The Travel Advisor: Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride

How the tourism industry ultimately restarts and claws its way out of the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is, for now, one of the many unanswered questions.

A WORKER disinfects baggage trolleys at Frankfurt Airport in Germany, last week (photo credit: REUTERS/RALPH ORLOWSKI)
A WORKER disinfects baggage trolleys at Frankfurt Airport in Germany, last week
There are so many unanswered questions regarding the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, trade and the global tourism industry. How the tourism industry ultimately restarts and claws its way out of this catastrophic event is, for now, one of the many unanswered questions. But already, there are clues.
It will be gradual, glacially slow. The timing will vary, country by country, depending on when, where and how severely the virus struck. It is obvious that domestic, internal tourism will pick up far faster than international travel. Americans will travel inside America, Italian will stay in Italy, and Israelis will stay inside our small country. This is both for economic and psychological reasons.
The economic effect of the coronavirus is massive and widespread. People are hurting. Incomes and savings have been severely cut. So, it pays to stay closer to home where vacationing will likely be cheaper. Psychologically, it is also easier to stay in hotels or resorts that speak your language and where people have gone through exactly what you have encountered. You will believe that their hygiene and social distancing protocols mirror closely what you have encountered in your sojourns to malls and retail stores.
Going abroad is shakier, being less certain of exactly what they do to prevent Corona. After months of governments exhorting citizens not to go abroad, to only travel if it is essential, making that switch will not be easy. Even obtaining travel insurance will not be easy. Today, all the Israeli insurance companies no longer cover travel to the United States! How the authorities have allowed this remains unknown, but their policy shift has evaded the government regulators.
 Hotel chains are starting to delineate exactly how they clean their properties. Their protocols have been changed and the ability to cancel your reservation at the last minute is now a foregone conclusion. Still, there remains a palpable fear of being quarantined either upon entry into a foreign country or upon one’s return to your home country.
Leisure air travel will resume initially based on family and celebrations that have been planned. Do you really want to miss your grandson’s bar mitzvah this fall? Are you not going to travel to celebrate your parents’ golden anniversary?
With so many in Israel having family abroad, they will be the first ones to jump back in the water. Business travel will resume in spurts. Most conferences and conventions for 2020 have already been canceled. Those in the winter months might still be salvaged if there is no second wave of the pandemic.
Cruise travel, which was known for exceedingly high standards of hygiene in the past, has seen its reputation sullied beyond belief. Many consumers have decided that they will never set foot again on a ship due to the horrific stories from cruise lines as the virus unfolded. Carnival Cruise Lines has announced it wants to hit the high seas in August, while Norwegian Cruise Lines is seeking a cash infusion to simply stay afloat
Those businessmen selling a service will resume their traveling based on their confidence that closing a deal face-to-face has a far greater rate of success than Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Ditto for those professionals who live in Israel but work in another country. They too will return to air travel.
IN MY OFFICE, we have approximately 150 corporate clients whose annual travel budget each exceeds $100,000. Speaking to many of them in the last two months has led me to predict that not even a quarter of them will return to their normal travel in 2020, with many businesses fighting for their continued existence. Those who have found a way to stay in business will begin in 2021 to spend their budgets on traveling abroad.
It is heartening to read that in July Greece will open its borders to tourists, and that Germany announced that its citizens can travel abroad for summer holidays.
Of course, the federal trade commissioner of Germany, who made the pronouncement, said he had not personally booked a holiday yet, given the “great uncertainty” of the pandemic. He did opine being hopeful that in the next four to eight weeks more restrictions will be removed. The question remains, who will travel from abroad to relax on those pristine Greek beaches?
We are entering a global recession that will hurt the air industry even more than the two-to-three-month grounding of most passenger fleets. The costs to stay in business will be colossal, and those airlines trying to maintain social distancing will find it hard to pass on those costs to the flying public.
