International travel will get easier, but restrictions will remain – The Economist

Nov 8th 2021

by Simon Wright: Industry editor, The Economist

THE START of the pandemic was characterised by empty supermarket shelves, as global supply chains creaked under the strain of panic buying and the disruption caused by covid-19. The system soon adjusted. But one shortage that has not been alleviated is that of international travellers. Planes are still often half-full at best and many of the worlds airports remain sparsely populated. International arrivals fell by nearly 75% in 2020, according to the UNs World Travel Organisation, with 1bn fewer people taking trips abroad. The figures for 2021 are not expected to be much better. But the prospects for 2022 look less gloomy.

More people will rediscover the pleasures of jumping on a plane to go on a spontaneous city break, attend a long-planned family wedding or take the holiday of a lifetime. And while executives will continue to spend a lot of time sitting bolt upright in video calls, more will also recline in business-class seats. In the decades before the pandemic, international travel grew rapidly, with the number of visitors to foreign countries tripling between 1990 and 2019. Budget airlines, growing prosperity and more leisure time underpinned this growth. These forces will eventually reassert themselves.

Early in the pandemic, most forecasters reckoned that international travel would not recover to the levels of 2019 before 2023 at the earliest, and more likely in 2024. That still seems a reasonable bet. Restrictions on international jaunts are still tight and are lifting only slowly. Even now only three countriesColombia, Costa Rica and Mexicoimpose no restrictions on visitors, while 88 countries are still closed completely and many more have draconian policies in place. But as vaccination rates climb and infections fall, rules will be relaxed and routes will reopen. Much of the worlds population was barred from entering the United States until its rules changed in November.

Cross-border travel will not recover to pre-covid levels until 2023 at the earliest, and more likely 2024

The recovery will be uneven. Domestic travel in large countries has already bounced backAmerica is getting closer to pre-covid levels and China has surpassed them already. Regional travel is picking up. IATA, an airline-industry body, reckons Europe could be back to nearly four-fifths of pre-pandemic levels in 2022. But Asias recovery has been slow and may continue to lag the rest of the world. Long-haul travel will remain at low levels until vaccinations are more widespread and the plethora of rules and regulations become easier to navigate.

Leisure bookings surge whenever countries lift restrictions on foreign travel, and unless a new, more dangerous mutation of covid-19 emerges, that huge pent-up demand will help fill planes again on short-haul routes. Businesses, however, plan to spend less on travel. Surveys suggest that budgets are typically being cut by 20-40%. The gloomiest prognosticators reckon half of all business travel could be gone for good. Many meetings and conferences will remain virtual, or at least take place in hybrid form with far fewer people attending in person.

Even if a more virulent mutation of the virus emerges, potentially putting everything into reverse again, one type of globetrotter will fly above the lingering dark cloudsthe rich. Soaring demand for seats on private jets is likely to continue as the wealthy sidestep many of the barriers facing the masses. The first eight months of 2021 saw 2.9m flights by business jets, 70% more than in 2020 and a tad higher than in 2019, while commercial flights still languish around 40% below pre-pandemic levels, according to WingX, a private-aviation data firm.

If that is not exclusive enough, a new covid-free destination took off in 2021 and is expected to welcome many more visitors in the coming years. If you have several hundred thousand dollars to spare, you can book a ticket for a flight to outer space.

Simon Wright: Industry editor, The Economist

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the headline Fasten your seat belts

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International travel will get easier, but restrictions will remain - The Economist

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