After a year of border closures, countrywide restrictions, and stay-at-home orders, hope for the American traveler is finally on the horizon. President Joe Biden says there will be a vaccine for every U.S. adult come May. Countries around the world are cautiously reopening for tourists. And after slashing flight routes last spring, airlines are now adding them back to their schedule. We’re on the cusp of being able to go somewhere, and we’re dying to go this summer: A survey done by luxury travel company Virtuoso found that 60% of respondents planned to take a trip by Labor Day, and travel booking apps like Hopper are seeing a three-digit-percent increase in seasonal searches. Meanwhile, the TSA is preparing itself for the anticipated boom. Recently, it announced a nationwide recruitment effort to hire 6,000 new employees by summer’s start.
But what will leisure travel look like in a post-pandemic world? Will everything go back to normal, or does a new normal await us instead?
“If we expect things to go back exactly as they were in 2019, we’re all going to be disappointed,” says Misty Belles, managing director at Virtuoso. “The reality is that much like September 11 forever changed travel, so will COVID-19.”
Masks, Belles says, are here to stay. Why? While wealthy countries will be able to vaccinate 75% of their citizens by the end of 2021, it’ll take developing countries several more years to reach that target. (And even then, the virus will likely still lurk in corners of the globe: “COVID-19 will likely be with us forever. Here’s how we’ll live with it,” read a recent headline in National Geographic.) So facial coverings will still be necessary to stop the spread and protect the most vulnerable among us.
That also means six feet apart will continue to be a golden rule. “Hotels that once prided themselves on beautiful and inviting public spaces will likely continue to encourage social distancing by limiting the seating options and opportunities for people to linger,” Belles hypothesizes.
Prepare to pack your passport and Pfizer record: Destinations like the Seychelles and Iceland recently announced that vaccinated visitors could enter without quarantining and move without restrictions. Meanwhile, luxury liners like Crystal Cruises require all guests onboard to be fully inoculated. That rule may apply to flights too: In November, Qantas Airlines’ CEO made waves when he told CNN they might “ask people to have a vaccination before they get on the aircraft.” Belles expects more countries, and companies, to follow suit. “Health passports will likely be required, meaning another document to keep current for traveling abroad,” she says. There’s no consensus on what these health passports will look like—whether you need to show a physical card or submit an online form—but proof, in some shape or form, seems likely to be required.