In 2019, the travel industry dealt with cloudy skies — aircraft groundings, tour company failures, travel bans and fears and signs of a looming downturn — but there were also some silver linings, including victories in advocacy and progress on pollution.
By Johanna Jainchill
This year was nothing if not eventful, with the travel industry making front-page headlines, often in ways it would have preferred not to.
The Max 737 debacle was among aviation’s worst in history. The demise of several tour operators left travelers, suppliers and travel advisors on the hook and in some cases stranded. The Dominican Republic was trashed by the media for what amounted to nothing. Sargassum became a household word.
There were also bright spots. Travel advisors won big in California. It was the beginning of the end for single-use plastics.
Tour operators found a way to keep Cuba travel alive despite the Trump administration’s attempts to kill it.
Here, in no particular order, are the travel stories of 2019 that Travel Weekly’s editors found to be the most important.
The news came down like a hammer in early June: Trump made cruising to Cuba illegal, a policy reversal so abrupt that ships en route to Havana had to change course.
The decision came three years after the Obama administration had relaxed regulations, allowing the first U.S. cruise ship in 50 years to dock in Havana in 2016. Cruising quickly became a popular way to visit the island: In 2018, 800,000 visitors arrived via ship, a 29% increase over 2017, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism.
The policy rollback took its toll on both travelers booked on Cuba cruises and on the lines. The financial hit to the cruise industry was estimated to be almost $200 million this year alone.
The new policy also eliminated the “people-to-people” category of authorized travel to Cuba, which at first seemed to be the death knell for Cuba tours. But many operators were able to continue by modifying their itineraries under different categories of authorized travel to Cuba, such as “support for the Cuban people.”
Airlines dodged the Cuba bullet in June but were next in the line of fire. In Late October, Washington banned U.S. flights to all Cuban cities except Havana.
The administration did not destroy Cuba travel in 2019, but its continued assault on it succeeded in sowing confusion and dampening demand. Travel advisors in November reported a huge downturn in Cuba travel demand.
California’s IC bill
In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5 into law, putting into effect much stricter regulations for independent contractors (ICs). But the bill included a significant exemption: travel advisors. ASTA, along with the California Coalition of Travel Organizations, won a hard-fought, grassroots battle to avert what ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said would have been a “massive disruption to our industry in California.” To do so, the Society unleashed its largest effort ever to quash a state initiative: It sent members and staffers to the Golden State throughout the year to testify and meet with legislators, and it set up a portal through which members sent email to and called thousands of local representatives. As sweet as this victory was, ASTA knows it can only bask in its glory for so long. Last month, it began urging members once again to start writing and calling, as similar bills have already been introduced in several states.
The Dominican Republic
The early summer headlines were relentless: “Mysterious tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic”; “11 U.S. Tourists Have Died in the Dominican Republic in 2019. Should You Cancel Your Trip?” The most commonly assumed culprit was tainted alcohol from in-room minibars at all-inclusive resorts around the country.
But in the end, it was the scandal that wasn’t: Four months later, the FBI revealed that toxicology tests proved that all the deaths in question had been from natural causes.
By that time, the damage was done. Dominican Republic visitor numbers plummeted, leading to tourism sector layoffs and exacting a financial toll on travel companies like Apple Vacations, whose president, John Tarkowski, said, “The mistruths, the hyped-up mass media and social media have not only enormously impacted our businesses but the lives of the hard-working people in the destinations we send [clients] to. And it’s tragic, quite honestly.”
737 Max groundings
The saga of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft has been one of tragedy and heartache for the families of the victims of two fatal crashes, one in Indonesia in late 2018, the other in Ethiopia in March. For the airline industry, the ensuing fallout created a year of major turbulence, both in the U.S. and abroad, from the grounding of the global 737 Max fleet and a hold on all Max deliveries.
Throughout 2019, airlines canceled routes and saw earnings drop because of the Max groundings. One of the more notable outcomes was Southwest’s decision to leave Newark in order to redeploy its lower-than-expected capacity to more lucrative markets.
Unfortunately, there is no end in sight. The Max’s return continues to get pushed further into the future, and Boeing this month decided to temporarily stop production of the planes starting in January. Airlines are factoring the issues this will create in 2020, and those problems don’t even take into account the
Collapses of tour operators
In September, British giant Thomas Cook suddenly shuttered its operations, triggering an impact so massive that U.K. authorities had to undertake its largest-ever peacetime repatriation effort to bring home more than 150,000 travelers left stranded by the company.
