With the new administration taking a more proactive approach to the pandemic, and with the recent unrest seemingly abated, the cities and open spaces of the United States are a good proposition for Britons once restrictions ease, writes Anthony Pearce
In the pre-Covid world more than five million Britons visited the US a year, making it the fourth most popular holiday choice behind Spain, France and Italy. In fact, when it comes to long-haul travel, no other destination really compares, with its diverse cities, geography and culture providing myriad holiday choices. But, with the country’s well-documented struggle to contain the pandemic, will the flames of this special relationship go out?
According to ABTA’s Six Trends for Travel in 2021 report, this year travellers will be less likely to explore countries they’ve not been to before, instead returning to old favourites – with the US firmly among these, if and when borders do open. The research was conducted before recent events at Capitol, but with the unrest now seemingly abated, this is unlikely to have any effect on Britons’ desire to return. “Although there is some uncertainty as to when borders between the UK and other European countries will reopen, there is a strong appetite from leisure travellers wanting to return to the US for their holidays,” says Scott Balyo, executive director of the Capital Region USA, which includes Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. “We remain hopeful that, as the vaccine begins to roll out globally, it will begin the process of borders reopening sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, testing capabilities continue to progress, with many international airports now able to offer pre-departure testing which will be another key factor in commencing travel to the US.”
According to ABTA’s research, just 32 per cent of people said they would be likely to visit a new country, compared to 45 per cent who said so in 2019. This may manifest itself in tourists returning to old haunts within their countries of choice or exploring new destinations within favoured countries. The US is particularly ripe for exploration, given its vastness, cultural familiarity and close bonds with the UK, which bodes well for the many second and third visit destinations – that is, those outside of New York City, San Francisco, Orlando and the like.
Covid-19 may be a global pandemic, but it has impacted each country differently and at different times, so it remains unclear when travel will start again in earnest, and whether the US will remain behind this curve. Balyo admits that “while restrictions remain in place, we do not anticipate tourism levels to return to pre-Covid-19 levels until 2023, perhaps even 2024”. He adds that, once they lift, “we know there will be pent up demand and travellers will return to explore more of America. From conversations we have had with our tour operators and trade partners we know that late 2021 through to 2022 is looking strong for bookings”.
Kuoni, meanwhile, notes that because a large proportion of the tourist visitors travel during the UK’s summer months, a proper recovery might not be forthcoming until summer 2022.
“The US handling of the pandemic has had a pretty bad press, so confidence is low at present, but the new administration appears to be taking a more proactive approach, so things are looking up on that front,” a spokesperson for the operator said. “There are many questions remaining about airline capacity and routes once travel restarts. With the likelihood that many businesses will heavily reduce their travel needs, many of the airlines may reduce frequencies and fares may well increase – both will have an impact on touristic travel.”
However, Kuoni notes that, as with destinations across the world, travellers will be looking for private and secluded experiences. “In the US this is likely to mean an uplift in road trips. We also expect to see the people who do choose to go long-haul travelling for longer and trying to maximise time and experiences, so we anticipate a rise in the multi-centre or combination trip where travellers try and fit in a variety of locations. There is also a significant city break market and we are already seeing New York featuring prominently in UK search traffic, suggesting this market may come back much quicker once travel is permitted again.”
Technology might help to get things back to pre-Covid levels: “Advancement in tech offerings, like touchless and biometric technology, will aid the industry’s recovery,” says Jerad Bachar, president and CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH, “especially when it comes to prioritising travellers’ health and safety.”
Meanwhile, away from the cities, the rise in popularity of ‘slow travel’ will mean people will be looking for more immersive experiences. “People are booking trips to rediscover our National Parks and open spaces in ways that we haven’t in more than 50 years,” says Jonathan Farrington, executive director, Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “People are anxious to get out of the cities and into open spaces and that is also the safest type of trip they can take right now. I’m sure our European visitors will be doing the same once they return.”
Balyo notes that people are looking for a variety of different US breaks: “From wanting to experience those big bucket-list trips and reconnecting with family post-pandemic, to a desire for space when travelling and bubble holidays.”
The Capital Region is one, which like many others in the US, is well-connected to the UK – or at least has been traditionally – and offers fascinating, culture-rich cities with great access to nature. Washington DC, for example, is the greenest city on the East Coast and home to the largest urban National Park, Rock Creek Park, while Virginia has more than 20 National Parks, including Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail; and Maryland is home to Assateague Island National Seashore, which is known for its beaches and wild horses.
Of course, once restrictions do ease, it is likely to be domestic tourism that returns first, then short-haul travel and finally long-haul. But with a traditionally strong air network, its place as a long-standing favourite, vast swathes of openness – including the more adventurous options of Alaska and Hawaii – and many major cities overlooked by most tourists, the US is incredibly well placed, offering adventure and familiarity in an uncertain world.
“The US is at the beginning of an exciting new chapter,” says Balyo, “and we are looking forward to welcoming tourists back once restrictions are lifted.”
“When it comes to travel sentiment, people are ready to go now,” adds Farrington. “We’re all itching to get out suitcases out of the closet and begin travelling again soon.”