonesia; or a ‘fear factor’ culinary challenge in Siem Reap, Cambodia – and provides a peek into the lives of local communities and their craft, will in many ways redefine tourism on the other side of this pandemic.

Although participating in these experiences has usually been attractive mainly to overseas travellers, they will now find favour among local residents looking for a quick getaway – perhaps even a day tour to better explore their own ‘backyards’ without having to spend time traveling.

Travellers will travel

Wary consumers are yearning for travel, and for restrictions to ease. But in many ways, travel will not be the same. For many, there will be a degree of trepidation before stepping onto an airplane or a train for the first time after the lockdown.

Safety, health and hygiene, and value for money are going to be some defining trends in the tourism industry in the near future. These will also contribute to tourists seeking holidays in destinations that are perhaps more rural, closer to nature, and free of large crowds.

Rural getaways may begin to feature as destinations of choice. If this does happen and the changes stick, this could work wonders for rural economies - by creating jobs and by increasing economic activity there.

This is a sentiment echoed by Deep Kalra, founder of MakeMyTrip, India’s largest online travel portal. Mr Kalra has opined that many will choose to travel to ‘lesser-known tourist spots’.

In simple terms, busy resort towns or popular beaches are possibly going to find less favour; rather, rural getaways may begin to feature as destinations of choice.

If this does happen and the changes stick, this could work wonders for rural economies – by creating jobs and by increasing economic activity there. This can help kickstart local economies, and could limit the need for mass migration of workers to the cities in search of jobs. Additionally, they can contribute to local growth, that has its roots in the local community.

Just as September 2001 brought about lasting changes in air travel security protocol, a similar inflection point is around the corner in traveller’s location preferences. And when the pandemic curve eventually does flatten, we can be assured of the availability of a plethora of authentic experiences – far beyond open top tour bus rides.

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Zabir Rahman
Associate Editor at Unravel

Zabir is an associate editor at Unravel and drives research projects at StoneBench, with a focus on projects relating to media, digitalisation and technological adoption.

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