More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, hotel occupancy rates are still down, most cruise ships are docked, meeting and conference halls are empty, and travel agent bookings have stopped — or at least slowed considerably.
“There has been zero business travel booked since this pandemic started, and all international leisure travel has been negatively affected,” says Laurel Brunvoll, owner and president of Unforgettable Trips in Gaithersburg, MD.
But the pandemic is also showing that this industry is among the most resilient. Simply put, people want to travel. And travel advisors and suppliers alike are eager to get them on the road, in the air and aboard cruise ships. In fact, advisors who commented for this article say business is slowly returning; and some are getting inquiries and bookings for 2021 and beyond.
Sectors like air and lodging are already at work, albeit at a reduced capacity. According to the Transportation Security Administration, for example, the number of passengers going through checkpoints has been on a slow rise, from the low of 87,534 on April 14 (a 96 percent freefall from the same date in 2019) to over 2 million over the recent Labor Day weekend. Nearly half that total came on that Friday, when 968,000 travelers flew – the highest number since March 17.
And according to an American Hotel and Lodging Association study released Aug. 31, 65 percent of US properties reported occupancy rates approaching 50 percent – about double April’s historically low rate of 24.5 percent.
Then there’s the question of when the cruise industry will set sail once again. “I believe once cruising starts in earnest, bookings will return quickly,” says Chris Caulfield, owner and vacation consultant at CruiseOne in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. “Die-hard cruisers cannot wait,” he adds.
As of press time, that might happen in the United States as early as Oct. 1, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s No Sail Order banning cruise ships at US ports was scheduled to be lifted, although members of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) have canceled sailings until Nov. 1.
CUTTING THROUGH THE CONFUSION
While coronavirus-related health and safety concerns are on the top of travelers’ minds, government restrictions are also playing a part. For example, CLIA members’ extension of cruise cancellations beyond the date set by the CDC is due partly to port and border access restrictions set by governments of destinations they visit.
Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors, says travel will start building back to pre-pandemic levels “as soon as the US government sets and communicates the new protocols for travel in the nation’s airports and seaports.” He cites the lifting of the No Sail Order and the State Department’s bilateral travel agreements with other nations as examples.
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