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Holiday Travel Cleared for Take Off, but COVID-19 Continues to Impact the Journey

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After more than a year and half of the pandemic, the holiday travel season will get a strong start with 3 in 10 of all trips Americans plan to take slated for Thanksgiving.

Over the course of the holiday travel season, two-thirds of travelers will fly and/or stay in paid lodging. Over half (58%) of travelers say they expect to spend about the same on travel as they did in 2019, and 1 in 5 will spend significantly more, driven by higher-income households.

Travelers continue to be concerned about COVID-19 and are embracing mitigation measures, saying they are more likely to book a flight if masking (64%) or vaccinations (58%) are required.

Workplace flexibility is giving holiday travel a boost, spurring 75% of travelers who plan to work during their trips to add extra days because of the ability to work remotely.

Why this matters

The holidays are a time to connect with family and friends, and this year a return to travel will make spirits bright for many. According to Deloitte’s inaugural report, “2021 Deloitte Holiday Travel Survey,” Americans plan to hit the roads and skies, as well as hotels and private rentals, to rekindle holiday traditions, but health and financial concerns still weigh on their minds. The report is based on a survey of 6,512 Americans fielded Sept. 9-23, and among those, 2,759 qualified as travelers, and a smaller subset of 1,501 travelers noted they would stay in paid lodging during the holiday season.

Travelers cautiously plan for holiday getaways

The survey uncovers plenty of reason to hope for leisure travel’s robust rebound, but due to ongoing health and financial concerns, some consumers plan to celebrate the holidays at home. For those not traveling, concern about the health of loved ones and waiting for the pandemic to end are the top reasons to stay home, beating out financial concerns.

The holiday travel season will kick off with a strong start with 3 in 10 of all trips Americans plan to take slated around Thanksgiving. Overall, 42% of Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January, taking an average of two trips during the season.

Older Americans are more cautious about the season: 36% of those over 55 years old plan to travel, compared to 45% of 18 to 34 year olds. Those 55 and older also are less likely to participate in travel activities and experiences. For example, 13% will attend a ticketed or public event, compared to 35% of those aged 18 to 34, and 27% will visit a major attraction, compared to 53% of those aged 18 to 34.

About twice as many travelers plan to road trip (70%) versus fly (37%), citing enjoyment (38%) and convenience (28%) as the top reasons, above health (12%).

More than one-third of holiday travelers (37%) will take a flight over the holidays. Domestic flyers are avoiding layovers; only 6% plan to take a domestic flight requiring a connection. Nearly 1 in 3 of those who will fly, plan to take an international flight.

While 60% will take trips involving a stay with friends or family, slightly fewer (54%) will stay at a hotel or private rental. Nearly a quarter plan to both stay in paid lodging and with friends and relatives across the season.

The pandemic continues to mint new private rental travelers: 43% of those staying in rentals over the holidays have tried this lodging type for the first time during the pandemic. Three in 4 new private renters expect to continue using rentals for at least half of their trips going forward.

Income divide deepens across the travel sector

Bifurcated spending on holiday leisure travel is making the experience merry for some, and bah-humbug for many others. Most travelers say they expect to spend about the same on travel as they did in 2019, and 1 in 5 will spend significantly more. However, a greater share of lower-income households will spend significantly less, and are almost three times as likely to cite financial reasons for staying home.

Higher-income Americans are almost twice as likely to travel this holiday season compared to lower-income Americans (53% versus 32%).

Spending intent also varies widely. Compared to 2019, 26% of lower-income travelers plan to spend less on holiday travel, compared to 30% of higher-income travelers who plan to spend significantly more. Approximately half (48%) of higher-income travelers will spend more than $5,000 on their longest trip, while half (50%) of lower-income travelers will spend less than $1,000.

While 43% of travelers will take one trip over the holiday season, 1 in 3 higher-income travelers will travel three or more times, compared to 1 in 5 lower- and middle-income travelers who travel with the same frequency.

Furthermore, higher-income travelers are more likely to stay in paid lodging (63% versus 43% for lower-income travelers), and nearly twice as likely to fly (48% versus 26% for lower-income travelers).

The frequency of travelers driving their own car for holiday travel is nearly equal across income levels (56% for lower-income travelers, 58% for middle-income travelers, and 55% for higher-income travelers).

Travelers embrace COVID-19 requirements

Lingering health concerns continue to impact when and how Americans travel for the holiday season. In selecting a destination, travelers are considering their vaccination status, local COVID-19 restrictions, and ability to avoid crowds.

Most travelers embrace COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures. Nearly two-thirds (64%) are more likely to book a flight if masking is required, and 58% say the same for proof of vaccination.

A full two-thirds of high-income travelers say vaccine requirements make them more inclined to fly. However, 16% of travelers say a vaccine requirement would make them less likely to fly; 10% say the same for masking.

Vaccination status of those in the travel party and the destination’s COVID-19 restrictions are the two top factors in determining where to travel this season.

