This time last year, the travel world as we knew it was ending. Today, we’re still not sure where we’ll end up. But lessons can be learned even under strange circumstances, and we hope that’s the case for a post-pandemic world.
By Michael Fraiman
Many years from now, in a blissfully carefree post-COVID world, kids will grow up wondering why anyone would ever want to use paper money. And why cashiers didn’t have Plexiglass barriers until 2020. And why society encouraged sick people to trudge into their offices. And why coughing folks didn’t wear masks as a common courtesy.
The clever among these kids might even wonder why we, the barely civilized pre-pandemic people, didn’t make a habit of washing our hands unless we’d just gone to the bathroom—and why it took a global pandemic that infected 96 million people in a single year to change that. If nothing else, these kids will grow up washing their hands more often than we ever did.
Yes, COVID-19 is going to permanently change the world in myriad ways. One of those ways: how we travel. Specifically, how we keep healthy while travelling.
Until COVID, talking about health while travelling was often the setup to a punchline (who among us doesn’t have a good story about spending all night vomiting in a toilet after a meal?), or a safety precaution when visiting farther-flung destinations—generally speaking, you likely didn’t visit a travel clinic to inquire about vaccinations for flying to Paris.
That might change. At the very least, in the foreseeable future, border-hoppers will probably need to show proof of vaccination before setting foot on foreign soil. (Already, the Canadian government has been relatively slow on picking up a popular global policy: providing a negative COVID test from the last 72 hours before entering the country.)
A major onus will be put on airlines and airports, which are already working hard to regain public trust. Sanitation could well become a key selling point long after COVID becomes a forgotten virus (at least, that’s the hope), alongside typical marketing pitches like cheap airfare, great service and tasty meals.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s report on “leading global protocols for the new normal,” rebuilding trust and confidence will be critical to the future of travel.
That means clear airport signage about sanitation precautions, front-office staff being able to answer questions about safety protocols and sharing best practices ahead of customers’ travels. (Imagine some kind of “Tips for Healthy Travelling” info included in the email that delivers your print-from-home boarding pass, which we will all adopt because nobody will want to wait in a packed line to touch things ever again.)
Tour operators are taking this route, also. Most reputable operators have published some kind of health assurance on their website, laying out the ways in which they’re ensuring customer safety. As many operators told Outpost late last year, precautions include smaller group sizes, increased sanitation, and compliance with international health standards.
However, as one tour company—Active Adventures—pointed out, the rules are different in different countries. Travellers should be aware of individual countries’ entry requirements and health policies.
Behind all that communication, of course, we’ll be seeing a lot more sanitation. Self-serve kiosks, baggage trolleys, sign-in legers, elevators: all these common touch points will hopefully see a lot more routine disinfection, and justifiably so.
Back in 2017, researchers from the National Environmental Health Organization published a study of how well hotels cleaned their key cards by analyzing how many microorganisms were living on them. Their eek-worthy findings: “The results of this study demonstrated all used key cards and half of the new key cards would be defined within the parameters of this study as ‘dirty.’”
One can only hope that changes permanently in a post-pandemic world.
And who knows—some airports already use facial recognition, which is a tidy touch-free way to ensure biometric security. COVID-19 might be just the thing to thrust us quicker into a new technological era, where sharing pens and fingerprint scans on public machines are relics of the past.
Of course, not all of our current safety guidelines will stick. Some precautions will prove temporary. The United Nations World Tourism Organization, for example, recommends staying at least a meter away from others while travelling and avoiding crowded places.
Sure, this is necessary right now—and, yes, people might feel skittish about personal space in the next few years, as COVID peters out—but it’s hard to imagine a permanently altered society wherein travellers avoid parades, concerts, plays and famous monuments just because they’ll be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers.
It will take time, even after much of the world gets vaccinated, to shake off the collective trauma and fear of being close to others. But we’ll get there. One day.