But Cook wasn’t the first or last tour operator that would go dark in 2019. Its demise was followed by the collapse of Cox & Kings, the Americas, which said it was unable to pay suppliers for trips already booked. And earlier this year, it was the headline-grabbing saga of JG Worldwide, parent company to the now-defunct luxe tour operators Heritage Tours and Revealed America. JG not only went out of business in 2019, but it blamed its failure on Virtuoso in a lawsuit filed this fall, which the luxury consortium has called baseless.
The trio of failures sparked questions about whether the shutdowns were coincidence or indicated underlying issues within the sector. Large companies like the Globus family of brands, Trafalgar and Abercrombie & Kent were quick to tout their strength, and analysts pointed to underlying issues at each of the doomed companies that had led to their downfalls.
The battle over resort fees reached a fever pitch in 2019, coming under attack both legislatively and from OTAs.
In May, Booking.com said it would start charging commission on mandatory resort fees that customers pay on property, calling the move an effort to provide “complete transparency.”
In November, Expedia said it began displaying hotels that charge resort fees less prominently.
The month before, legislation aimed at cracking down on resort fees was introduced in Congress. The Hotel Advertising Transparency Act of 2019 would require hotels and providers of short-term lodging to display a full pretax price to consumers as they search and compare options.
That last move came after the District of Columbia sued Marriott International and Nebraska sued Hilton, each alleging that the fees are deceptive.
Some hotels, however, are fighting back: the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association advised its members to “reassess their use” of Booking.com if the OTA follows through on its plan, and so far, the commissions have been postponed.
Sargassum from hell
The Dominican Republic was not only afflicted by sensational press reports, it was also among the victims of what became the summer of sargassum, the smelly, brown seaweed that kept vacationers off beaches and out of the water in parts of Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico’s Riviera Maya and Cancun coastlines.
Sargassum has plagued the region’s beaches on and off for several years, but 2019’s severe outbreak forced resorts and local governments to take extreme measures to tackle it, such as installing expensive barriers off coastlines to catch and redirect the seaweed and measures to educate travelers, including webcams with live footage showing sargassum-free beaches.
The impact was such that sargassum was blamed in part for Mexico’s significant second-quarter downturn in hotel metrics like RevPAR, average daily rate and occupancy, all of which reached their lowest level since 2013.
Cruise line private islands
Most years, new bells and whistles on cruise ships, such as racetracks and waterslides, steal the cruise industry show. This year was different, with some of the most exciting cruise innovations not found on ships at all.
In 2019, private cruise destinations reached new heights, literally. Royal Caribbean International in May opened the first of five private destination experiences it will brand with the Perfect Day moniker.
Perfect Day at CocoCay, a $250 million upgrade of an island that Royal ships have been visiting for years, now touts the 135-foot Daredevil’s Tower, with seven waterslides, the largest pool in the Caribbean and a helium balloon ride that rises 400 feet.
MSC Cruises took a different tack with its new, private Bahamian island, designed to give guests “an authentic, natural Bahamian island” experience. Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve has seven beaches, two lagoons and a lighthouse, but it will not have any waterslides, ziplines or amusement park types of attractions.
Norwegian Cruise Line opted for opulence with its recently opened, super-exclusive Silver Cove area of Great Stirrup Cay, where beachfront villas go for as much as $1,100 per day and patrons enjoy a private beach and a Moet Bar.
The upgraded real estate has pushed the lines to get creative: Royal and MSC are already opening their islands to nighttime calls. And although Virgin Voyages’ beach club-style destination in Bimini doesn’t open until 2020, the line has already announced plans for Fire and Sunset Soirees.
All these differentiated island offerings mean that, going forward, passengers may be choosing a cruise based not just on its onboard product but also on the private-island experience.
River cruise accidents
The river cruise industry made headlines for all the wrong reasons in spring 2019, when a Viking ship struck and sunk a small tour boat on the Danube and a docked Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection ship was rammed by an out-of-control MSC Cruises ship in Venice.
The circumstances surrounding the accidents were very different, but both highlighted the growing congestion on some stretches of Europe’s waterways, raising questions about the rapid growth of the river cruise sector and overcrowding issues.
In Budapest, river cruise ships were banned, at least temporarily, from doing nighttime illumination cruises past Hungary’s brightly lit Parliament building after the Viking Sigyn hit and sunk a small tour boat; 28 were killed, most of them Korean tourists.
The Venice incident fueled continuing concerns about large cruise ships and overtourism, with local protestors calling for a ban on ships calling in the Italian city altogether.
