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12/08/2020

6 Trends for 2021: Travel’s Comeback Story

Predicting the future is impossible but imagining a way forward is critical. That’s why each year I relish diving into the travel trends that will shape the next 12 months of our industry.

As the dark chapter that is the year 2020 comes to a close, the success of the travel industry hinges on our collective ability to adapt, innovate, and collaborate to make travel easier, safer and more seamless than ever before. Fortunately, the travel industry is chockfull of creative thinkers from all over the world, and our technological abilities have never been greater. That’s why I’m optimistic that 2021 will be the year that travel starts its comeback, where I’ll: 

1. Get to hug my family in Ireland for the first time in far, far, far too long, 

2. Laugh with (and maybe cry), and thank in person, my colleagues, who I’ve been working with from my bedroom for almost a year now, and

3. Feel butterflies as I land in a foreign country, excited about what adventure, wonders and different cultures await. And food. Lots of food! 

Will things be “back to normal?” I think it will be even better. Pre-COVID, the travel industry contributed approximately US $8.9 trillion to the world’s GDP – that’s roughly 1 in 10 jobs. This attests to the powerful human desire to explore the world. In 2021, this desire will remain undimmed – if not brightened –and will act as a powerful driver that will push the travel industry forward. 

So, as we continue to rethink travel, here are six trends we see shaping travel in 2021.


1. Go Big (Near or Far) or Stay Home  
The year travel dreams come true

Go big or stay home: that’s the theme we’re seeing with travelers in 2021. A recent Amadeus survey found that 55%1  of travelers said they would travel for 14 days or more, and 60%2 are now expecting to take only a few trips a year – which suggest that if people travel, they may want to go all out, whether near or far from home.

In 2020, we’ve all had more than enough time to fantasize about our next adventure from the comfort of our living room. 2021 is the year we’ll want to bring it to life.

To make up for lost time, travelers are likely to gravitate to ‘big idea’ or ‘bucket list’ trips that can vary from a three-hour road trip to an intercontinental flight. Whether it’s a horseback riding tour through Petra, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba diving through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or hiking or rafting through the Grand Canyon, this is the year travelers will finally book that once-in-a-lifetime adventure they’ve been dreaming of since they first watched Indiana Jones. 

After spending a year mostly cooped up indoors, travelers will be looking for unique experiences in far flung places. If they’re going to fly, they will stay longer, and invest more to make sure that one trip really counts. 

Takeaway: In 2021, if a traveler is planning a trip, they’re going all out. Travel providers, agents and destinations should be prepared to surprise and delight travelers with unique, unexpected, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences while staying abreast of the destinations latest policies and safety measures regarding COVID-19.

2. Nomadic Travel
Employers and employees embrace working from anywhere

Even once COVID-19 is largely under control, employers and employees have proven that remote work works, and a newfound employee perk is the ability to work from anywhere. If all we need is Wi-Fi and a web cam, why not have a beach or mountain view with our coffee or tea?

Barbados was the first country to strike on this opportunity: their “digital nomad” visa means you can work from paradise for a year. Bermuda, Anguilla, Georgia, Dubai, Estonia swiftly followed, and Aruba and Croatia are next. In Portugal, Martinhal Resorts is offering a reduced rate for long-term stays aimed at families who want to relocate, and the company Love Home Swap offers people the opportunity to swap houses for an extended period to travel and work from the comfort of someone else’s home. 

As more and more hospitality companies change their focus to longer holidays - Airbnb has already shifted its entire business model to long-term stays – 2021 will be the year we re-define what it means to travel for work.   

Takeaway: The world is everyone’s oyster...or rather, office. Now is the time to craft special offers to lure bleisure travelers looking for longer stays.

3. The Loyalty Shift
Better Service for All    

COVID-19 has upended the traditional dynamic of traveler loyalty. While before, travelers racked up points to determine the level of service they experienced, health, hygiene and safety is the new currency for earning customer trust. With 40% of tourists saying they favor airlines, airports, and hotels with higher health and safety standards3, better service for all isn’t up for negotiation.

Travel companies have been quick to act: Hilton Hotels offers contactless hotel stays; staff at the Marriott now clean with electrostatic sprayers; Accor introduced ALLSAFE for elevated cleanliness protocols and prevention standards; and IHG created a dedicated Cleanliness Council called ‘Commitment to Clean’; while Lufthansa is linking its tickets to COVID-19 tests. 

Some are going beyond the call of duty: both Etihad and Emirates have promised that they will take care of any medical and quarantine expenses if travelers test positive for COVID-19 during their trip. 

