The Middle East’s post-pandemic travel reality

Beyond the impact of Covid-19 on the region’s economy, the pandemic has had a substantial effect on our personal routines and behaviors. Unfortunately, the pandemic will likely influence the way we live for the foreseeable future. With so many people now eager to go on holiday to simply escape the doldrums of lockdown, the Middle East’s travel industry needs to rapidly adjust to better suit the trends that are emerging. Traveler safety, guaranteed physical distancing, and new digital-first tools are all being touted as priorities that today’s traveler is looking for in their future bookings.

To that end, we have made it a priority to better understand traveler behavior in the region. In the latest Our life after the PANDEMIC! report co-sponsored by Amadeus and conducted by Insight Out in Q2 2020, for example, thousands of consumers in the MENA region were asked about their future plans and how social and business practices are going to change. Many of these continue to inform the priorities of the travel community.

Nearly 90 per cent of consumers surveyed indicated that they would “go out” and do something social right after lockdown restrictions are lifted. But now that this is starting to happen, where will people go, and what do they hope to do during such outings?

With international travel still limited due to countries being in various stages of recovery, the report found that there will likely be greater demand for staycations. This is something that the travel sector is now taking full advantage of while travel bans and closed borders limit vacations further afield. It is a preference we anticipate continuing over at least the next 2 – 3 months, especially as border policies in geographies like the European Union react to new waves of the pandemic.

It is also predicted that people will remain cautious once restrictions ease up. As a result, there will be a strong preference for outdoor activities – which is understandable after a lockdown period. According to the report, 40 per cent of consumers surveyed were keen to escape to a beach resort for their first mini getaway, more so than a holiday based on cultural sightseeing or lifestyle activities like dining out or shopping. 

Whatever people choose to do, they will remain cautious and will prefer minimal-contact outings that avoid high-density environments. Six out of 10 poll respondents said they will be ‘social but cautious’, opting to visit places with smaller crowds as opposed to going back to pre-Covid levels (or shutting themselves off completely).

Again, we anticipate this preference to continue throughout the rest of 2020, likely until Covid-19 testing and vaccine trials are at a more developed stage.
Furthermore, hygiene is going to remain a signature feature of any travel product or service in the region.  Impeccable hygiene standards even higher than in pre-pandemic conditions are something that hotels and other staycation venues are having to take into consideration. Not only will destinations do more to highlight their hygiene practices in future marketing communications, but destinations are expected to continue having smaller capacities for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, we could also see hygiene become a kind of “quality stamp” for travel business in the months to come, whether through certifications, wellness ambassadors, or other programs.

While domestic holidays will likely remain the choice of many travelers, people in the region are still eager to travel abroad. Approximately 69 per cent of respondents in the latest report indicate that they want to travel again as soon as possible. Nevertheless, international holiday travel will not see a full comeback for some time. Groups like IATA have forecasted that it could take until 2023 to see travel trends return to their 2019 levels. That said, the bright side is that essential inter-regional travel has the potential to rebound much more quickly, and is likely to give confidence to travel companies and consumers alike.

All such travel aspirations will continue to evolve. There is no definite end in sight to Covid-19. The world on the other side of the pandemic is yet to be defined. However, ongoing consumer polls make us optimistic that travel in the region will bounce back – it’s simply a matter of when. Looking abroad for perspective, China’s domestic travel has come back to almost pre-Covid levels much faster than initially expected. By adjusting to suit the aforementioned consumer preferences, and staying responsive to their future desires, all members of the travel industry can help to speed along the sector’s recovery, while getting a much-needed slice of traveler spending during these unprecedented times.

- Writer is Managing Director, Amadeus Gulf

By Ernesto Sanchez Beaumont