The Next New Normal: Travel Trends for 2021

2021 is forecasted to be a year of transition. Barring any unexpected catastrophes, society can start to look forward to emerging from pandemic life, and inching back to normality, even though the next normal is going to be different. Just as the terms “prewar” and “postwar” are commonly used to describe the 20th century, generations to come will likely discuss the pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras. Here are some of the strongest travel trends for 2021.


Revenge Spending

As consumer confidence returns, so will spending, with “revenge shopping and travel” sweeping through the economy as pent-up demand is unleashed. That has been the experience of all previous economic downturns. One difference, however, is that services have been particularly hard hit this time. The bounce back will therefore likely emphasize those businesses, particularly the ones that have a communal element, such as restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues.

McKinsey’s most recent consumer survey, published in late October, found that countries with older demographics, such as France, Italy, and Japan, are less optimistic than are those with younger populations, such as India and Indonesia. China was an exception—it has an older population but is conspicuously optimistic. If we look at China as the example of what a rebound can look like, China’s consumers are relieved and spending accordingly. Chinese consumers are spending as large as they did in precrisis times. Australia also offers hope. With the pandemic largely contained in that country, household spending fueled a faster-than-expected 3.3 percent growth rate in the third quarter of 2020, and spending on goods and services rose 7.9 percent.


Leisure vs Business Travel

History shows that, after a recession, business travel takes longer than leisure travel to bounce back. After the 2008–09 financial crisis, for example, international business travel took five years to recover, compared with two years for international leisure travel. In contrast, leisure travel is driven by desire to explore and to enjoy, and that has not changed.

The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that more than 20 percent of the global workforce (most of them in high-skilled jobs in sectors such as finance, insurance, and IT) could work the majority of its time away from the office—and be just as effective. Not everyone who can, will; even so, that is a once-in-several-generations change. It’s happening not just because of the COVID-19 crisis but also because advances in automation and digitization made it possible; the use of those technologies has accelerated during the pandemic. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted in April 2020 that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”


COVID Passport

COVID vaccines are likely to be a new requirement for travel. A digital CCOVID vaccination passport is being jointly developed by a group of health and technology companies who anticipate that governments, airlines and other firms will soon start asking people for proof that they have been inoculated.

A coalition known as the Vaccination Credential Initiative — which includes Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle, as well as U.S. health care non-profit Mayo Clinic — was announced last week. The VCI said it wants to develop technology that enables individuals to obtain an encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials that can be stored in a digital wallet of their choice, such as the Apple Wallet or Google Pay. 


Weddings. Weddings. Weddings.

Weddings and wedding venues will be in high demand. With many couples forced to postpone or scale down their nuptial celebrations in 2020, some within the travel industry are predicting that pent-up demand will fuel a wedding boom in the latter part of 2021 and into 2022. "After the vaccine news came out, we started to receive a lot of inquiries about events," said Chrissy Denihan, managing director of Denihan Hospitality. "People are still being extremely cautious, but they really want to plan social events and weddings. We think and hope we'll see a surge in that type of business in 2021."

Flexibility has become paramount for couples looking to move forward with plans. At the Belmond El Encanto in Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, couples are currently able to "carry forward" their deposit and reschedule weddings without penalty. The property, which plans to extend this policy into 2021, has seen the adaptability translate into business.