After the surge in coronavirus cases during the spring spoiled a long-awaited cruise trip to Montreal, Nate Burglewski and his extended family really wanted to get together this summer while also staying safe.
The trip had to meet a few requirements: a destination that wasn’t too far away for elderly relatives in the Midwest had tight local security measures against coronavirus and offered plenty of outdoor activities. Burglewski and his wife live in upstate New York, while other relatives are scattered across the country.
“Everyone is vaccinated and got them as early as we could. With the delta variant, we still decided to be very cautious. We did self-quarantines and all got tested the week before,” he says. They ended up meeting in Indiana, renting a vacation home and spending a lot of time outside.
“It all worked out,” he says. After losing out on big trips in 2020 because of the pandemic, many Americans are making similar decisions — and making up for the lost time.
“After more than a year of isolation or being limited to local activities, people showed this pent-up demand for travel,” says Larry Yu, a professor of hospitality management at George Washington University.
This strong desire to travel has driven new trends in the industry, some of which may be here to stay. Like the Burglewskis family, people flock to the outdoors, rural areas, and private vacation rentals. They are showing less interest in hotels and international and urban destinations. Early evidence shows that despite the delta variant and still-high cases of infection in the U.S., Americans plan to continue to travel from now to the end of the year.
“We fully expect that leisure demand, especially on the weekends, continues to be strong in the fall and winter,” says Jan Freitag, director of hospitality analytics in the U.S. for CoStar Group.
It’s a big change from the earlier months of the pandemic when the industry took a massive hit in the U.S., travel jobs spending plummeted by nearly $500 billion, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Thousands of jobs were lost: 65% of all U.S. jobs lost in 2020 were supported by travel.
Undoubtedly, the uncertainty of the pandemic is still causing some lashings at companies. Last month, Southwest Airlines and other companies reported that they would back down this fall.
Still, the US travel industry is recovering from its pandemic lows, companies and experts say. The travel association reports that travel spending is returning to 2019 levels. Hotel occupancy this summer recovered almost below pre-pandemic figures: nearly 70% in July this year, compared to the 73% during July 2019, according to STR, which provides data and research on the global hospitality industry.
Airline bookings — at least domestically — are also approaching pre-pandemic levels. The rollout of vaccinations has made a big difference, says Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. The travel agency has “been experiencing a travel boom all year,” she says. “The domestic travel increase has been phenomenal.”
Where travelers are going is also changing. Coastal areas have been popular, says Yu, the George Washington professor, with more people taking advantage of kayaking, boating or canoeing activities. And small towns, too. For instance, 42% of the nights booked by families on Airbnb this summer were in rural destinations, up from 32% two years ago.
“There’s been a big growth in those areas,” says Christopher Nulty, Airbnb’s public affairs director. Early in the pandemic, he notes, “people were forced to travel to destinations a car ride away and they were able to find that great places exist just a tank of gas away.”
Vrbo experienced similar demand for more local travel. According to the company’s latest data, trips of 250 miles or less in July and August increased by over 20% compared with the same time in 2019.