In times of COVID-19, travel restrictions determine the choice of destination – not customer wishes or tourism providers. How do tourists deal with these travel restrictions? Will they return to their usual destinations after the restrictions are relaxed or will they change to new travel patterns? Will former top tourism destinations be out in the future and will new potential for “second-tier” destinations emerge? What should destinations do now to reverse the economic downturn? In the recent ITB Virtual Conference, “Destination Demand and Choice for Global Travellers – Tectonic Destination Shift in Times Of COVID-19”, Dr David Ermen, Managing Director, Destination Capacity, examined consumer views and preferences.

Ermen flashed back to the outset of Covid-19, when travel stopped suddenly, and many people were “caught out”, resulting in a change to consumer behaviour. “We went from these freewheeling globetrotters to being stuck inside… to being ‘locked down’ in virtually all parts of the world.”

“The longer the lock-downs carried-on, the more disheartened people became. If you look at the statistics on how long people thought it would take to return to normal, every time it’s asked now, that time horizon seems to be pushed out, because a lot of the assumptions that it would be back to normal by the middle of the year, or by September, have proven untrue. So people are getting realistic that this is here to stay and that we are not going back to where we were.”

Tentative efforts to reopen in different parts of the world have often been reversed as case numbers rise again, with people letting down their guard too soon. On the consumer side, Ermen asserts that a good deal of uncertainty remains. People have doubts about whether their insurance will cover all eventualities, whether they will need to quarantine upon arriving in the other country, or returning home.

“If you only have a few weeks to go on holiday, anywhere you need to quarantine is not an option”, says Ermen.

The question “Is it safe to travel there” seems to change on a daily basis, says Ermen, who adds, “Countries open up and say they are safe but then two days later they have to retract that and go into lockdown.”

Another question, “Will I even get a flight home”, stems from people getting stuck in far-away places and having to be repatriated, which, underlines Ermen, doesn’t do a lot for consumer confidence. He adds that all the uncertainty is part of what is dampening demand.

Ermen looks at the consumer decision-making process, made-up of need, information search, evaluation, purchase, experience and review, stating that the first point – need – is put in question: “Do we really need to travel, or can we do something closer to home? Are there other forms of entertainment or escape from what is currently going on?”

When it comes to information, it keeps changing at the moment, making it difficult to find a destination that fits all one’s needs, or, if a place has been chosen, to know whether the data is accurate. This, says Ermen, can be a blocking point. Furthermore, the fact that airline bookings may lead to cancellations somewhere down the line mean that even if you might like to travel somewhere, you might not be able to. The uncertainty will, says Ermen, remain for quite some time.

“This crisis has changed travel forever,” says Ermen, adding, “We may return to some of the numbers we had before, but it’s going to be different. Consumers need to regain confidence that they can travel, confidence in the operators, confidence that the system works, that travel the way we used to is actually possible again. The operators really need to balance safety and experience – that is tour operators and hotels, but also destinations as a whole need to ensure that when people travel, it is safe for them, but they still provide a decent experience. That balance is still something that operators are working on.”

Finally, Ermen underlines the that that we need policies to provide some kind of certainty, as it’s too difficult for consumers to follow what is going on, with policies on borders and so on changing too often for anyone to be able to make any informed decisions.

Ermen concludes the demand for travel and experiences is still there, but with the current level of uncertainty, consumers are not sure where to go … and the choices are limited, with no capacity, a limited number of flights, and very few places to which one can travel.

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