Grandparents going on epic holidays with their grandchildren, luxury slow-moving train journeys to exotic places and a surge in culinary adventure holidays were just three of the trends identified by booking.com when its staff sat down in the autumn of 2019 to look at what might be hot in 2020.
Nowhere on their list – or indeed on any travel trend list written by anyone anywhere in late 2019 and early 2020 – were successive seasons of lockdowns and travel limited to walks no further than 2km from the front door.
Nor did anyone predict the effective grounding of airlines for months or a global pandemic that would leave millions dead and bring the hospitality sector in virtually every part of the world to its knees and left wondering if there was even a future to contemplate.
It is in this context we must consider the travel trends likely to be on the horizon this year. Because, if the public health crisis has taught us little else, it has taught us to expect the unexpected and to be prepared to have our plans derailed at the drop of a face mask, by things entirely beyond our control.
Even now – at what we can only hope is the tail end of the pandemic – it is taking us by surprise.
The pandemic has created a savings bubble across Ireland among those fortunate enough not to have been hit financially by the crisis
At the end of November, case numbers of the Delta variant of Covid-19 appeared to be levelling off in Ireland and things were looking comparatively up. The vaccine line was holding strong in the face of waves of illness and the Digital Covid Cert had made holidays in the EU as well as the US and an increasing number of other countries possible once again.
Then along came Omicron and travel was on the ropes once more. New testing requirements came into force, airlines cancelled flights as they struggled to find crews to staff them and the travel plans of many of those who had longed to come and go to Ireland for Christmas were left in tatters.
Even as we write this, the case numbers are breaking records on a daily basis and almost every single conversation seems to revolve around a second thin red line appearing on an antigen test and the joys of staying up late to book a PCR test in the dead of night.
Mary Denton of Sunway Travel would have been forgiven a muttered swear when contacted by The Irish Times looking for words of wisdom on the places we might go in the months ahead. Minutes before we call looking for her tuppence worth she learned that an Aer Lingus flight from Lanzarote to Dublin for the following day had been cancelled as a result of crew members coming down with Covid-19.
But as she works out ways to bring her customers home she is upbeat about what lies ahead.
“We don’t have as many rollover bookings from before the pandemic left – apart from in cruises,” she says. “Most people managed to tie down trips in 2021 or were refunded, but cruise bookings didn’t really happen at all last year so there are a lot of bookings for 2022 as a result.”
She reckons the cruise sector will start to recover this year but will be left in the ha’penny place by the bounce back for other types of holiday. The short-haul destinations across Europe are, she says, by far the most popular holidays being booked, with the Canaries, Spain and Portugal “flying out the door”. Even bookings for Lapland for next Christmas are strong, she says.
All those big celebratory holidays which should have taken place over the past two years are now set to take place in 2022
“Club Med is going really well, as are the all-inclusive deals, and we are seeing a lot of long-haul bookings, but not until the second half of the year,” she says. “There are a lot of people looking at the Maldives and Dubai. ”
There is, perhaps, a reason for that.
The pandemic has created a savings bubble across Ireland among those fortunate enough not to have been hit financially by the crisis. That has led to the savings among Irish people to grow dramatically. Over the course of 2020 alone an additional €16 billion was placed on deposits as households could not or did not have to spend on things like transport, childcare, holidays, eating out, clothes and all the rest.
It remains to be seen what will happen to that money but Denton believes at least some of it will be spent on leisure travel. “There are people who have saved a lot of money and I think we will see many of them upgrading their rooms and indulging themselves this year. We are also seeing people looking to extend their holidays so instead of booking a seven-day trip, they are stretching it out to 10 days. People are looking to do something different and many have not been away since 2019 and will be making up for lost time.”
Another trend she has observed is people booking trips to places such as Las Vegas, to mark 40th and 50th birthdays which actually happened in 2021 and 2020. That means all those big celebratory holidays which should have taken place over the past two years are now set to take place in 2022 along with all the birthday celebrations that actually fall during this year, she says.
This time last year, when The Irish Times was looking at what travel in 2021 might look like there was a huge amount of uncertainty swirling around travel. The vaccine rollout had only just started and there was no sense of just how and when leisure travel would restart and how the public would respond to it.
