Just a week ago, bookings to 'safe places' gave hope

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Monica Iannacone of Weekend Navigators in Tampa said most travelers were inquiring about all-inclusive travel in the Caribbean.
Monica Iannacone of Weekend Navigators in Tampa said most travelers were inquiring about all-inclusive travel in the Caribbean. Photo Credit: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Even as conferences were being cancelled, colleges were going online, businesses were grounding travel and consumer fears of Covid-19 grew, last week it seemed that there was still evidence that consumer demand for travel remained high, with advisors and suppliers reporting that many clients are continuing with spring break and other travel plans.

This desire to travel despite wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19 suggests that while cancellations and rebooking have overtaken new business, travel advisors and suppliers can hold onto hope that when the crisis subsides, cabin fever may spur a strong recovery to the industry.

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Just five days ago, bookings to the Americas, the Caribbean and other destinations with few or no cases of the virus yet reported were still coming in.

At the time, Daniela Harrison, with Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz,, said “People are definitely still traveling.”  

“We have a lot of South America, specifically Ecuador and Peru, and Australia-New Zealand itineraries this spring [on which clients are] all traveling,” she said. “May is high season for river cruises, and so far everyone is still planning on traveling, especially on the Danube and Rhine.”

Advisors and tour operators alike had reported a spike in bookings to the Americas, particularly national parks, the Canadian Rockies and Hawaii. Less anticipated hot spots were Greece and even Russia.

Jeff Roy, executive vice president of the global tour operator Collette, hadn’t yet seen an overwhelming fear for going overseas.

Still, as the outbreak spread, there have been predictions that the fallout for U.S. tourism will be worse than SARS and possibly as bad as post-9/11.

In that period following the Sept. 11 attacks, Roy said, Collette refunded up to $30 million under its self-administered flexible travel insurance policies. “We’re still here 20 years later. Honestly, what we’re seeing is more of a preference to defer some travel as opposed to outright canceling.”

Roy and others said that even Italy, which locked down its entire country, continues to book strong for later in the year and 2021. And Collette, which just reintroduced Russia, was seeing a boom in sales for that product, Roy said.

Still, the National Tour Association reported last week that in a survey of its members, more than 55% of 104 tour operator respondents reported cancellations as of March 6. And travel advisors continued to be swamped with client questions and requests for cancellations and rebookings.

Geoff Millar, co-owner of Ultimate All-Inclusive Travel and Ultimate Hawaii Vacations in Gilbert, Ariz., said, “I think cruises and certainly Asia and Europe are being hit more than anything else. So it’s affecting more the people that do the FIT-type travel. Those who are doing packages to the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, I think you’re going to find that they haven’t been hit that much at all.”

At that point, Millar said he’d only had one coronavirus-related cancellation, even though as of last week he had close to 1,000 people traveling, about 40% to Hawaii and 60% to Mexico and the Caribbean. Hawaii sales, in particular, have been up, he reported.

Global Rescue, the Boston-based travel evacuation and security firm, said that in a survey released early last week that of 500 of its members  --  among the world’s most experienced travelers  --  86% were concerned about the virus, but 89% still planned to travel.

At the time, Global Rescue CEO Dan Richards said, “Nearly 60% of our members say they are not changing their travel plans due to coronavirus, about 16% are taking a wait-and-see approach, 8% are postponing and 4% have canceled trips.”

Advisors, however, said many clients were looking at what they consider safer alternatives.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of cancellations and postponed trips,” Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, had said at about the same point last week. “But there is a spiked interest in close-to-home travel. People still want to go on vacation, they’re just opting to travel via car.”

AAA Travel had been planning to try to capitalize on that trend, with senior vice president Paula Twidale issuing a statement that said in part, “Adjusting marketing plans to support travel closer to home with destinations in the U.S. and Canada, including national parks and Alaska, is a focus.”

Meanwhile, tour operators were still reporting that demand for foreign travel was still strong for later in the year and in 2021.

“We are noticing that guests seem to be less nervous about committing to travel farther out,” Jon Grutzner, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, had said. And regardless, 2021 bookings prompt him to see light at the end of the tunnel. “We released our 2021 Preview Collection earlier than ever before ... because of the large volume of demand from our guests, offering them the opportunity to get the best prices and travel with peace of mind.”

Insight Vacations said South America, especially Peru, is one of their top-trending destinations. Pictured, Machu Picchu.
Insight Vacations said South America, especially Peru, is one of their top-trending destinations. Pictured, Machu Picchu. Photo Credit: Daniel Arranz/Shutterstock

Insight said its top-trending destinations were, in order of popularity, national parks in the U.S. and Canada; South America, particularly Peru; Hawaii; the U.K. and Ireland; Spain and Portugal; and the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece and Croatia.

Likewise, Trafalgar president Melissa DaSilva had said the company continued to get new bookings in addition to requests to reschedule. Since Feb. 18, she said, 57% of those bookings were to Europe, both for 2020 and 2021 travel. Of those, Ireland and Great Britain made up roughly half. And 32% of the new bookings, she said, were for North America trips, primarily to national parks. 

Brownell Travel affiliate Marion McDonald estimated that 30% to 40% of her clients had canceled, but she added that, as recently as last week, many were still traveling.

“The spring breakers, they’re going,” she had said. 

Like others, McDonald said the Caribbean, Mexico and the Canadian Rockies were still showing life.

And she was rooting for one Caribbean island in particular. “I’m really hoping that this will be the boost Puerto Rico needs,” McDonald said, “because not only is it Caribbean, it is also still a bargain somewhat because they’re still rebuilding. And no passport required.”

Monica Iannacone, owner of Weekend Navigators in Tampa, had said she’d had requests for travel in the U.S. but that most travelers were inquiring about all-inclusive travel in the Caribbean.

“We’re finding that those who want to travel and get away in the Caribbean are booking now to lock in the rates for later this year and next year,” she said.

Just a week ago, Angel Wilson, travel advisor and owner of Dream Journeys in Indianapolis, which specializes in Hawaii and the Caribbean, said most of her clients “are hanging in there.”

She, on the other hand, has been personally affected by the crisis. Her mother and daughter were supposed to join her on a Princess Cruises sailing to Japan for spring break, but the cruise was canceled. She searched for other options, but none fit her spring break dates. 

So she and her family had plans to instead flying to Hawaii. She said she still plans to cruise to Japan as soon as she can.

What a difference a week makes.
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Jamie Biesiada and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.
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This report was updated Monday morning as Covid-19's effect on the travel industry progressed.

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