This higher level of service extends to business travelers with employers around the world looking at how to meet their duty of care obligations in a COVID-19 world. To do this, corporate travel managers must have the right data and tools to be flexible, reach their business travelers quickly, and provide them with the latest information quickly. 

Takeaway: The customer comes first now more than ever and earning miles and extra nights might not carry the same value they once did. Travel companies must go the extra mile to ensure the health and safety of their travelers, or risk losing their loyalty and trust.

4. Swipe Right on Tech
Touchless tech will inspire traveler confidence

In a recent survey conducted by Amadeus, more than 4 in 5 travelers said technology would increase their confidence to travel in the next 12 months.4  Solutions that enhance transparency, clear communication, and seamless payments and boarding are the clear winners of 2021. Fortunately, we have an app for that – or a few.  

Airlines and airports have been quick to adopt touchless technology and it shows no signs of slowing down in 2021. Cathay Pacific offers contactless check-in, biometric gates at boarding, and modified meal service to reduce contact with the crew, while United Airlines has introduced what it says is the first touchless check-in experience of any airline at London Heathrow Airport. Earlier this year Amadeus partnered with Norwegian airport operator Avinor, to trial touchless technology in 44 airports to allow passengers to check in, drop bags, proceed through security, and board their flight. 

Unsurprisingly, rapid COVID-19 testing is also on the rise. Tampa International Airport announced that all departing and arriving passengers can take a rapid COVID-19 test at the Florida Hub, while Heathrow Airport is preparing to launch a simple COVID-19 saliva screening test that aims to provide an accurate result within 20 seconds. 

Takeaway: In 2021, safety will be paramount, and simple tech solutions could be that nudge to get people exploring the world more confidently again.

5. Our new BFFs: Travel Agents 
In times of disruption and uncertainty, travelers are less likely to leave home without one. 

If you’ve had to change a trip, or manage a big travel disruption on your own, you probably understand why it’s helpful to have a travel agent in your corner. COVID-19 served to highlight the critical role of travel agents – anyone who didn’t have one in 2020 probably regretted it. With a considerable amount of uncertainty and quarantine rules changing weekly, there is great opportunity travel agents are more important than ever as invaluable and irreplaceable sources of information abound. 

As a result, 2021 will see travel agents of all types as fountains of knowledge. Want some great travel inspiration? Check. Looking for the best deals? They have you covered. Need an update on the latest health and safety standards? Done. Looking for the latest news on health policies all over the world, from Timbuktu to Torino? You got it. Need help rebooking after a disruption? They’ll do it before you ask.

In 2021, travelers will expect their travel agent to be like their best friend on a Saturday night: you won’t leave home without them, they’ll find the best place to have fun, and they have your back if anything goes wrong. 

Takeaway: Destinations, airlines, hotels and car rental companies would be wise to collaborate closely with travel sellers to ensure they have all the information they need to sway travelers their way, and to deal with disruptions if they occur. 

6. Travel with an Impact
This year we travel with smaller footprints and bigger hearts

A spokesperson for a group that fights to preserve Venetian identity in the face of over-tourism recently stated, “Venice is a five-star restaurant sold as a fast-food restaurant. We shouldn’t waste the chance to start again from scratch.”

Pre-COVID, travelers were already grappling with the environmental and societal impact of tourism — both good and bad. The enforced pause created by the COVID-19 situation only gave people more time and space to notice how travel impacts the planet and local communities. 

So it’s no surprise that the Faroe Islands announced that it was “closed for maintenance” but open for “voluntourists” last year. Meanwhile, the European Commission declared that 2021 will be the European Year of Rail to promote sustainable travel across the continent and support the delivery of its European Green Deal objectives. 

Airlines have also heard the call: Norway committed to flying electric planes for all of its short-haul routes by 2040, while Canadian-based airline Harbour Air aimed to be flying electric flights between British Columbia and Washington State by 2021.

Travelers want to do good: a recent survey found that 68% of travelers want the money they spend on travel to go back into the community5Demand for trips that actually help to regenerate a location will begin to soar in 2021. 

Takeaway: In 2021, travelers will be more conscientious about how they travel. Travel companies can help travelers minimize the footprint of their journey, and make sure their presence is having a positive impact on their host destination.

Share your hope for travel in 2021. Tag your posts on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook with #RethinkTravel. 


1 & 5 Destination X: Where to Next? Survey
2 - 4  Rethink Travel Global Survey conducted by Censuswide