What the COVID-19 Vaccine Could Mean for Future Travel

traveler wearing a face mask at the airport

After a year of canceled vacations and more time spent at home than ever before, jet setters are squirming in their seats, anxiously awaiting the moment when they can travel freely and safely. And while there's still no definite answer, there's no doubt that the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine brings with it a renewed sense of hope. 

"Both the vaccines suggest they have 95% efficacy against severe disease, but that doesn't mean they have 95% efficacy against infection," Dr. Thomas Kenyon, chief health officer at Project Hope and 21-year veteran of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Travel + Leisure. "I think we're going to have to see how the pandemic evolves. Certainly as incidents decline, your risk declines."

As travelers bide their time by dreaming up elaborate post-vaccination trips and enjoying virtual visits to Aruba and Italy, the travel industry, which was hit particularly hard, is slowly bouncing back. Katherine Estep, managing director of communications at Airlines for America (A4A), told T+L that before the pandemic, "U.S. airlines were transporting a record 2.5 million passengers a day." At its lowest in late April 2020, passenger volume was down 96%, while as of Jan. 15, 2021, A4A airlines (including United, Delta, and American) are down by approximately 58%, according to Estep.

While 58% is better than 96%, the numbers are still bleak. And although the vaccine offers hope, it's hard to know when hopping on a 20-hour flight to Bali will feel both safe and normal, or what sort of virus-related documentation you'll need to visit. To help provide some answers, we spoke with medical and travel experts to get an idea of what travel might look like going forward.

It will take years before travel returns to pre-pandemic levels — and reaching herd immunity may be key.

Air travel may have already increased from its April 2020 lows, but according to A4A data from January 2021, it is unlikely that passenger levels will reach 2019's highs before 2023 or 2024. In fact, the report argues that air travel in 2021 and 2022 will be clouded in uncertainty over the state of the pandemic, vaccine, and economy.

Many medical experts believe the solution to this uncertainty is herd immunity, which occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to infection through vaccination or previous infection. Kenyon says, "Based on past experiences with vaccines, once we reach higher levels of vaccinations — 70 to 80% — the virus can no longer find enough hosts to create an outbreak." 

Once herd immunity is reached worldwide, it will do wonders to restore people's travel confidence and help the travel industry rebound. The idea is that we can travel without fear of kicking off another wave of COVID-19 cases, and that our chances of coming into contact with the virus will be slim.

Airports and hotels will still maintain extra cleaning protocols and a touchless experience, and travelers will still need to take precautions.

hotel employee wears a mask and face shield while cleaning

Just because there's a vaccine doesn't mean airports will get rid of social distancing policies or hotels will scale back on cleaning efforts. In the aviation world, John Grant, senior analyst with OAG, said, "Those temperature checks and deeper cleaning of aircrafts are here for some time." Meanwhile, Andre Philippe Gerondeau, chief operating officer of Meliá Hotels International, told T+L that Meliá's cleaning and safety program, which includes "stringent cleaning and disinfection protocols, touchless check-in and in-room experiences, adapted F&B formats and procedures, and of course, temperature checks and hygienic kits, will remain in application in the foreseeable future."

When it comes to personal safety, Kenyon says the vaccine will offer an added level of protection, but isn't foolproof. "It's not perfect coverage — it reduces risk dramatically, but does not remove risk," he said. "At some point, the expectation is that the pandemic will start to recede and we will gradually move to a new normal, but I think many anticipate — though it may be not a requirement — continuing to wear a mask in a high-risk setting like an airplane."

Vaccination passports are being developed and may be required to travel.

Just like you need a passport to travel abroad, there are talks about a vaccination passport — be it digital or otherwise — that will provide proof of vaccination. Organizations like Microsoft, Salesforce, and the Mayo Clinic have already joined forces to create the Vaccination Credential Initiative (VCI), which is working to develop a digital COVID-19 vaccination passport.

"I think there will be a process whereby you make a flight reservation in a normal manner, and at the point of check-in, there will be a physical check of a digital passport that may be an app or a piece of paper with a QR code on it, or something like that that allows you to proceed with your journey," said Grant.

There will likely be travel requirements that every country and traveler must follow.

Right now, every country has its own travel requirements. Some require a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours before your flight, while others are asking travelers to complete a 14-day in-country quarantine. In the long term, the goal is to ensure the vaccination requirements are the same for people traveling to Mexico as it is for those making their way to Malaysia, and Grant notes that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is already putting together trials in the Middle East.

"Whilst everyone talks about the vaccine, we equally need to think about vaccine passports, control process, and standardization of protocols in different countries — and all of this has to come in line in the next few months," said Grant. 

diner using contactless payment at a restaurant

Some destinations will be more appealing to travelers, due to low case numbers or high vaccination rates.

Before the pandemic, booking a holiday might have been based on flight prices or what destinations were on your bucket list. But in today's world, travelers will also need to consider the number of COVID-19 cases and the rate of vaccination — two things that will vary greatly from country to country.

"Certain parts of the world will be vaccinated better than others," said Kenyon. "There are certain countries that have done a fabulous job of COVID control. New Zealand is a popular destination for travel and they've done a phenomenal job of control."

Carolyne Doyon, CEO and president of Club Med North America, agrees. "Travelers may feel safer in destinations with higher vaccination rates," she said, noting that travel interest in the Caribbean has been strong. "We know there is a lot of demand from travelers to return to the clear turquoise waters and white-sand beaches in the Caribbean — and with the vaccine distribution, we all see a bright future ahead of us."

You might find some great travel deals early on, and booking flexibility is likely here to stay.

While the travel industry may be working toward recovery, it still has a long way to go. If you're comfortable traveling early on, you might be able to book that dream trip for much less. And, if something comes up (or you change your mind), you might be able to cancel the trip without penalty.

"Flexible cancellation policies have become an industry standard, as hotel brands seek to make guests feel as safe, comfortable, and confident as possible when making travel plans," said Doyon. She believes that "hotels will continue providing added flexibility to their guests," and Gerondeau agrees. At A4A, Estep reassures travelers, saying, "U.S. airlines have been listening to customers throughout this crisis and are continuously updating their travel policies to offer increased flexibility, including eliminating change fees and offering a range of options such as fully refundable fares."

Some travel experiences will always be safer than others.

Whether you're taking a road trip, boarding a 10-hour flight, trekking in the Canadian Rockies, or spending a week aboard a cruise ship, travelers will need to be aware of the risks and weigh their options. 

Gerondeau says that at Meliá they've been seeing a more conscious customer "with a preference for open-air, wide spaces," and that they expect this trend to continue well after the pandemic. Gerondeau and Doyon both note that guests at their resorts in Mexico and the Dominican Republic have access to free antigen testing.

"I think part of the new normal may be having less contact, keeping a distance, maybe selecting where you sit and have a meal, and looking more carefully at what that environment looks like," said Kenyon. To reduce the risk, he suggests travelers "go hang out on a beach somewhere," rather than head to a congested indoor bar.

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