Travel industry won't return to something similar to 'normal' until 2021, or later, experts say

MISSISSAUGA, ON - MARCH 15: Passengers returning to Canada from international destinations make their way through Terminal 3 at Pearson International Airport. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has postponed or cancelled travel plans for people in Canada and around the world, but a survey from The Conference Board of Canada has found that the travel will likely not return to a relatively “normal” level until 2021, or later.

“We do not think that the domestic market will return to its previous strength until April of next year,” Todd Crawford, associate director, economic forecasting, at The Conference Board of Canada told Yahoo Canada. “Talking about international travel, people coming into the country or Canadians flying out of the country, we think that won’t be until December 2021 or early in 2022.”

As we head into a core travel season, from May to October, the results following two surveys with a total of 3,500 respondents, found that 45 per cent of Canadians are planning on taking an overnight trip during that time. Usually, around 80 per cent of Canadians are planning a trip between May and October each year.

Of the people who are planning travel, Crawford said “a much higher share” have not booked their trip yet and are in the “dreaming stage,” where they also haven’t costed out these plans at this point.

“Even if we want to travel right now, we certainly cannot and we know that there are going to be, most likely, heightened restrictions when it comes to international travel in the future,” Crawford said. “We’re going to be very nervous, I think, about travelling for the foreseeable future and that’s going to be especially true when it comes to international travel.”

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‘The great Canadian road trip’

In other situations, uncertainty for international travel could mean a surge in domestic travel within Canada, but that is not the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly after millions of Canadians lost employment as the virus spread.

“It is going to be a challenge for the travel industry because of course, vacations tend to be a luxury item...this is going to weigh on domestic travel as well,” Crawford said.

The associate director with The Conference Board of Canada also indicated that one area where “we could even hint that there may be a little bit of positive” is more people than normal indicating in the survey that they want to take a trip in their car, “the great Canadian road trip.”

The survey found that 66 per cent of travellers are planning to stay in Canada and about 80 cent said they would do so by car or RV.

“What it’s reflecting is the uncertainty when it comes to things like trains and airplanes,” Crawford said. “People are very anxious and I think perhaps rightfully so, so they’re avoiding these kinds of travel hubs, which would normally be required if you’re going to see strong tourism.” 

There is also an increase in people who plan to go to places where many people usually do not congregate, areas where physical distancing can be maintained.

“They’re not going to concerts anymore, they’re going to visit national or provincial parks, things like that, where you can maintain a degree of physical or social distancing relatively easily,” Crawford said.

A ‘rebound’ is likely but how long can the travel industry last?

Despite these troubling findings for the travel industry, The Conference Board of Canada does believe there will be a bit of a “rebound” in travel, as measures continue to loosen across the country, and businesses and services begin to open up.

“There will be...a little bit of a rebound as we do open things up, because I think it’s pretty clear Canadians, we like to travel, there is a lot of pent up demand there,” Crawford said.

One of the most critical questions right now is what will happen if there is a second wave of COVID-19 in Canada later in the year. The survey by The Conference Board of Canada found that 58 per cent of respondents in March and 73 of respondents in April either delayed or cancelled a trip.

“There is every bit the risk that people are still being a little bit optimistic, they’re hope that they can take a vacation but if the worst happens...and we get that second reemergence of COVID-19, then without question, the numbers that we’re seeing in this survey, we would expect them to drop even further,” Crawford said. 

“That would be especially bad news for the travel and tourism industry because frankly, there are a lot of small and medium sized businesses in here that just cannot afford to miss out on an entire travel season and hope to survive until next year.”

For travel enthusiasts, Crawford said there needs to be a longer term concern for how to support these businesses, so when people do feel comfortable to travel, “there is actually somewhere to go.”

“How long can they really weather this with no customers coming through the door?” he said. “Certainly we know that revenues, in many cases, have effectively fallen to zero and there is help being provided by the federal government...but ultimately that can’t extend for months upon months, and then into...years.”