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Travel: Few hints of spring for a battered industry

What does 2021 have in store for the tourism industry?

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Prospects for a swift travel rebound are dimming, said Mike Cherney and Eric Sylvers at The Wall Street Journal. After the worst year for tourism on record, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines was expected to be "the great panacea" in 2021. "But at current vaccination rates, less than 20 percent of the world's population is expected to be inoculated this year," according to recent estimates. The spread of coronavirus variants from places like South Africa, Brazil, and the United Kingdom means governments will remain cautious before easing travel restrictions, and many travelers appear hesitant to begin booking trips again. Air tickets issued for international travel in the coming six months actually fell in February. Overall, they remain down 85 percent from this time in 2019. One travel data company projects travel bookings will stay below 2019 levels until 2024. The recovery in Europe will be "even slower."

Faced with these gloomy prospects, some countries are pushing for "vaccine passports," said Tariro Mzezewa at The New York Times. It's not a new concept. For decades, "people traveling to some countries have had to prove they've been vaccinated against diseases such as yellow fever, rubella, and cholera" by getting a signed and stamped "yellow card," or International Certificate of Vaccination. The hope is that digital technology can accelerate things. Denmark has said it plans to roll out its own "digital passport," but it will still take three to four months. The U.S. has only started assessing the feasibility of digitized vaccination proof. The idea of a "golden ticket" for certain travelers is "deeply contentious," said Barry Neild at CNN. In addition to privacy and fraud concerns, the World Health Organization last month said it worried about "the fairness of allowing those inoculated to trot the world while others continue to endure lockdown."

Already-vaccinated seniors aren't hesitating, said Debra Kamin at The New York Times. In fact, Americans 65 and older are "leading a wave in new travel bookings." At the Foundry Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, "reservations made with the hotel's AARP promotional rate were up 50 percent last month." And it's not just domestic travel. A luxury cruise operator in the Galápagos Islands said that "70 percent of his booking inquiries have come from guests over 65" since Jan. 1. "Wide-open, remote places" seem to be the most popular picks, said Nikki Ekstein at Bloomberg. African safaris are quickly filling up for the summer. One travel site said bookings to Antarctica are actually up 25 percent since before the pandemic.

"The travel bug seems certain to outlast the virus," said The Economist, and tourism could end up improved. Destinations will boast about safety and hygiene as much as their "scenery, cuisine, and beaches." Flexible rebooking policies at many travel companies and airlines seem likely to stay, as well as dynamic pricing that better matches supply and demand. COVID has also given countries "the opportunity to reset tourism" to be more sustainable and economically equitable, turning "a bruised and battered industry into a better one."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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