How travel will rebound after the coronavirus

San Juan, Puerto Rico
The fortified old walls of San Juan. The coronavirus pandemic struck as Puerto Rico’s capital marked 500 years since its founding. |

Travel will rebound.

Yes, the short-term picture is grim but there is a general sense of optimism across the travel and tourism industries even if some businesses — more than 75% of U.S. hotel rooms were empty last week — will not survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I have written about in past columns, it is far too early to cancel summer trips. Now is also a perfect time to take advantage of cheap airfares with speculative bookings.  

Sarasota in Florida, which has some of the best beaches in the country, set all-time records in February for the most visitors, the highest accommodation occupancy rates and the number of room nights sold. All that extra revenue helps overcome losses sustained since the collapse of travel in March.

The situation is different in Puerto Rico, which was pummeled by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The U.S. territory in the Caribbean fully recovered by 2019 only to see tourism decline this year first after major earthquakes and then again after the outbreak of COVID-19. The one-two punch came as San Juan, known for its centuries-old picturesque architecture, was celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding by the Spanish. 

“The COVID crisis has stalled what was an otherwise record pace of recovery for Puerto Rico’s tourism industry,” Brad Dean, chief executive officer of Discover Puerto Rico, said. “Amidst much uncertainty, we’re encouraged that planners are still booking meetings and a steady number of consumers are booking leisure travel for the second half of 2020.”

He pointed out that weeks of staying home is giving would-be travelers a “major case of cabin fever” that can be cured with incredibly cheap airfares. How cheap? I have seen round-trip tickets between New York and San Juan for as low as $107 on United Airlines.

Sarasota, San Juan and other domestic destinations will clearly benefit from the pent-up demand.

Sarasota, Florida
Sarasota, Florida, set all-time records before the coronavirus brought about the collapse of travel in March. |

“Advertising the beauty and diverse things to do once in recovery is what will inspire visitation and help move the needle to book,” Visit Sarasota County spokeswoman Britney Guertin said. “Who wouldn’t want to relax at the top beach in the U.S. after a crisis?”

Industry analyst and researcher Berkeley Young of Young Strategies concurred.

“A quick review of social media posts reveals that people are very eager to get out of their houses again,” he said. “The turning point will come when Dr. Fauci and the experts tell us that the number of cases is leveling off or in decline and some counties can get back to work.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be big differences in the way people travel, especially when it comes to international trips.

“There is going to be travel restrictions in many places for a while,” Gary Leff, publisher of the influential View from the Wing blog, said. “We will see more visa requirements than before with perhaps even serology testing to verify someone has already had the virus.”

Leff also said loyalty programs will be critical in the recovery of airlines and hotel chains.

Best Western, Hilton and Hyatt have extended the elite statuses of all customers through early 2022. By contrast, Marriott limited its extension of Bonvoy elite status to only customers in the Asia-Pacific region.

As for airlines, expect promotions that include bonus miles and reductions in the number of miles needed to redeem for free flights.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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