The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm with over 2.3 million lives consumed out of a total of 105 million cases (at the time of writing this article). As per the Mobility Market Outlook on COVID-19, the global revenue for the travel and tourism industry is estimated to be US $ 396.37 billion in 2020, and that is a sharp decline of about 42.1 percent from 2019. Furthermore, this is significantly lower than the initial 2020 forecast of about US $ 712 billion. Travel industry was one of the very first industries to take a blow, and will be one of the last industries to stage a comeback after the rather long hiatus owing to the outbreak of the pandemic.
In 2020, a total of 217 countries and territories globally including India have imposed a ban on travel, as per a report by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization. Such travel restrictions have pushed the travel & tourism industry into the backseat. The tourism & hospitality sector in India, undoubtedly, has been one of the worst hit industries. As per a study by the International Air Transport Association, Airlines’ passenger revenue plummeted by US $314 billion in all or 55 per cent from 2019 levels. Job layoffs posed a serious threat, and it is estimated by the World Travel and Tourism Council that the global travel industry could face job loss of nearly 100 million in 2020.
Besides the closure of air transportation, the hotel bookings have been severely hit after travel came to a screeching halt. Hotel rates declined sharply across all regions, as per a report published by STR, an analytics firm in the area of hospitality. With 2020, a year that will be etched in our minds forever probably for the wrong reasons over, the entire travel ecosystem is expecting 2021 to be a game changer.
All said and done, industry experts have hinted that 2021 will be a year for travel, though not without challenges at large. From a safety and hygiene point of view, travel agencies and tour operators have to make tectonic shifts in the way travel is conducted. For instance, with social distancing becoming the ‘new normal’ in the post-pandemic world, travel, as an operation, is regimented to contain the spread of the pandemic. Sanitization of public places, especially crowded areas, is important to sustain the fight against the pandemic. Several technologies such as ozone sterilization (through ozone disinfection booths) will play a major role in the sanitization process.
From a technology adoption angle, most hotels have started to adopt contactless technology to automate the check-in and check-out experiences for guests and visitors. COVID-19 has made contactless technology mainstream due to the growing awareness on the potential risks that can be linked to physical touch and contact. The use of robotics in the hospitality industry has disrupted guest experience to a large extent right from welcoming guests expanding into cleaning rooms and luggage handling. Furthermore, travel agents are deploying robots for pre-screening, thereby reducing waiting times for customers. In the food industry, robots can be employed for preparing and serving food. This can also help enhance the customer experience, thus saving valuable time and resources.
Contactless payment has enabled tourism companies to adopt frictionless payment and improve the speed of check-ins and check-outs. This means that payment can be made faster, thereby fostering spontaneous purchases. Never has been the significance of contactless payment felt greater than during the COVID-19 situation, as most customers and staff prefer digital payment to handling cash.
While most businesses are encouraging “bleisure” or business plus leisure, in addition to normal business travel, yet enterprises, corporations and even small business will be forced to limit bleisure due to safety and hygiene concern post-pandemic. Work from home (WFH) initiative practically is proving successful in keeping the employees safe, whilst enabling the business in operational mode. There is another side to the story: WFH has clearly affected transportation and food industry due to the restricted movement of staff. Whether it will be the new order of the day in 2021 is yet to be seen.
The points discussed above show that the travel industry is shifting gears to keep pace with the technological changes disrupting the space thick and fast. Let’s not forget that the travel & hospitality sector anywhere in the world helps local economy to grow thereby directly contributing to the GDP of a country. While newer travel patterns and changes in user behavior emerge, the travel & tourism sector is looking forward to the prospects of vaccine development against COVID‐19 in reviving its hope against despair of a brighter future.