Good news about Covid-19 vaccines has been on the uptick this month, and with it, a bump in inquiries to travel agencies about what these medical advances might mean for travel in 2021.
The calls don't always lead to bookings, advisors said, and although the good news is tempered in part by spiking cases around the country, consumer response to the vaccine news appears to both reflect high levels of pent-up demand and herald the nascent return of broad consumer confidence to travel.
On Nov. 9, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that preliminary data indicates their vaccine is more than 90% effective. A week later, Moderna on Nov. 16 said preliminary analysis found its vaccine was more than 94.5% effective. And just before Thanksgiving, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford said preliminary data found their vaccine up to 90% effective.
"Within an hour of Pfizer announcing their vaccine, we started getting calls," said Helen Papa, owner of TBH Travel in Dix Hills, N.Y. "Within an hour. It was amazing."
Cruise lines also saw some positive effects attributable to vaccine news. During Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings' most recent financial earnings call, the day after Pfizer's news, president and CEO Frank Del Rio said bookings in the previous 24 hours were "pretty good; better than the previous four or five Mondays."
"And that's, I think, attributable to the vaccine news," he said. "We did not have any particular promotion or did any outsized marketing."
Similarly, Royal Caribbean Group chairman Richard Fain addressed the question of positive news about vaccines during Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld, which was held virtually earlier this month.
"I don't think it will surprise anybody that when the news is scary, people tend to go back into their cocoons," Fain said. "As the news gets to be more positive they come out. What's encouraging is how quickly it responds."
After both the Pfizer and Moderna news broke, Skyscanner found that searches for travel from the U.S. to Mexico surpassed their weekly volume from last year, up 10%. Skyscanner attributed that increase to the vaccine news, as well.
For Papa, some of the inquiries she received at TBH have turned into bookings. Clients are "cautiously optimistic," she said.
On the other side of the country from Papa, Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif., also received a number of emails and calls from clients following vaccine announcements, according to president Jay Johnson.
While there has been a general sense of optimism and more confidence in travel's return by next summer, he said, the influx of inquiries has not yet resulted in new business.
"There is without a doubt a huge amount of pent-up demand to travel in 2021," Johnson said. "All we need now is confirmation that the vaccines work and a lowering of cases. Then, we'll be off and running."
Avenue Two Travel in Villanova, Pa., saw an uptick in both calls and bookings as a result of the positive vaccine news, but that was tempered by the rising number of cases around the country, said CEO Joshua Bush.
Avenue Two has seen steady, week-over-week increases in travel since mid-August, thanks to domestic travel and clients dreaming about 2021 travel, Bush said. In addition to closer-in domestic bookings, Avenue Two has even been booking things like world cruise segments and expedition trips. Overall, business is down about 70% year over year, but better than the 95 to 97% it was down when the pandemic first hit.
The week before Pfizer had announced its vaccine's effectiveness, business was "absolutely dead," which Bush attributed to the unsettled U.S. presidential election.
But the week of Nov. 16, Bush said, "with the election result [more widely accepted] and the vaccine ... we are on track for our best week this year since Covid." Those bookings were for both the holiday season and 2021 as travelers are getting more optimistic about a vaccine.
At the same time, the good news is offset by the surge in cases and deaths around the world, especially in the U.S.
"We're hitting milestone death numbers," Bush said. "We're hitting milestone cases on individual days. That is really kind of tamping down the news that there's light at the end of the tunnel. We're definitely in this still."
In some places, though, travelers have shown less concern about traveling during the pandemic, and the news of the vaccines was akin to a nonevent. Jeanne Polocheck, owner of Well Traveled Texan in Houston, said her Texas-based clients largely kept traveling during the pandemic. Things had initially slowed early this year, but by Memorial Day clients were out and about again, a trend that has continued. Domestic spots and Mexico have been popular.
She didn't even get one phone call from a client about vaccines.
A potential stumbling block to the recovery of travel is the resistance among some people to being vaccinated. A Gallup poll conducted between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1, before the vaccine trial results were announced, indicated 58% of adult respondents were willing to get a vaccination, a rise from 50% in September.
Lingering and significant reluctance to be vaccinated will likely present hurdles to overcome with regard to travel in the future, said Ensemble Travel Group CEO David Harris.
He pointed to the flu vaccine: It's been available for decades, but a portion of the population skips it each year.
However, he is more hopeful about a Covid vaccine, given how serious the impact of the virus has been. While a vaccine will never be 100% effective, it could go a long way to the resumption of travel, he said, by giving confidence to governments to relax requirements for quarantines and other deterrents to travel.
"Those should, in theory, be relaxed if you get traction from an effective vaccine," he said.
Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.