Three U.S. tourism trends in light of COVID-19 are the increase in interest in virtual travel, the increase in online experience booking, and the increase in tourists purchasing travel insurance. Two ways in which social unrest is impacting travel in the U.S. are that hospitality businesses are suffering economically from the loss of bookings and riot damage and the fact that tourists are generally afraid to visit areas where social unrest is occurring. However, there has been a rise in the number of people interested in protest tourism, which could represent an opportunity for tourism marketers.
1. Virtual Travel
- With many international borders closed to U.S. travelers, virtual travel experiences are becoming more popular.
- Virtual travel allows people to visit places they may never get the opportunity to visit, even in a world without COVID-19. The travel industry is increasingly warming to the possibility that people may pay for virtual travel experiences that connect them to the world without leaving their home.
- Travel companies have used virtual reality to market locations for years, but now it will likely be seen as more than a gimmick.
- Virtual travel will be most popular with older people and students because this type of travel will be cheaper and more accessible to those who are unable to travel in person.
- There are some issues with virtual travel, though, that will never be able to replicate in-person travel, such as the full sensory experience, but even so, the pandemic has opened the door to more VR possibilities and companies like Ascape are taking advantage of the opportunity.
- However, there are some advantages to virtual travel, which include lower costs and immediate access.
- Ascape provides both 360-degree VR travel video production and rents and sells VR equipment. The company has worked with JetBlue, Lonely Planet, Thomas Cook, Four Seasons, and other tourism-related companies to provide virtual travel experiences.
- Between January and April 2020, Ascape VR app downloads doubled, indicating that people want to escape their environment, even if it’s only through a virtual vacation.
2. Online Experience Booking
- To maintain contact-free standards, most tourist attractions will move their ticket purchasing process to online channels.
- As of September 2020, 45% of attractions that have re-opened are only allowing people to purchase tickets online.
- This not only eliminates face-to-face contact with ticket agents, but also eliminates the need for paper tickets and cash, both of which can transfer the virus.
- According to Headout, the pandemic pushed the shift of consumer behavior regarding travel planning online a decade earlier than expected. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, 85% of experiences were sold offline at a ticket counter, box office, or travel agency.
- This trend is expected to continue well after the world has recovered from the pandemic and while the offline travel industry will recover, it will never achieve pre-COVID-19 levels of 85%.
- In fact, experts predict that in as few as three years, paper tickets will entirely be a thing of the past.
- College football games will soon no longer offer paper tickets, partially as a result of COVID-19. According to 247Sports, the push to sell tickets entirely online is “partly a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, which makes the safety of contactless delivery and ticket scanning a necessity.”
- Many college football programs had already been planning this move to mobile-only tickets, but the move was not imminent. However, the pandemic accelerated the timeline.
- Paciolan is a ticketing company that works with organizations to move their ticketing process online and is currently working with several college football programs to make their processes mobile-only.
3. Travel Insurance
- The cancellation of vacations and business trips due to COVID-19 has brought the importance of travel insurance to the forefront.
- According to a survey conducted by NerdWallet, 45% of U.S. travelers will purchase travel insurance for their upcoming trips compared to just 20% that insured their last trip prior to the pandemic.
- Travelers will also want to know exactly what their policy protects them from, so they are going to read the fine print more often than they did in the past.
- There will likely be an inclusion of pandemic coverage in travel policies now that wasn’t there before, which will cover aspects of travel such as restrictions and lockdowns.
- Starr, a global insurance provider, has seen a 528% increase in U.S. travel policy insurance purchases over the same time in 2019.
- Specifically, younger travelers are buying insurance more often as they learned that their age does not protect them from vacation cancellations.
- Medical coverage as a part of travel insurance is also on the rise as people worry about getting the virus away from home.
- Seven Corners is a travel insurer that has already begun offering travel insurance products that are “tailored to the needs of pandemic-era vacationers.”
- As of June 21, 2020, Seven Corners was the only insurer to offer COVID-19-specific policies.
Social Unrest Impact on Domestic Travel
1. Damage Leads to Lower Booking Rates
- History shows that riots can cost businesses up to “$5 billion in economic activity measured in lost sales over 10 years.”
- The reason for this loss of sales is that if people do not feel safe in an area, they will not patronize the businesses there.
- Rebuilding businesses in areas of social unrest is not seen as a priority as is rebuilding businesses in an area devastated by a natural disaster.
- According to Victor Matheson, professor of economics at College of the Holy Cross, “People rebuild from hurricanes and can prepare for them. Social problems seem a lot harder for the country to grapple with.”
- Hotels have been experiencing cancellations in areas such as Charleston, where peaceful protests have turned violent.
- Damage to hotels is causing them to miss out on future reservations because they are unable to rent out rooms that have damage.
2. People Tend to Avoid Visiting Areas with Social Unrest
- In the past, people have generally been “apprehensive about traveling to countries experiencing protests, for fear of being endangered by riots.”
- In some areas where protests and riots have erupted in 2020, tourists checked out of their hotels early and were given refunds for canceled experiences, showing that tourists do not want to be vacationing in an area that is potentially dangerous.
- One specific tourist who visited Portland in June 2020 said she was “afraid to leave her hotel after 5 p.m. because of the nightly melee.” She indicated it was her first and probably last visit to Portland.
- Constant media coverage of riots in specific cities could damage their reputation as a tourist-friendly area. However, Jeff Miller, president and chief executive officer of Travel Portland, states that “past demonstrations that received large amounts of negative coverage did not have any trackable impact on visitors. Despite extensive media coverage around these events, Portland saw record tourism numbers that followed a steady tourism growth for more than 10 years.”
- Word of mouth descriptions of the riots and protests will have an impact on tourism as well. One person who visited Portland stated, “We have told people not to visit Portland because the mayor has no control of the government nor any vision for the future of Portland — if there is a Portland once the protesters destroy the city.”
- After hearing reports like the one above, one potential Portland tourist said he had never been to Portland, “And I certainly would not (visit) now. It’s too full of lawlessness.” Another stated, “I have never been to Portland, and I don’t intend to visit.”
- There has been a slight rise in the popularity of “riot tourism” or “protest tourism,” whereby people “actively seek out hotspots and travel there for the chance of participating.”
- Although tourism companies are not officially marketing protest tourism, Destination D.C., the tourism board for Washington D.C., is certainly not discouraging it.
- There is information about marches on Destination D.C.’s website and even though it’s not prominent, people who are interested in coming to Washington D.C. for the protests can find it relatively easily.
- Destination D.C. also will not publish the routes or schedules of marches, but will provide information on social media about street closures, law enforcement announcements, and emergency services.
- Some common reasons why people are becoming more interested in protest tourism are they want to be a part of history, they don’t trust media so they want to see the events with their own eyes, and they want to increase their social media status by posting pictures online from the protests.