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Will COVID-19 change the way we travel?

The COVID-19 outbreak has become a significant disruptor to the world’s economy, with tourism standing out as one of the most negatively impacted industries. 

With the expectation that travel restrictions will ultimately ease, accommodation establishments are gearing up to welcome back travellers. Aside from implementing new health and safety protocols, the bigger challenge will come from having to adapt their businesses to provide the type of experiences the post COVID-19 traveller will be searching for.

Even prior to COVID-19, the tourism industry had begun to see a shift towards experiential travel with tourists’ perception of themselves shifting to that of explorers, looking for meaning and fulfilment from their holidays. With so many of us taking stock during this global pandemic, and with the world having to go through the psychological trauma of a lockdown, we anticipate the thirst for experiential travel to only intensify.

In trying to best anticipate the new age of travel, we have identified three trends to take off post COVID-19 as follows.

  • Wellness and mindful travel
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Prior to COVID-19, across many destinations worldwide, over tourism had become a real issue. Overcrowded airports and tourist sites, long queues, commercialised and inauthentic tours have all tainted our travel experiences, taking away from their primary purpose - to rest and relax. The crowded and stressful day-to-day life for many of us, and a growing awareness of the importance of wellness and mindfulness, has created a need which has translated into global hotel chains developing and delivering new wellness enhancing experiences. According to Global Wellness Institute (GWI), the global wellness tourism industry grew more than twice as fast as tourism overall with a 6.5% growth annually between 2015 and 2017. Recording a significant 15.3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2015 and 2017, Asia Pacific came out on top in terms of the growth in the number of wellness tourism trips. Raymond Clement, Managing Director of Savills Hotels Asia Pacific, shares his view on the change in traveller mindset post COVID-19, stating: “Travelers will seek experiences which offer a deeper connection to nature, local culture and mindfulness which will unlock a unique feeling of joy and awe”. According to “The Science of Awe” by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, one of the reasons people yearn for travel is to experience wonder and awe, while satisfying a fundamental human need for connection, inspiration and transcendence. Awe can be elicited by a number of things, such as nature, beauty and personal achievement. Moreover, the feeling of awe can create an increased sense of connection, improve your mood, empathy and decrease materialism, ultimately enhancing one’s wellbeing. Raymond further commented: “This will be the time where travellers focus more on the quality of their trips, they will ask themselves why they want to travel, which experiences they are looking for and what they hope to learn from those experiences. Consequently, they will become more mindful and intentional once they can travel again”. Apart from luxury tented camps (see “Glamping and luxury tented camps”), Japanese traditional inn, Ryokan, may find itself at the forefront of this trend as people become more and more aware of their wellbeing. Embodying the traditional lifestyle and hospitality, Ryokans are typically located in scenic yet secluded rural areas, offering in-room dining and public and private hot springs, allowing travellers to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and reconnect with the nature and oneself. A hybrid version combining the traditional Ryokan setting with modern design elements and furnished beds, is also becoming popular in Japan. Loco Partners, a firm that operates an OTA called “Relux”, recently published a ranking of the most popular hotel/ryokan establishments, ranked by the amount of time it was saved on the platform during the COVID-19 state of emergency (7 April to 31 May). Nine out of ten top ranked hotels/ryokans are in rural areas within two to three hours’ drive from central Tokyo. The top six all came with a private in-room open-air bath and facilities which provide a more private experience. The first place went to a hybrid ryokan/hotel offering private in-room open-air bath and ocean views, located in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo.

  • Overland travel
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While demand for travel remains strong and is possibly further intensified by lockdown, the desired mode of travel is changing. According to the June 2020 Air Traveler Response to COVID-19 survey conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), 66% of the participants expressed that their intention to travel by air has lessened, with 84% expressing their concern of contracting the virus while traveling. With air-travel expected to take a while to recover, travellers are likely to explore overland travel in the short and medium term. In addition to enabling travellers to avoid airport crowds and planes, overland travel differs from air-travel for its journey-oriented experience. The journey that comes with overland travel offers an element of exploration and develops an increased awareness of the surroundings. Travel to drive-by destinations and the number of road trips to remote areas is expected to increase, enabling travellers to exercise social distancing while enjoying outdoor activities. Even prior to COVID-19, Booking.com predicted that in 2020, 48% of travellers will plan to take slower modes of transport to reduce their environmental impact and 61% would prefer to take a longer route to experience more of the journey itself. This demand to move freely and explore will be amplified as a result of COVID-19 and the imposed lockdown measures. “Under Canvas’ 7 camps located near National Parks have seen a significant increase in demand from people looking to get outside. Our drive-to customers have more than offset a decline in international guests.”, says Matt Gaghen, CEO Under Canvas.

