Back in 2018, I had a phone conversation with a so-called futurist called Richard Watson.
He made a number of predictions for the future of travel. He told me that overcrowding will continue to be a huge issue. He predicted that iris ID scans would come in one day, and that social media will soon seem quite quaint.
Amongst his predictions was also the following prophecy: The travel industry will shut down but it will bounce back.
At the time, I remember thinking the idea of global travel shutting down for any length of time was rather fanciful. The idea of things closing for a few days, or perhaps a week, was fathomable. Anything beyond that? Surely not.
We could have some kind of nasty event which shuts everything down, like a pandemic, he expanded. I remember when everyone in airports were wearing masks when SARS happened.
Whats interesting though is that weve had all of those things in the past and the travel industry always bounces back remarkably quickly. So I dont think itll be a long term shift, it might impact travel for six months or a year.
That was then. So what does Watson think about the current situation, and what could come next?
The travel industry is in deep trouble, but its not the first time and it wont be the last, Watson said.
Despite SARS, 9/11, oil price spikes, climate change and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajkull volcano, the leisure travel industry has remained resilient throughout its long history, bouncing back relatively unscathed after numerous short-term shocks.
This time its different, were told, but the industry will still bounce back, because people have a need to get away, to unwind and escape. Indeed, this need could be stronger than ever once this particular storm has passed.
Did anyone see this pandemic coming? Of course. It has always been a case of when not if, and Ive been in numerous workshops where its been discussed, although ironically, it was among terrorism and climate change as an off-limits topic when I was asked to look at the future of travel a decade ago (I declined).
However, its been on my risk radar as a highly probable, highly impactful event. So, what else might be hidden in plain sight that could ground air travel in particular? Here are some thoughts:
Forget Eyjafjallajkull. What would happen if a mega-volcano the size of Yellowstone erupted? The result could be akin to the Year Without Summer back in 1815.
At the moment, the oil price is low, with people even talking about it going negative. But what if the opposite occurred? What if it hit $200+ a barrel before we had time to develop hybrid electric aircraft or create workable bio-fuels in sufficient quantities?
What if terrorists developed novel ways to attack trains, planes and ships? I can think ways, which Im not going to mention, but sustained and effective attacks would shift how and where people travel.
At the moment, a relatively small proportion of Chinese citizens (or Indians, Russians, Brazilians, Indonesians, Nigerians or Mexicans for that matter) holiday abroad. What if this changed? Certain places already restrict tourist numbers, so what if, in the future, you had to book years in advance to go anywhere worth going? This would fundamentally re-draw the tourist map.
Boeing and other plane makers are seriously considering the idea of pilotless planes. Im sure the idea has crossed the mind of Michael OLeary too. Maybe these will be OK. Passenger drones should be safer than small helicopters, but Im not rushing to buy a ticket anytime soon. If this happens I think Ill stay at home or re-discover the joys of passenger ships and long-distance rail travel.
What? We havent got over this one yet, I hear you say. Well Im afraid the growth of the global population, rising urbanisation, intensive agriculture and continued globalisation takes us straight back to when, not if, this happens once again.
Richard Watson is the founder of nowandnext.com.
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