Fast-changing rules for international travel have fueled a new round of cancellations and chaos for travel advisors just as they were beginning to see an uptick in business following news of vaccine rollouts, according to a new Travel Weekly survey.
Just over half of advisors, or 51%, responding to the online survey said queries for international travel have dropped since the CDC in mid-January announced all inbound travelers would need to show proof of a negative Covid test to board flights to the U.S.
A quarter said clients have canceled trips planned for the next two months, while 29% reported cancellations on both short- and long-term bookings.
On the bright said, more than a third, or 38%, said trip-planning queries were up since vaccine programs began in December, and 29% said booking activity increased. Twenty-nine percent also reported queries for domestic travel rose after the new inbound testing policy was announced, and 12% said domestic bookings were up.
The vaccine rollout has had a positive impact on bookings and queries.
Still, more than two-thirds of advisors, or 67%, said they expected a Jan. 20 executive order requiring all inbound travelers to quarantine after they get home to further deter international travel.
"Business was starting to pick up the end of 2020, but the new announcement is causing cancellations," one respondent wrote. "I had clients ready to book, but they are hesitant now. Can't afford to be quarantined abroad or when returning home. This year will be a repeat of 2020 with cancellations and lack of new bookings if guidelines are not lifted."
Mexico and the Caribbean remain popular with clients.
Not surprisingly, the poll of 1,050 advisors, conducted Jan. 22 to 27, showed the biggest impact has been on queries and bookings for Mexico and the Caribbean, the two regions where Americans have been most able to freely travel.
Flight search data also showed a drop in queries for those destinations. Since Jan. 16, the booking app Hopper said, search demand for Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean has fallen an average of 10% at a time when searches for those regions are typically up 23%.
"This thus marks a net 33% decrease in search demand when compared to the same period last year," said Hopper economist Adit Damodaran.
While destinations, hotels and tour operators have scurried to roll out both predeparture testing and insurance programs to cover costs for travelers unable to return home, some advisors said their clients simply aren't willing to take a chance.
"The risk of not being able to return to the U.S. due to the unavailability of testing, or even a false positive Covid test, has significantly affected my 2021 sales," said Mary Krueger of Mary Krueger Travel, an independent affiliate of Travel Leaders Market Square. "The risk of being denied entry into the U.S. is very concerning for our citizens."
At least half of the respondents have had cancellations as a result of the new requirements.
Complicating the travel equation is the executive order requiring inbound travelers to follow CDC recommendations to quarantine for seven days after returning home.
"I was optimistic until Biden announced quarantining when arriving to the USA from an international destination," said one respondent. "We have had a lot of cancellations. Our clients were fine with testing, but the quarantine requirement may kill my business."
The rules, however, could continue to be revised. Biden's executive order called on Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officials to consider the feasibility of implementing alternatives to predeparture testing "for travelers entering the United States from countries where Covid-19 tests are inaccessible, particularly where such inaccessibility of tests would affect the ability of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to return to the United States."
Peter Vlitas, senior vice president of airline relations for Internova Travel Group, said he is optimistic things will stabilize as testing and quarantine rules are more clearly defined.
"I think the immediate, knee-jerk reaction will be a downturn," he said. "But once the dust settles and people realize, 'OK, I can go away, I can get a test, I can come back into the country,' and as long as the quarantining is something like New York -- three days, four days -- I think then, once people understand the rules and understand that it's OK to travel and you feel comfortable, I think then we'll continue on the upward trajectory."
Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said his company saw a dip in Mexico and Caribbean sales right after the new CDC order was issued Jan. 12. But he said bookings began to stabilize and cancellations moderated as hotel partners finalized and announced free on-site Covid-19 tests and quarantine protection plans.
"One of the trends we are seeing is the shorter trips [like three-day weekends] are not being booked with great frequency since the rules require a test almost the day travelers arrive in Mexico to comply with the 72-hour test requirement for reentry. This may increase the average stay in Mexico longer, to five to eight nights."
Richards said sales have also increased to domestic destinations, particularly Hawaii. "Hawaii is performing much better since the CDC order was issued, and we expect this to continue long-term, especially for families."
Classic Holidays' David Hu said they had an early flurry of calls about the new rules but not a lot of changes or cancellations, as most of their bookings are for travel later in the year.
"Our expectation is that in the near term, there is so much uncertainty that we will continue to see spring travel demand fluctuate," he said. "However, as all these new rules come into effect and we see the surge in Covid cases decline, these measures will help build confidence that we will be able to see more [third- and fourth-quarter] demand."
Jamie Biesiada and Robert Silk contributed to this report.