The effect of COVID-19 on the travel industry is not only unprecedented, but will have a lasting impact. According to Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the impact “is six or seven times greater than the 9/11 attacks.”

Using our latest multi-market research, conducted in 17 countries between April 22nd and April 27th, we can draw insights into how consumer travel behavior has been affected by COVID-19 and what it will take for consumers to travel again. 

The number of people delaying vacation bookings has increased by 27% since mid March.

Over half of global consumers have delayed booking a vacation. This number rises to 60% among consumers in China and Singapore, and to 62% among the world’s highest earners. 

We’re seeing increases across almost every country since the first wave of our research. In France, for example, delays of vacation purchases have jumped from 28% in mid-March to 48% in mid-April. 

Vacations are still front-of-mind for many consumers – but it’s not as simple as reopening borders and allowing travel again. Safety has become absolutely vital and is something airlines, airports, and the wider travel industry will have to carefully consider. 

1. Vacations are the top-priority post-outbreak purchase.

The good news for travel providers is that consumers prioritize booking a vacation (23%) above other purchases such as buying clothes (17%) or a new smartphone (13%) once the outbreak ends.

Booking a vacation is the top priority for nearly all surveyed markets apart from India, where buying consumer goods such as clothes and personal electronics have a greater appeal, and South Africa where consumers are more than twice as likely to prioritize buying clothes than a vacation. 

45% of vacation delayers will prioritize booking a vacation/trip after the pandemic ends.

There’s an age pattern at work too; the older the consumer, the more likely they are to prioritize booking a vacation. While 29% of baby boomers prioritize booking a vacation, this falls to just 18% of Gen Z – the latter are more inclined to focus on clothing (25%) and smartphones (20%).

This suggests older consumers will initially be key targets for travel providers. Recapturing Gen Z’s travel demand might take a different approach, which we’ll explore later. 

2. Consumers are reluctant to fly. 

Despite the appeal of booking a vacation once the outbreak is over, this isn’t necessarily good news for airlines.

While 23% of consumers will prioritize purchasing a vacation after the outbreak, just 8% say the same of booking a flight.

Consumers are excited to go on vacation again, just not by plane.

This is mostly due to safety concerns because it’s near impossible to social distance in airports and airplanes. Earlier this week, London Heathrow’s Chief Executive, John-Holland Kaye, warned social distancing in airports could require kilometer-long boarding queues. 

There’s also a general assumption that one’s own country is outperforming the global average, which likely makes travelers feel safer staying within their country’s borders than booking a plane ticket abroad. 

68% of consumers say they are extremely, very, or quite concerned about the coronavirus situation in their own country – but in terms of concern for the global situation, this rises to 87%.

This results in an increased demand for domestic vacations, which many travel components – such as accommodation, insurance, and car rental – could benefit from. 

Unfortunately, airlines are set to take the biggest hit. Last week, Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway sold all its stakes in the four largest U.S. airlines because of the COVID-19 crisis.

3. There’s an increased demand for domestic travel – especially in China.

Only 18% of consumers say they don’t plan to make any changes to their vacation behaviors.

Interestingly, this falls to just 9% of Chinese consumers, making this the most likely country to change its travel behaviors. Ahead of its international counterparts in its COVID-19 journey, China’s travel concerns may be foreshadowing the extent to which other countries’ behaviors will change.

China has often been thought of as the market to watch in terms of their outbound spending. Our Q4 2019 global research found 65% of internet users in China holiday abroad at least once every 6 months, making them the second most likely country to do this. 

But as their lockdown restrictions fall away, recent research from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences supports our findings; many Chinese consumers are turning to domestic vacations instead of international travel. According to the report, Wuhan – the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in China – is at the top of wish lists for travelers, who said they want to contribute to the economic development in the region following the pandemic.

At 42% and 37% respectively, China is the most likely country to have more staycations and take more domestic vacations once the outbreak is over. Globally, these two options are the most popular ways in which travel behavior is set to change after the outbreak.

4. Safety is front-of-mind for consumers.

It’s not as straightforward as simply resuming flights and allowing international travel: safety is key. 

For instance, just 28% of consumers say reopening borders will make them feel confident enough to travel again, likely because it doesn’t actually reassure them. Ahead of actionable changes such as these, they need to feel safe above anything else.

At 58%, a personal feeling of safety is by far the top confidence booster – this is most important to baby boomers (65%).

Safety is almost double that of the other options given, including the government lifting lockdown or stay-at-home restrictions, and travel advice being provided by the government.

Notably, while a personal feeling of safety was still more popular than government advice for Gen Z, they’re much more likely to trust the latter than their older counterparts.

Almost a third of Gen Z said the government giving travel advice or removing lockdown restrictions would give them confidence to travel again, compared to around a quarter of baby boomers.

Additionally, Gen Z are more likely to take fewer post-outbreak vacations than older generations – just 19% of boomers say they will do this compared to 28% of Gen Z. The reverse is true when it comes to making use of travel promotions, taking cheaper vacations, or taking more budget airline flights. 13% of Gen Z say they will do the latter, compared to just 5% of baby boomers. 

It’s important for travel providers to take note of these demographic differences because they could play a role in recapturing demand after the outbreak.

How travel can bounce back

The travel industry has every opportunity to recover. As we’ve mentioned above, a number of travel components – such as accommodation, experiences, insurance, and car rental – should be able to benefit from domestic demand in the short-term. 

Airlines may be more likely to struggle, but if they make safety a core component in everything they do, from strict hygiene measures to possibly providing face masks, it might help offer some reassurance for consumers. Similarly, airports will play a key role in encouraging travel again and should work alongside airlines in creating a safer travel experience. 

Ultimately, all efforts should be made to first and foremost help the consumer feel safe. While other measures of consumer confidence such as government advice may be more tangible, they will not directly increase consumer travel demand in the same way. Safety is key.

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