It is different this year, says Denton. “People have gone through it and they know what they need to do when it comes to vaccine certs and Passenger Locator Forms and PCR tests, so I think they will just get on with things in 2022, they have had enough.”
And how much will people have to pay and what is supply going to be like?
Denton says tour operators such as Sunway are reliant on the broader airline industry in a way that was not the case two decades ago when charter flights were the norm, but stresses that she is “not really seeing air fares going up. Capacity might be a bit less, so fares might increase slightly and the industry is still a bit cautious but we are a lot more optimistic about prices.”
Eoghan Corry is a travel writer and industry watcher and he shares Denton’s optimism that supply issues will not see prices climb sky high. “Access is everything and if the routes aren’t there, people aren’t going anywhere, but Ireland is lucky to be served well by two very ambitious airlines.”
He says the EU-wide air traffic management organisation Eurocontrol suggests that flights to and from this country in 2022 will be at 90 per cent of the levels recorded in 2019, with short-haul destinations particularly well served.
“Ryanair is very ambitious and they have all these new planes that they have to fly and they are on a very sound financial basis and – despite all of the turmoil of the past two years – are still sitting on a relatively big pile of cash,” Corry says. “Aer Lingus is also very ambitious, more so on the European side of its business.”
‘Appetite for travel is strong and people are more reassured in the post-vaccine world’
And what does all that mean for the would-be holiday maker? Corry says that if “everything is right on the supply side, prices will be on the side of the punter”.
He tentatively welcomes the response by governments to the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. “If we are to take any hope out of recent weeks it is that the knee-jerk reaction of shutting travel as the variant emerged didn’t happen.
“While Ireland and Portugal introduced new testing rules, more than 20 other countries in the EU held their nerve. Once their own rates started going higher, they removed the measures they had put in place. At the start of the crisis in March 2020 the European Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation were urging countries not to simply disconnect and countries adhered to that advice this time round.”
He says the “appetite for travel is strong and people are more reassured in the post-vaccine world. We had a good experience with [vaccine rollout] in 2021 and while it seemed daunting, ultimately what it came down to was instead of needing two pieces of documentation to travel – a boarding pass and a passport – we now need four, with the first two and a Covid cert as well as a Passenger Locator Form. Once you have got your head around that, it is pretty simple. Last July, people were turning up at airports flustered with phone books worth of documents but by October everyone was used to it and that will serve us well this year.”
“People want to travel and there is huge pent-up demand,” Boyle says. “I think things will open hugely once we get over Omicron and I think confidence will come back. People have seen all the precautions in place and they know what to expect.”
She has noticed a slightly different booking pattern compared with pre-Covid times, with people booking closer to the departure dates.
That trend has been noted globally as well. According to holiday search engine Kayak, the booking window for flights is shrinking as people adopt a wait-and-see approach before taking the plunge. Recent data suggests that searches for flights within seven days have increased 50 per cent.
It is also reporting increased interest in what is called “workcations” which will see people working remotely from sun-kissed spots rather than from their own homes.
Online travel booking system Amadeus, meanwhile, has noted a surge in popularity for “epic destinations or experiences”.
It has recorded an increase in searches for Tanzania of almost 40 per cent while bookings to the Peruvian cities of Lima and Cusco, near Machu Pichu, are up by nearly 50 per cent, and flights to Petra in Jordan are up by 22 per cent with demand for destinations in the Indian Ocean islands and Antarctica also increasing.
While Kayak has been shouting about workations, the Amadeus people are trying to make “friendcations” happen.
It says searches for travel to Cancun, Mexico, and Cartagena, Colombia – “both popular destinations for groups of friends – have more than doubled year on year, and Hawaii has seen a similar spike in interest. Meanwhile, searches for Las Vegas trips are up 61 per cent, and in Europe, Barcelona and Ibiza have seen healthy double-digit increases.”
The wellness tourism sector is also bouncing back with a recent report from the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) suggesting that the market, which was worth more than $700 billion (€618 billion) in 2019, only to collapse over the course of 2020 and 2021, will take off again this year.
But this year – as with last – the emphasis is likely to be on wide open spaces, outdoor holidays, such as camping and remote villas, with the mad partying in Magalouf, Ibiza and Crete likely to be on hold for a while yet. Although all that could change in a heartbeat or a raspy cough.