The phrase “pent-up demand” used to be a metaphorical expression, now it’s a literal truth.
As ASTA moves forward with plans to sue the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) if it extends its no sail restriction past Oct. 31, pent-up demand for travel continues to build toward the point of eruption.
Citing the 2020 Back to Normal Barometer survey, a twice-monthly tracking study of consumer preferences that has been conducted since the start of the pandemic lockdowns last March, ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby said, “Travelers are thinking and dreaming of travel like never before. The data speaks for itself. Travel remains the top priority for discretionary spending.”
And that is by a large margin. The Back to Normal survey, conducted by the Sports & Leisure Research Group in conjunction with Engagious and ROKK Solutions, gauges evolving consumer attitudes using a combination of methods, including an online survey, in-depth personal interviews, and analysis of social media conversations.
A key question was: “If the pandemic suddenly ended tomorrow, what one large discretionary purchase would you make?”
For the respondents who said they would make a large purchase, travel took first place by a wide margin. Nearly half, 46 percent, said their next discretionary purchase would be a trip.
Travel won in a landslide over second place, which was remodeling the home, chosen by 20 percent, followed by the purchase of a new vehicle, at 19 percent.
Other data in the survey showed that 73 percent of travelers who have taken a cruise within the past year are ready to go on a cruise now.
Of that same group, 57 percent said they either strongly agree or somewhat agree that they’d be much more likely to take a cruise if a low-cost nasal swab was available at every boarding to pre-screen passengers for COVID-19.
Armed with that data, ASTA is strongly urging the CDC to take action to help solve the need for standardized testing, and to impose a set of safety regulations that could reduce risk to near zero and give potential cruisers confidence to go ahead with the purchases they are now holding back on.
The Fear Factor
Though pent-up demand continues to build, the fear factor remains a strong inhibitor. The series of surveys indicate that, while confidence in travel is rising, the slowdown from the pandemic is still far worse than the one that followed 9/11.
Sports & Leisure Group President John Last launched a survey in the last week of September 2001, only a couple of weeks after airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers, and asked if respondents were likely to travel a trip of 500 miles or more in next year. Half said they were.
The Sports & Leisure Group survey asked the same question on April 1, soon after the pandemic lockdowns went into effect. Only 35 percent answered in the affirmative.
In the Sept. 21 edition of the Back to Normal survey, that number had risen to 40 percent, a good sign, but still significantly below the level of confidence during the month of the September 11 attacks.
Doors to New Opportunity
But now, as more is being learned about COVID-19 and ways to reduce risk, strategies are emerging that can actually make safe travel possible. On top of the tried-and-true methods of mask-wearing, distancing and hand washing, making rapid testing widely available could dramatically change the economic landscape.
Since these methods are available and their results are predictable, Kerby said the government must take action to help make Americans safe so they can feel confident to resume travel before the widespread economic fallout in the travel industry reaches irretrievable levels.
“We’re pleased to see that overall, the confidence barometer is moving in the right direction,” said Kerby in a statement issued Sept. 24, in anticipation of CDC issuing its ruling on whether to extend its cruise ban through October. “But more needs to be done. A rapid response and reliable test are desperately needed so that we stop treating all 335 million Americans as though they ‘might’ have the virus.”
Kerby referred to a statement by Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who recently testified before Congress that in terms of personal health, a mask is more important than a vaccine.
“We take Dr. Redfield at his word,” said Kerby. “As such, the CDC should lift it’s No Sail Order for the cruise industry and require masking in all public areas on cruise ships.”
Creating a Safe Environment
A cruise ship is a closed environment. With rapid testing and close adherence to safety and sanitation measures, a cruise ship is an ideal space for controlling the environment and locking out the virus. Certainly, the cruise lines are motivated to avoid any breaches in security that would further scare off potential customers.
The means are available. It’s doable. Why then, asked Kerby, is the cruise industry being “singled out,” discriminated against compare to other industries?
“There are nearly 1 million Americans flying every day,” Kerby said, “and millions more staying in hotels. Other countries have returned safely to normal activities, including crowded public transportation, by mandating masks. Our study’s data confirms that an overwhelming majority of cruisers feel comfortable that they can manage the health risks associated with the cruise experience. It’s past time to lift the ban.”
In spite of all lobbying efforts by the travel industry, on Sept. 30, the CDC put out its notice that it was extending the ban till Oct. 31. According to the CDC statement: “This order continues to suspend passenger operations on cruise ships with the capacity to carry at least 250 passengers in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction.”
Two days later, Kerby called a sudden virtual news conference in which he complained not only about the extension of the ban, but also about the government’s lack of action to help create a safe environment that would enable the cruise industry get back on its feet. He said that if the CDC extended its ban another month, ASTA is prepared to sue.
“We still lack a national strategy,” Kerby said. He complained that Congress is dragging its feet on passing the next phase of COVID relief.
He also said that the CDC’s numbers, which it used to justify the no sail ban, are inaccurate, counting people who had pneumonia in with people who had been infected by COVID.
During last Friday’s press conference, Eben Peck, executive vice president-advocacy for ASTA, stressed the dire emergency at hand for the travel advisor community.
He pointed out that the retail sector was the hardest hit of the entire travel industry, with business down at least 75 percent from last year, 64 percent of travel agencies having laid off half of their employees, and 73 percent of ASTA saying they will be forced out of business within six months if conditions don’t improve and there is no additional relief.
In ASTA’s lobbying efforts, Peck said some members of Congress are receptive, but not enough to get things moving
“There is a segment of congressmen,” he said, “who are concerned about leaving town without doing anything. But we’ve never seen a situation like this before. The political system is broken at the worst possible time for us.”
Back in March, the pandemic hit the nation broadside and medical professionals and epidemiologists were just beginning to learn about this strange and lethal invader. The fact that the disease was so brutal, coupled with the fact that it was unknown, struck terror into the population.
But now with literally millions of cases to learn from, the experts know how to protect people and make it possible to begin to resume a more normal life. The means to put the travel industry and the economy back together safely are within reach.
With an election scheduled within a month, the key players may be induced to take action.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.