Travel 2016: Planning for the unpredictable

For the travel industry, the year that is coming to a close has been nothing if not full of unpredictability and disruption.

From the beginning of the year all the way through Thanksgiving weekend, there have been events globally that have affected how people decide to (or not to) travel: two horrific attacks on tourists in Tunisia (at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis on March 18 and the beach terror attack in Sousse on June 26), economic and political instability in Greece with the referendum announcement in June as a main inflection point, the MERS outbreak in South Korea that peaked from May through July, the shocking Paris terror attacks on the evening of Nov. 13 and the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

The immediate effects of these events on the local travel industry were sizeable, but the long-term effects varied based on the severity of incidents, on the extent of media coverage and on each destination’s own reaction. Understanding the impact of these events will help us guestimate how travelers will respond to potential disruption and uncertainty in 2016.

In Tunisia, a major European tourist destination, overall flight bookings dropped by 17% in April, following the Tunis attack; after the second attack, they dropped by a whopping 76%. Extensive media coverage of the events as well as the deliberate and very targeted nature of the attacks against Western tourists spelled disaster for Tunisia’s local tourism and hospitality industry.

The Tunisian government’s perceived lack of effectiveness in preventing attacks and slow reaction time in the aftermath affected the long-term recovery of travel. We have kept an eye on travel intent to Tunisia since, and Sojern’s data show that it remained at about 60% or less of pre-attack levels.

In Paris, on the other hand, even though the severity and extent of the attacks were unprecedented, we are already seeing signs of recovery from most key origin markets.

Taking a closer look at travel intent by country, Sojern is seeing that key European origin markets like Italy, Spain, the U.K. and Germany, while still experiencing some declines, are already on the recovery path.  North America and East Asia represent the exception where, as of Nov. 25, travel intent to Paris continued to be down over 20% week over week since a week after the attacks.

The U.S., which dropped by 30% since the attacks, has dropped the most of any key market for travel into Paris.
Whether at the behest of public opinion leaders or of their own accord, French travelers are already itching to return to Paris, and then some. During the week of Nov. 25, French travelers’ interest in Paris rebounded and exceeded pre-attack levels by about 20%. This recovery is notable both for its swiftness and for its level.

According to a recent Deloitte report for the World Economic Forum, the pace at which travel recovers after political or economic turmoil has “shortened significantly” over the past 15 years. So, taking stock of everything that happened in 2015, what can travel professionals and tourism destinations do to prepare themselves for the unexpected in 2016?

A few additional data points might help us answer this question. Consider this: Haiti, devastated by the 2010 earthquake, took five years before beginning to recover from the doldrums. Only in 2015 has Haiti found its way back into the top 20 destinations for U.S. travelers (flight searches to Haiti were up 26% in Q2 over Q1, and bookings to Haiti saw an increase of 7% over the same interval).

At the other end of the spectrum, South Korea’s reaction to the MERS outbreak in the spring was so swift and efficient that travel intent barely had time to dip. By June 11, less than a month after the beginning of the outbreak (the first reported case was on May 20), travel intent rebounded across Germany, the U.K., the U.S. and Japan.

The good news is that tourism will rebound eventually following tragedies and economic instability — how soon, though, is largely in the hands of local and national authorities and is influenced by media perceptions and coverage.

More than ever, travel professionals need to stay abreast of foreign affairs that could influence travel and drive unusual trends. This will help them provide valuable advice and also promote places where new opportunities might arise due to the dynamic global landscape of 2016. 

Kurt Weinsheimer is vice president of marketing and partnerships at Sojern, a data-driven travel marketing service with more than 200 million traveler profiles. Before joining Sojern, he held executive and leadership positions at several travel e-commerce enterprises, including Orbitz’s hotel division, which he founded.

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