"Last month," Jack Ezon, managing partner of Embark Beyond told me, "business was going insane. Incredible. But who knows how many of those bookings are actually going to happen?"
This past week, tour operators and other travel advisors have shared tales of record bookings and blood-boiling frustrations. I've heard stories about clients who arrived in Italy and waited two hours for a Covid test. Or were on their way to Athens via Zurich, in first class, only to be told in Switzerland that they had to go back. Sudden cancellations of connecting flights from London to Cape Town on three different airlines.
"We think Covid's over. It's not," Ezon said. "Much of the rest of the world is three to four months behind us."
The long and short of it appears to be that, yes, it's possible to book more places than ever before in the past 15 months. There are more countries that are, on paper, "open." Vaccinated travelers are ready to go anywhere, feeling, if not invulnerable, at least well-armored.
But there is no way to completely shield yourself from the unexpected. Something happened somewhere that impacted those Athens-bound travelers while en route to Zurich, as it did for the Cape Town-bound travelers transiting London. For now, the wise traveler must expect the unexpected, and the wise advisor lets them know that ahead of time.
Are these anecdotes typical? Likely not for the majority of travelers.
But those who get turned back are at least spared the indignities of traversing a different circle of hell.
Even though air volumes are still 30% below pre-pandemic numbers, the average amount of time a passenger spends in the airport check-in, security, immigration, customs and baggage claim has doubled from one-and-a-half hours to three during peak travel times.
Submitting to airport Covid tests and paperwork involving health-related credentials is at the root of the problem. And in most instances it is, literally, paperwork. At Heathrow, I'm told, the immigration officers don't want to see a QR code on your health pass app; they want to see pieces of paper, regardless of how varied the formats, dubious the origin or unverifiable they may be.
The average time per person spent in the health-related checking phase at Heathrow, a tour operator told me, is 20 minutes per passenger. Three people ahead of you? Prepare to cool your heels for an hour, as long as there aren't any exacerbating issues.
IATA predicts that with the expected increases in air traffic, once bookings return to 75% of pre-Covid levels, the time spent in lines at airports will rise to five-and-a-half hours, and after traffic recovers to 2019 levels, eight hours.
One way to considerably lessen the pain is, of course, technology: health passes. I heard from a lot of you who disagree with my belief that app-based health passes are the key to reopening travel. I understand there are privacy concerns, and they should be addressed. But if you think people will be willing to wait eight hours in lines, each way, for a vacation, then yes, let's dismiss tech solutions. And I'm open to alternatives to digital health passes as long as they don't also cause spikes in infections, leading to border shutdowns and further delays in restarting international travel.
What we have at this moment in time is an inefficient, frustrating system. As a result, travel advisors will need to work connections with tourist boards, airlines, tour operators, inbound destination specialists and favorite hotel concierges while also interviewing returning clients to find out what the reality is on the ground. The long-promised rush of travelers seeking advice from travel advisors appears to be occurring, and their future credibility will rely on setting honest expectations now, to the best of their ability.
The good news is that it appears that many travelers have a serious enough case of cabin fever that they're willing to try to travel. And further, should they arrive at their intended destination, they'll likely find it less crowded than it has been in years. They'll get reservations in restaurants that normally have weeklong waitlists. They'll be able to see masterpieces in the Louvre without having to peer between people's heads and shoulders (provided they remember to book a time slot in advance). For the moment, in most places, overtourism is on hold.
I have also heard from advisors who are urging clients to wait until there is more clarity, less disruption. Advisors with long-standing client relationships will know who to send now and who to counsel, "Patience." The real test will be when qualifying new clients, particularly the ones who may say, impatiently, yes, I want to go now, but whose very impatience may be the signal that it's best for them to travel domestically this year.
2021. Consumers may remember this as the Year of the Determined Traveler. Or, in the industry, the Year of the Sagacious Travel Advisor.