In 2019, Airbnb, a year out from a planned IPO, found itself in the crosshairs of local governments and regulatory bodies more than ever before. The homesharing giant came under congressional scrutiny over what a group of U.S. lawmakers called “deceptive and misleading listings” and a failure to authenticate host identities and protect guests after five people were killed at an unauthorized party at an Airbnb rental on Halloween; a scathing article in Vice, meanwhile, exposed the company’s inadequate response to fraudulent listings.
In response, Airbnb unveiled a battery of policy changes in early November that included a pledge to verify all 7 million Airbnb listings by the end of next year and renew efforts to screen “high-risk” reservations.
Moreover, a late-fall defeat in Jersey City, N.J., was a big setback for the company, as it reflected the growing opposition to the homesharing platform’s rapid expansion not only from the hotel industry and municipalities looking to collect taxes but also from irate residents.
Roughly 70% of voters in the Jersey City referendum cast ballots to tighten the rules for short-term vacation rentals, despite Airbnb allegedly sinking more than $4 million into lobbying efforts.
Travel confronts climate change
This year will be remembered as one in which the travel industry made significant strides toward reducing its carbon footprint, even as it was called out publicly for its environmental misdeeds.
It was the beginning of the end for single-use plastics in hospitality, although how long it will take to achieve that goal is unclear. All three major cruise lines launched drastic plastic-reduction policies; hotel behemoths Marriott, InterContinental Hotels Group and Hyatt all pledged to eliminate single-use plastic toiletry bottles; and even airlines, which face one of the steepest uphill battles in removing plastics from flights, took initiatives aimed at reducing the estimated 3.15 pounds per passenger of cabin waste per flight.
In addition, Hurtigruten became the first cruise line to sail a ship run partly on batteries, cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20%.
But the travel industry was also taken to task by the flight-shaming movement, which called out air travel’s responsibility for 2.5% of global carbon emissions and resulted in some passenger reductions in Europe.
And in June, Carnival Corp. was forced to pay a $20 million fine for dumping violations and agreed to make environmental compliance a priority.
It was all enough for Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, to lay out an ambitious plan in late September that the travel industry be climate neutral by 2050.
End of the hotel RevPAR upcycle
All good things must come to an end, and in 2019, what ended was record growth of U.S. hotel RevPAR. That crucial metric ground to a near halt this year, threatening to end the industry’s record 116-month upcycle.
Hotel data firm STR’s final 2019 forecast projected 0.8% growth for 2019 and 0.5% growth for 2020, following nine straight years of increases of 3% or higher and representing the industry’s worst year since the end of the Great Recession.
New York alone saw a steep 7.2% RevPAR drop in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, beyond the U.S., the Caribbean also experienced a steep decline in RevPAR and occupancy in April that continued through the summer, with August occupancies falling 5.6% from the same period last year and RevPAR down 5.3%.
Many factors seem at play here. In U.S. cities, supply growth and competition from alternative accommodations have contributed, as has the slower growth of international visitors to the U.S. But it also seemed to be a case of simple science: What goes up must eventually come down.
The closure of Mexico’s
In 2019, Mexico’s government dissolved its tourism promotion wing, the Mexico Tourism Board (MTB), and transferred its $300 million budget to the construction of a rail line on the Yucatan Peninsula.
It closed all 21 of the MTB’s international offices and folded tourism promotion into Mexican embassies where possible. The move did not come at a good time for Mexico tourism.
Air arrivals to Cancun declined in January, the first year-over-year decrease in any month in almost seven years, and tour companies like Apple Leisure Group (ALG)and Pleasant Holidays reported that Mexico was down or flat. ALG executive chairman Alex Zozaya lambasted the move earlier this year and predicted tourism would suffer, a claim he seemed to validate this month when he said ALG was putting up to $600 million in Mexico investments on hold due to a downturn in tourism, which he attributed in part to the MTB closing.
In 2019, the world’s largest hotel company spread its giant wings. Marriott went all-in on all-inclusives in the Caribbean and Mexico, inking deals for five new all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic and Mexico under its Ritz-Carlton, Westin, Autograph Collection and Marriott brands.
It followed those deals with an agreement to acquire Elegant Hotels Group, owner and operator of seven Barbados properties, and to operate all of them as all-inclusives. In November, Marriott said it would build all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica and on Curacao.
Given the growth of the sector, experts called the move overdue, and Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said of all-inclusives, “We do know that it is increasingly popular.”
But it wasn’t Marriott’s only foray into new lodging pursuits: In late April, the company launched a vacation-rental platform, Homes & Villas by Marriott International, indicating its willingness to take on Airbnb and perhaps signaling that the alt in alt accommodations is on its way out.