Initially there will be fare wars, but soon after fares will need to increase, simply to match the rising costs of flying with far fewer passengers. Governments around the world have spent trillions in healthcare costs, subsidies and tax breaks to try to mitigate the global recession. This cost will be passed on to both citizens and tourists.
What will it take to let a tourist enter the country? Look at Austria, which recently unveiled a brand-new concept: Travelers wanting to enter Austria and avoid a two-week quarantine are charged approximately $200 to prove they are free of COVID-19. If travelers elect not to pay, they must go into quarantine. It is a three-hour test that is done upon arrival and the tourist must wait for the results. 
The European Union has shut down its external borders, but cross-border travel within the bloc is still allowed under certain conditions. These strict measures put in place by Austria have yet to be matched, but as countries reopen the borders some type of testing must be done.
Taking the temperature of a passenger or a doctor’s note does not solve the problem. United Airlines, one of the only airlines that never stopped flying to Israel, has had several instances where a passenger in the US knowingly infected with coronavirus was able to board its planes. While Israeli authorities say they will prosecute, this raises the questions of whether United Airlines is liable.
Just as 9/11 has left commercial air service with screening and security rules that remain in place two decades later, so will the pandemic likely inflict permanent directives on sanitizing, personal spacing and health monitoring of passengers, flight crews and ground staff. How this will be achieved without massive operation disruption is another unanswered question. It will only work if standards are global, consistent and harmonized. Unilateral rules will simply pile chaos on top of acute distress.
THERE WILL, inevitably, be some level of re-regulation as airlines restructure. Government financial support for airlines and the air transport system has varied widely around the world. Nowhere in the world is that aid a bailout. It is the primary reason why flight refunds remain lagging far behind, with the airlines simply not having the wherewithal to make cash refunds.
 It is an acknowledgment that sustaining a country’s air transport system, in Israel’s case, El Al, is in its national interest. South Africa allowed its national carrier, SAA, to go into bankruptcy. Italy stepped in and took over Alitalia. The Israeli government has been putting large obstacles in El Al’s way, but seems to grasp that sooner or later it will need to give the airline a loan. The price the carrier is demanding is large. However, in hindsight, it might prove to be a godsend to El Al to finally compete with the world’s airlines by a severe decrease in its bloated level of personnel.
When the coronavirus upended the travel industry, we all learned a valuable lesson: Epidemics and pandemics are not covered under most types of travel insurance policies. Even independent policies were not much help for travelers who had to back out of travel plans, especially before airlines and hotel groups began modifying cancellation and rebooking policies to accommodate travelers affected by the outbreak.
The US moved quickly to provide its airlines with financial assistance, focusing initially on protecting employees’ rights, ensuring that US employees continued employment as the airlines restructure.
The pandemic has been devastating. The restart will be even harder. Third-party bookings will shrink. Over the years, travelers have been fans of using online travel agencies for the convenience of booking all sorts of travel in one place. These companies (Expedia, Orbitz, and others) act as middlemen, allowing travelers to compare prices across airlines, hotels, car rentals and more.
If you book through an online agency and something goes wrong, however, you have not only the travel provider’s policies to contend with, but also the rules of the agency through which you booked. Those who were fortunate to deal with brick-and-mortar travel agencies were provided customer support throughout the continuing crisis in dealing with the cancellation and change policies of the different airlines, cruise companies and hotel properties.
Reports abound of people having difficulty changing and canceling trips booked through these online sites, often involving hours of calls to them, then to the airline, then back to the them and so on. It is an easy prediction that in the future people will feel more secure booking directly through the travel provider of their choice so that in the event something goes very, very wrong like this again, customers will only have to deal with the company that is providing the transportation or lodging.
Whatever you remember pre-corona will no longer be the case. The world has changed, and those who are unable to change accordingly will be left in history’s dustbin. Those companies that can pivot and recreate their own existence will thrive. Those that do not learn from history may not even be around to repeat their errors. Fasten your seat belt, dear reader, we are in for a bumpy ride.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at