Any hope of a fast travel recovery from coronavirus appears to have faded, with representatives of some of the country’s top tour operators saying that a 2021 rebound is more realistic.

“Right now, I think it is a very mild recovery starting in January 2021,” CIE International CEO Elizabeth Crabill said in a webinar with board members of the U.S. Tour Operators Association.

The last two quarters of 2020, she said, “will be for the hardiest of travelers and the ones who are most dedicated or unable to change their plans.”

Other USTOA board members agreed.

Holland America Group executive vice president Charlie Ball said he sees the “skies starting to part a little bit” but with all the talk of a second surge in the pandemic, he envisions a slow recovery.

“For any of our businesses to work well, people have to be comfortable getting on an aircraft,” he said. … “I’m thinking the third and fourth quarters are going to be a slow restart.”

Next year, he said, “is going to be our first chance to move ahead from this difficult time.”

Even then, the first quarter of 2021 looks soft, said Apple Leisure Group senior vice president Scott Wiseman. “We shouldn’t expect to see 2021 back to even 2019 levels … at least with what we know today.”

USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale said results from the latest survey of active members shows 57% of business on the books for 2021 is rebookings of canceled 2020 trips. Of those trips, 80% were to international destinations, while 20% were for North America.

Tauck CEO Dan Mahar said most Tauck customers “are staying in their lane” and rebooking the same trips, but that it’s too soon to really talk about post-pandemic booking trends.

At the moment, Globus CEO Scott Nisbett said trips to North and South America “are looking much better than others,” while “really long-haul destinations like Asia, Australia, Africa are down quite a bit more.”

As for the remainder of the year, travel companies said all is not lost, at least not yet.

“We are still optimistic about operating in Q3 and Q4,” said Madhvi Buch, senior vice president of the Travel Corporation. “We haven’t seen a huge drop in the bookings that we are already holding for Q3 and Q4, but we’re definitely not seeing any new green shoots coming back.”

Mahar said many customers are still holding onto fall travel plans, but that makes for tricky judgment calls about whether to try to run those trips since the earlier that operators reach out to travelers about changes and suspensions, the easier it is to get them to rebook rather than cancel.

The good news: “The desire to travel is still very strong,” Mahar said. 

Recovery, however, he said “will come down to vaccinations and medication and whether they are widely available not only here but in the destinations where we travel.”

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