The Current

More domestic travel, sustainable tourism: What flying post-pandemic could look like

The pandemic has created pandemonium for the travel industry, cancelling everything from short getaways to trips of a lifetime. Will things ever be the same again?

Rethinking our travel could be positive, says tourism consultant

People walk through Pearson International Airport in Toronto on March 16. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders and grounded flights the world over, with some Canadian airlines scaling back more than 90 per cent due to the drop in demand. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

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Melissa O'Brien spent 10 years planning and saving for a nine-month, round-the-world trip with her family only to have the pandemic cut it short and force them to return home to B.C.

She says the experience has changed her outlook on travel.

"Lots of people have asked us if we will continue our trip at some point or if we'll do a part two, and I don't know that we will, to be honest," she told The Current.

"We're still interested in travelling, but our priorities have definitely changed."

O'Brien, her husband and three sons got stranded in Australia as the pandemic hit, and dealt with multiple cancelled flights and a long wait before they could return to the Comox Valley, B.C.

The O'Brien family's trip of a lifetime was thwarted by COVID-19. The family of five is now living in a family cabin in the Comox Valley. Caycee is the name of the pilot who helped the family get home from Australia. (Submitted by Melissa O'Brien)

"It never, never occurred to us that we'd ever be in a position where we were trapped somewhere — honestly, we took that security for granted," she said.

"Now having had that feeling, it's definitely something to consider in future travels."

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders and grounded flights the world over. While some airlines in Canada have ceased all flying, others have scaled back more than 90 per cent due to the drop in demand.

Tourism consultant Anna Pollock says rethinking our travel could be positive.

"It's probably a good thing that people realize that travel is a privilege in many respects," said Pollock, the founder of Conscious Travel, a tourism consultancy firm in the U.K.

"There was lots of travel, particularly in Europe where I live, which was almost impulsive travel — you know, let's pop over from London to Nice for a nice weekend, or to Croatia and have a party," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Tourists gather near the Machu Picchu citadel, Peru in July 2011. Faced with crowds from all over the world, the Peruvian government agreed to reduce the number of visitors in order to protect the site. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Pollock thinks that cheaper air travel has meant some destinations become victims of their own popularity and hopes the pause of the pandemic can lead to a rethink.

She wants the tourism industry to focus less on the sheer numbers of people who travel, and instead, emphasize the net benefits for the communities those visitors go to.

"As an industry, we have to look at how do we create a healthier form of tourism," she said. 

"[One] that does in fact benefit the community to a greater extent, and contributes to the well-being of the places that host the visitor, as well as the well-being of the visitor."

'Pent-up demand' versus cautious travellers

Pollock thinks the pandemic is the biggest disruption the travel industry has ever faced, but said "it's too early to say what the economic fallout will be."

"We all recognize the absolute vital importance of recreation and taking a break and holidays — I'm not saying we shouldn't do any of that," she told Galloway. 

"But I think it would be crazy to think that the way that we do that isn't going to be affected by the events of the last few years."

How will COVID-19 impact airlines long term?

3 years ago
Duration 6:58
The airline industry is in 'dire straits' right now, according to Frederic Dimanche of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and governments could demand increased environmental standards and consumer protection as part of a future bailout package.

Last week, Tim Strauss, vice-president of cargo at Air Canada, said he expected "a significant amount of flying again" by Christmas, both domestically and internationally.

But opinions on resuming international travel seems to fall into "two camps," says David Gillen, director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at UBC.

One side thinks "there's going to be a lot of pent-up demand… and once people are allowed to engage in some degrees of freedom that they're going to use it in spades," he told Galloway.

But others, himself included, "think that people are going to be a little bit more careful where they go — you're probably going to see more domestic than international travel." 

On Tuesday, B.C.'s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry said people in the province should not expect to travel overseas this summer, but could instead plan on vacations closer to home.

We're being conditioned to have this social distancing, and then all of a sudden, we're put in a position where that social distancing is difficult to achieve- David Gillen

Gillen thinks the timeframe for shorter-distance trips could be longer than the summer months.

"I don't anticipate that we're going to see the increase in demand for probably a couple of years," he said.

He thinks the psychological impact of the pandemic will slow people's return to airports and international travel.

"We're being conditioned to have this social distancing, and then all of a sudden, we're put in a position where that social distancing is difficult to achieve."

Until there is a vaccine, Gillen says there will be significant changes to catching a flight — from maintaining physical distance during check-in and boarding, to not congregating when picking up luggage on arrival.

Some airlines are currently blocking off middle seats to make space, but Gillen said that doesn't make "an awful lot of sense."

How to fight for a refund for your cancelled flight

3 years ago
Duration 4:30
Most airlines are only offering credit and no-fee rebooking for flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Airline passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs offers tips on how to fight for a refund.

It's a costly move for the airline, and "even if you've got a middle seat empty, you're not six feet away from your neighbours," he said. 

He added people may have to get used to wearing masks during a flight, and will certainly have to get used to seeing them on flight attendants.

"Initially, there will be a lot of nervousness," he said.


Written by Padraig Moran.Produced by Arman Aghbali and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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