'It's a little better:' Reports surface of September's positive travel trends

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Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park. One of Globus' first trips since the pandemic was to the Grand Canyon.
Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park. One of Globus' first trips since the pandemic was to the Grand Canyon.

Globus is preparing to run its first tours in more than six months. River and cruise lines continue to slowly ramp up European sailings. Mexico is easing hotel and meetings capacity limits. Hawaii plans to reopen next month with pretravel Covid-19 testing. And companies say travel sales have been on a steady rise after the early summer's sudden drop-off.

Heading into the final weeks of month seven of the Covid-19 pandemic, travel companies are signaling renewed -- albeit very cautious -- optimism for recovery, even as Europe is facing a new round of travel restrictions and health officials warn of a potentially dangerous combination flu/Covid-19 season this winter.

"What we are seeing is a big uptick for people just wanting to go," said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel.

Banda said that year-over-year searches for travel to Africa are "up exponentially," based on Google analytics and internal company inquiries. In fact, demand for Africa and its wide-open spaces is so high that he predicts it will outstrip hotel and safari camp capacity next year.

In the near term, Steve Born, chief marketing officer for the Globus family of brands, said last week that the company had scheduled its first departures since the coronavirus outbreak, a mid-October tour of the Canadian Rockies for Canadian citizens and a Nov. 1 coach tour of the Grand Canyon and national parks in Utah.

On the U.S. trip, he said, all but two of the 40 slots had been filled as of a week ago, many of which were "booked previous to all this and [guests] stuck to it. So we are proud that we are going to be able to get out there."

Other tour operators have also slowly been restarting. G Adventures said it has run some small groups trips in Europe for Europeans. Intrepid Travel, likewise, resumed small trips for regional markets this summer.

And Ben Perlo, U.S. managing director of G Adventures, said they hope to get back to Costa Rica, a country that has opened to Americans from states with low Covid-19 infection rates.

In Mexico, which has been one of the few spots Americans can travel to without restrictions, the state of Quintana Roo moved into the final phase before a total reopening, meaning groups and conventions can return at 30% capacity indoors and 50% outside, and hotels, restaurants and shopping centers in popular tourism spots like Cancun, Tulum and the Riviera Maya can move from 50% to 60% capacity.

Reopening of the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions, or MICE, sector is particularly key for the region, said Dario Flota, director of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board.

"In 2019, this segment represented around 30% of hotel occupancy in the state," he said. "And we estimate that MICE professionals generated more than $4.5 million for the region."

In Europe, Avalon Waterways said last week that it would join several other lines that normally cater to Americans in sailings for non-U.S. guests. Managing director Pamela Hoffee said the company will offer six Christmas market sailings, two for Canadian passengers and four for the U.K.

"These have been selling for about a month now, and they are doing relatively well," she said.

"We're thrilled to be finally not just looking at how we're putting together protocols but now implementing them and training our crew."

Avalon, along with other river lines, stands ready to open more end-of-year sailings if Europe opens to Americans, Hoffee said. But while she and others agree that is unlikely, tour operators and package sellers continue to report small, but encouraging signs.

After watching sales "fall off a cliff in late June," said Jon Grutzner, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, "things are starting to pick up. It's a little better than a month ago. And better than a month before that."

Likewise, Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said September sales are up versus July and August, but still well below historic levels.

Classic Vacations president David Hu attributed some of the uptick to other big issues dominating the headlines.

"Whenever the news cycle is off the health pandemic, we see a slight uptick in demand," he said.

"We are seeing a nice trajectory in the last two weeks, which should continue as we see certain markets such as Hawaii open up. It's nowhere where we want it to be, but people are continuing to plan vacations for next year."

At Globus, Born said they had seen consistent consumer demand through the summer and into September, "although I wouldn't say we're seeing a recent appreciable increase.

"Our 2021 demand seems directly related to what's perceived as open and safe by the time consumers are ready to travel for 2021," he said. "Once we and others begin operating, that will hopefully trigger a wave of optimism." 

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