My last international trip was for Christmas in 2019 when I visited my sister in the UK. Little did I know at that moment that I would not get a chance to cross the international borders for the next one and a half year or more due to the COVID-19 pandemic. July 19th, 2021 was my first travel outside The Bahamas as I made my way back to my hometown, Malaysia. How has the travel experience changed over this period of time? Is there a new norm for all travelers moving forward? I had a long flight to return to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, flying via New York and Doha in Qatar. Hence, let me take you through my journey to highlight the changes and challenges the new travel norm has brought about.
I travelled almost forty hours with my family from Nassau, to New York, to Doha, to Kuala Lumpur. Along the way, I missed my flight in New York due to the delay of the flight coming from Nassau. That resulted in me missing all my connecting flights and requiring me stay a night in New York and dealing with the expired PCR testing and hence retesting. There were many “dramas” along the way that made traveling stressful. So, the pandemic has certainly changed the way we travel and the challenges that are expected if the destination is not “tourist friendly” or do not empathize with what tourist have to endure to get to a destination especially dealing with this diverse COVID-19 protocols in every destination. It is important for us to deal with these challenges as this current situation that we are presently faced with may be here longer than we anticipated.
We in The Bahamas still have a lot of room for improvement as far as giving quality travel experience to the guest. As we continue to attract more tourist, in our rush to come out of the pandemic, we should ensure the departure experience for home porting cruise passengers or even for all departing guest for that matter is scrutinized for continuous improvement. As quoted by Shep Hyken, “First impressions are important, but the last impression we leave with the customer, will leave the most lasting impression.” This is totally true.
The pioneering departure experience for Royal Caribbean’s home porting passengers trying to fly out of Nassau was a nightmare for many. It is hoped that the glitch has been resolved now with subsequent voyages. As a “tourism nation”, The Bahamas needs to ensure the travelers’ experience getting in and out of the country is smooth and efficient. We cannot continue to have data entry errors in any transactions by personnel handling the guest. We cannot afford to have failure of the check-in baggage conveyor system at the Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA). We cannot afford to have incompetent personnel who forgets certain processes that may cause disruption in the travel experience. What I have listed here are just a few of the many issues that I myself have faced in my recent flight out from Nassau.
COVID-19 has transformed the world of travel, from hand sanitizers in every checkpoint in our travel (hotels, airport, taxis, restaurants, souvenir shops, etc.) to cabin crew in masks, localized lockdowns to contact tracing apps. Hence, responsible travel is needed not just for the traveller but also for the stakeholders supporting the travel industry. Failure to manage this will be detrimental on the confidence of travellers who take the risk to travel. Over the past many months, travellers have been largely confined to their homes. Soon, many will start to dream again of exploring out of their homes via domestic travel and as their confidence increase, will travel out of their international borders. Yet, the new normal for travellers pose a myriad of challenges.
Key trends for the future
The fear of infection, even if you are vaccinated, especially if you are living with your ageing parents who may be more at risk, is concerning. This fear is shaping how travellers approach journey in the future. There are three key trends that responsible destinations must be aware. Firstly, travellers are aware and cautions of the health protocols and guidelines. Hence, all destinations must work closely to ensure hotels and airlines are safe partners. Secondly, travelers prefer to travel within smaller groups with family or good friends to destinations that are isolated or rural where there is no crowding effect. Finally, packages with rental cars and hotels are more popular than less intimate forms of transportation such as public transport or group tours. People in general feel safer traveling with known people. Other trends that seem to be happening is the lead time for people to book their travel is much shorter than in the past. According to Trip.com Group, “80 percent of bookings in the new world are within a fortnight of departure, as opposed to 36 days before departure in pre-COVID-19 times”. Further, travellers will expect free cancellation, flexible bookings and insurance coverage. So, what is evident is that a lot more flexibility is required with uncertainty around trips in this new norm that we are experiencing.
The new normal in destinations will certainly focus on cleaning, sanitation, personal protective equipment, screening tools and scanners, and most importantly reduced touchpoints and queuing. With the variant of the virus continuously evolving, the state of the pandemic will be much longer than during the Spanish Flu in 1918. Travellers choosing a destination need to trust the healthcare systems of the respective countries. Although the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare versus hospitality industry appears to have been polar opposites, there are many similarities – both rely on the human touch and offer care respite to the guest. With proper alignment between these two sectors, respective countries can ensure protocols are set in place for border control, testing in place and some form of mechanism for contact tracing.
The transformation that is shaping the new world may become permanent, even after vaccinations are completed. Wearing a mask, sanitizing your hands and social distancing, may be a norm even post pandemic. These are all considered good habits in a healthy environment. Technology and innovations in travel is further reshaping the travel industry, not just to drive bookings, but also to facilitate safe travel. This may include contactless check-in at airports and hotels and virtual tours. Remember the COVID-19 pandemic may be the beginning of many more pandemics in the future. Hence, the current protocols may need to be beefed up rather than imposing total lockdowns, which may not be a smart move for any nation. The impact of these lockdowns in many nations seem to be more detrimental than the actual pandemic.
Moving forward, all stakeholders in the tourism and hospitality industry must work closely with the healthcare industry, to ensure strict protocols are adhered. Post September 11, terrorism remains a major threat for aviation security, but with the COVID-19 pandemic discussion has turned more towards dealing with threats to global health.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.