Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In an Axios newsletter that landed in my inbox this week, a graph displayed data from Apptopia, a mobile app intelligence firm, showing two lines moving in opposite directions. The chart plotted how, since the November election, downloads of news apps are in (serious) decline, while downloads of travel apps are rising.

It appeared under the headline, "Americans look to the future."

That was a welcome perspective. And the present isn't looking too bad for the travel industry, either. This week alone, the American Queen Steamboat Co. launched the American Countess on the Mississippi; it was announced that large-ship sailing will resume this summer in the Caribbean and Bermuda; domestic hotel occupancy hit its highest levels in a year; and the seven-day rolling average of TSA airport screenings reached 1.5 million -- double what it was Feb. 1.

We have, of course, been on an emotional roller coaster for the past year, with good news suddenly countered by an unexpected setback. Though it feels as if we have now turned a corner in every sector of travel, the recovery nonetheless still feels somewhat tentative.

In the words of Mohamed El-Erian, we have "unusual uncertainty." If you watch cable news, you've likely seen El-Erian, president of Queens' College, Cambridge and chief economic advisor to Allianz, explaining with unusual clarity what's likely to happen from a macroeconomic perspective.

I registered to hear the economist speak to the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, and he described where he thinks we are, what we need to do to move forward and what we need to avoid in the coming months, in fiscal terms. While what he described could provide the necessary monetary foundation for travel's continued recovery, I also heard, parallel to his explicit economic remarks, implicit nonfinancial guidance and cautions for the global travel industry.

An underlying issue in both the 2008 recession and the pandemic, he said, is "counter-party trust." When banks stopped trusting one another in the Great Recession, "it brought the world to its knees." It required central banks to step in and say "trust me" for recovery to begin.

This time around, counter-party trust is eroded in the area of health. Controversy over vaccines, whether based on misinformation or not, "keeps us one step away from lockdowns. And with that, how do you restore social activities?"

There are clear implications for the industry around the issue of counter-party trust as it relates to vaccines. The mistrust appears to be largely fueled by dueling political narratives rather than dueling scientific narratives. Science often moves slowly, in a zigzagging fashion, and our patience is tested by the shifts in guidance that come with the gradual understanding of this strange virus.

But we have made great strides. And it's frustrating that, despite the clarity we have that the approved vaccines' efficacy and safety have been verified through exhaustive processes, the headaches for the travel industry over counter-trust issues will likely remain a challenge.

For the moment, the protection vaccines offer and the reassurance they give many travelers is moving the industry forward. Vaccinated-only cruises have been scheduled; can resorts and tours be far behind? 

Royal Caribbean International's hybrid strategy -- vaccinations required where vaccines are widely available (Israel, the U.S.) but not required where they're not (Singapore) -- may become the norm until herd immunity has been achieved. I could imagine further hybridization, where a cruise line may schedule a "vaccinated-only" sailing for a specific itinerary from a specific port and identical itineraries open to guests who have only a negative Covid test.

Similarly, an all-inclusive resort brand may have one property that requires vaccines and another where vaccines are optional.

El-Erian cited another challenge to economic stability that also applies to travel: The erosion of multilateral coordination over the past few years has also eroded nations' abilities to solve global problems related to the pandemic. He specifically cited that a global vaccination strategy would potentially lessen the number of variants that could arise, reducing danger even for countries whose populations may be well-vaccinated.

In discussing this, he described a possible outcome with two words that send a chill through the travel industry: bunker mentality. The breakdown of cooperation among nations has so far doomed every attempt at coordinated policies to reopen borders or create travel bubbles, with the possible exception of Auckland, New Zealand, and Hobart, the capital of Tasmania in Australia.

It would appear that the underlying challenges to the industry are as much trust-based as medical. In the U.S., the accelerated distribution of vaccines appears to be an accelerant for travel resumption, as well, but its growth will remain hobbled by mistrust.

Who can help change this? I suspect people are fairly well settled in their opinions about the credibility of statements from politicians, and even scientists. But there is a profession that, for decades, has put the word "trusted" in front of their job description: travel advisors. 

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