With many trips spurred by visits to friends and family, 42% will head to cities for the holidays. Beaches (22%) and the great outdoors (16%) are other top travel destinations which offer the ability to unwind and avoid crowds.

Travelers under 55 years old are 4.5 times more likely to travel with children, and the vaccination status of children will affect their holiday plans. One in 10 Americans under 55 years old cite their unvaccinated children as a reason to stay home, and one in seven cite is as a reason not to stay in paid lodging.

The gift of remote work boosts holiday travel

Ongoing workplace flexibility and remote work continues to provide a boon to the travel sector, with working travelers taking more trips, increasing their budgets and extending their stays.

  • While most will completely disconnect, 4 in 10 travelers will work for at least part of their trip this holiday season.
  • Working vacationers are taking twice as many trips this holiday season as those planning to disconnect on their getaways.
  • Three-quarters of travelers (75%) who plan to work during their trip are adding at least one day to their stay as a result. And, more than half (57%) will add three or more days to their longest leisure trip because they have the ability to work remotely.
  • Working vacationers are more than two times as likely to increase the budget for their leisure trips as compared to 2019. Company work from home policies were cited as a key driver of increased trip budgets.

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Tourism

Coronavirus pandemic could cost global tourism $2 trillion this year

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The coronavirus pandemic will likely cost the global tourism sector $2 trillion in lost revenue in 2021, the UN’s tourism body said Monday, calling the sector’s recovery “fragile” and “slow.”

According to the latest forecast by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the same amount was lost in 2020, making it one of the sectors hit hardest by the health crisis.

Despite recent improvements, the report warned that demand for travel could be further affected by “uneven vaccination rates around the world and new COVID-19 strains which had prompted new travel restrictions in some countries.

In the past few days, the emergence of the Omicron variant has led dozens of countries to reinstate restrictions on arrivals, or to delay relaxation in COVID-19 travel and testing rules, leading to wide uncertainty for holiday season travellers worldwide.

Spikes in oil prices and the disruption of global supply chains have also had an effect. According to the latest UNWTO data, international tourist arrivals are expected to remain 70-75 per cent below 2019 levels in 2021, a similar decline as in 2020.

‘We cannot let our guard down’

Although a 58 per cent increase in tourist arrivals was registered in July-September of this year compared to the same period in 2020, this remained 64 per cent below 2019 levels, the UN body found.

In August and September, arrivals were at 63 per cent lower than 2019, which is the highest monthly result since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between January and September 2021, worldwide international tourist arrivals stood at 20 per cent lower, compared to 2020, a clear improvement from the 54 per cent drop, over the first six months of the year. 

“Data for the third quarter of 2021 is encouraging,” UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said. “However, arrivals are still 76 per cent below pre-pandemic levels and results across the different global regions remain uneven.”

In light of the rising cases and the emergence of new variants, he added that “we cannot let our guard down and need to continue our efforts to ensure equal access to vaccinations, coordinate travel procedures, make use of digital vaccination certificates to facilitate mobility, and continue to support the sector.”

Uneven recovery

Despite the improvement seen in the third quarter of the year, the pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions.

In some sub-regions, such as Southern and Mediterranean Europe, the Caribbean, North and Central America, arrivals actually rose above 2020 levels in the first nine months of 2021.

However, arrivals in Asia and the Pacific were down by as much as 95 per cent when compared with 2019, as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.

Africa and the Middle East recorded 74 per cent and 81 per cent drops respectively in the third quarter compared to 2019. Among the larger destinations, Croatia, Mexico and Turkey showed the strongest recovery in the period of July to September.

Caribbean rebound

The Caribbean had the highest results of any of the subregions defined by the UNWTO, with arrivals up 55 per cent compared to 2020.

International tourist arrivals “rebounded” during the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere thanks to increased travel confidence, rapid vaccination and the easing of entry restrictions in many nations.

In Europe, the EU Digital Covid Certificate has helped facilitate free movement within the European Union, the report added.

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Tourism

New COVID-19 Surges Keep Travel Restrictions in Place

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Photo: Lukas Souza/Unsplash

One out of five destinations continue to have their borders completely closed as new surges of COVID-19 impact the restart of international tourism. The latest research shows that still 98% of all destinations have some kind of travel restrictions in place.

According to the UNWTO Travel Restrictions Report, 46 destinations (21% of all destinations worldwide) currently have their borders completely closed to tourists. Of these, 26 destinations have had their borders completely closed since at least the end of April 2020. A further 55 (25% of all global destinations) continue to have their borders partially closed to international tourism, and 112 destinations (52% of all destinations) require international tourists to present a PCR or antigen test upon arrival.

The research also shows how destinations are opening up to vaccinated international tourists: 85 destinations (39% of all destinations worldwide) have eased restrictions for fully vaccinated international tourists, while 20 destinations (9% of all destinations worldwide) have made a full COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for entering a destination for tourism purposes. However, just four destinations have so far lifted all COVID-19-related restrictions completely (Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico).