  • Glamping and luxury tented camps
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While camping has always been the primary option for an outdoor-oriented accommodation, providing an immediate connection to nature, in recent years travellers have started to opt out for an upgraded version, namely “Glamping” and “Luxury tented camps”, still enjoying a nature-based experience but without having to sacrifice the comfort of luxury accommodation. With the trend of glamping having emerged globally over the last decade, the pandemic has, once again, cast a light on this market as travellers are exploring different options to satisfy their craving for travel while maintaining social distancing. Unlike in urban and high-density resorts where guests exit in close proximity to each other, we expect travellers to be drawn to the more remote destinations where they can stay in cabins or other lodging facilities and seek authentic experiences.

With glamping being a nature-based experience, it is making its way into eco-friendly and sustainable tourism. From wanting to enjoy natural surroundings in an non-invasive way to consuming local organically grown product, travellers are becoming more environmentally conscious. In order to offer a greater connection to nature, some camping sites chose to use sustainable materials and utilise sustainable energy, subsequently lowering their environmental footprint. Setting an example, Camp Sarika by Amangiri recently launched ten tented pavilions nestled in the Utah desert, offering an immersive luxury camping experience. The campsite is located a five minutes’ drive from its sister resort Amangiri on the well-loved 600-acre sanctuary of wilderness, visited by the most discerning travellers since its opening a decade ago. “Our project at Camp Sarika exemplifies superlative style and lightweight design,” shares Luca Franco, CEO & Founder of Luxury Frontiers, the international firm which completed the architectural and interior design of the tents. “The tented pavilions employ canvas which is long-lasting, low maintenance, and can be recycled at a later stage, reducing the long-term environmental impact of the project. The canvas also allows for fluid design and for each unit to visually blend in with the undulating surface of the desert, allowing for an unmatched immersive desert experience for guests.”

Asia Pacific countries are no exception to this increasing demand for luxury tented camps. According to Japan Auto Camping Federation, camping population in Japan increased by 13% between 2013 and 2018. Amid of COVID-19, campsites in Japan reported a significant uptick in demand for glamping. Camping with Soul Japan, a company that provides glamping equipment to campsites, has adapted to supply tents by starting to lease out instead of selling.

Similarly, the Caravan Industry Association of Australia survey in June 2020 revealed that 80% of its audience wish to take a caravan or camping holiday in the next two months. Based on Google Trends, the ‘interest over time’ on glamping in Australia has experienced a healthy CAGR of 28.2% between January 2015 and January 2020. The interest then saw a dip in April 2020 due to lockdown measures and is seeing exponential growth in July 2020, reaching a record level. Caspar P. Schmidt, founder and owner of QCC Collection says that most states in Australia have seen an uplift in ADR and RevPar in regional areas as people rush to escape the confinements of hotels in cities. The outdoor is key to the future of hospitality post-COVID and people with land can get a piece of the action with small investments into Glamps, Tiny Homes, Camper vans and removable structures on their sites. “Central to this growth is understanding that they are selling “Fresh Air” and eco- friendly sustainable experiences that people are yearning for after months of confinement. The trend is that we want to get back outside to experience nature in a safe and somewhat luxurious fashion”, Schmidt added.

While this is a challenging time for the industry, it is also an important time for both hotel operators and investors to stay updated and tuned into the post COVID-19 traveller. For hoteliers, this may be a good time to consider structural changes and adapt their recovery strategies that will better accommodate the evolving needs of travellers. For investors, it is important to observe and explore the new wave of investment opportunities into the luxury leisure market when these trends take off.

 

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