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili says: “The safe easing or lifting of restrictions on travel are essential for the restart of tourism and the return of the social and economic benefits the sector offers. The trend towards destinations taking evidence-based approaches to restrictions reflects the evolving nature of the pandemic will also help restore confidence in travel while helping keep both tourists and tourism workers safe.”  

As in previous editions of the UNWTO Travel Restrictions Report research, this latest report shows that regional differences with regards to travel restrictions remain. Asia and the Pacific remains the region with the most restrictions in place, with 65% of all destinations completely closed. In comparison, Europe is the most open global region to international tourists (7% of borders completely closed), followed by Africa (9%), the Americas (10%) and the Middle East (15%).

The ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic further emphasises the importance of national authorities ensuring that immigration procedures and requirements are provided in a timely, reliable and consistent manner across all information systems and platforms, to maintain confidence and trust and to further facilitate international mobility.

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Tourism

Reframing tourism to address plastic pollution

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At the intersection of greater environmental awareness, stricter public health measures and the return of the tourism industry lies an enduring threat: plastic pollution.

Research shows that increased production and use of personal protective equipment in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly contributed to plastic pollution on beaches and elsewhere.

But it is not just the COVID-19 pandemic that is leading to an increase in plastic pollution. A new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, shows that plastic pollution has been increasing year on year, even before the pandemic.

There is currently between 75–199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean, and in 2016 some 9–14 tons of waste entered the aquatic ecosystem. But by 2040, it is estimated that this will have almost tripled to 23–37 million tons per year. Plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of all marine waste.

Changes to the traveller, government and institutional approaches are necessary to address the plastic crisis and protect human and environmental health.

Traveller choices

Experts say that reducing single-use plastic product consumption and adhering to public health and sanitary measures to protect from COVID-19 and other diseases is not mutually exclusive.

“During the pandemic, we have seen a misconception on reusable products, such as steel water bottles being less safe than single-use plastic water bottles,” says Helena Rey de Assis, UNEP Programme Manager. “This wrong perception has increased the use of single-use plastic products by consumers and affected government and tourism operators’ regulations. Single-use plastic items and packaging are not sanitization measures in themselves. The virus can survive on these, and they can be contaminated during their transport or handling.”

Rey de Assis says travellers on holiday can take steps to reduce the amount of waste they generate while saving costs. Bringing one’s own bags, water bottles and toiletries can decrease the burden on local waste and recycling infrastructure. It would also gradually reduce local economies’ dependency on single-use plastic products.

UNEP’s Clean Seas platform – the largest global coalition devoted to ending marine plastic pollution – has produced an interactive project entitled “What’s in your bathroom?” highlighting the prevalence of plastic in common personal care products. As many of these products are available in tourist accommodations, shifting to viable alternatives can help reduce the threat of plastic.

Government legislation

The impetus on reducing plastic pollution does not lie solely with individuals. Strong legislation has been shown to be an effective means to ban, reduce or phase out single-use plastic.

Bans can prompt the local tourism sector to innovate, provide visitors with environmentally friendly options, and educate consumers. In Kenya, the ban on single-use plastics has addressed its “plastic pollution catastrophe,” according to Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

“The ban has improved the state of Kenyan beaches and national parks with reduced visible plastic pollution,” says Balala. “Efforts should be global because even if we clean our country, we will always have plastics that are thrown from ships in high seas swept to our beaches. Therefore, I would like to make a worldwide appeal for people to reduce the use of single-use plastics, and eventually, abolish it altogether.”

Institutional incentives

Tourism operators, businesses and institutions can also take the initiative to voluntarily support the shift away from the industry’s reliance on plastic. Leading the way in voluntarily reducing plastic use can reap commercial benefits. Less litter, for example, can lead to more picturesque views and more visitors.

The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI), co-led by UNEP, requires national and local governments, private companies and supporting organizations in the tourism sector to commit to reducing plastic pollution and shift towards circularity by 2025.

The online travel platform Booking.com is one of over 100 signatories to the GTPI committed to creating a circular economy of plastics. This commitment includes steps to eliminate single-use plastics while maintaining health protocols.

“While we agree that health and safety is of the utmost importance, we also saw that many of our partners were unaware of alternative, plastic-free ways to offer high levels of cleanliness and hygiene at their properties,” said Thomas Loughlin, Sustainable Supply Lead at Booking.com. “This is why we published our own set of guidelines, created in partnership with the GTPI. We wanted to make sure our partners had access to a broader range of credible, practical information, so they could make more informed decisions about how to tackle these challenges in a sustainable way.”

UNEP has partnered with Flipflopi, a circular economy movement based in East Africa, and Routes Adventure to release a short film entitled “Pieces of us,” set in the tourist destination of Lamu, Kenya. The film highlights the role that visitors have played in shifting the local economy towards a reliance on tourist-oriented products.

Following pandemic-enforced closures, travellers, governments, and institutions have a unique opportunity to reframe the tourism industry with sustainability at its heart. Now is the time to fight back against plastic pollution and ensure a cleaner, more resilient and more economically viable future.

UNEP

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