As U.S. tourists return to the international skies and waters following two years in a COVID cocoon, they will be selective about where they spend their hard-earned dollars. Countries with flexible COVID screening protocols and seamless access to cultural and leisure activities will be the likely winners in the 2022 international travel boom.
Leisure travel was substantially down in 2020 and 2021 as would-be tourists were reluctant to navigate ever-changing COVID-19 protocols or risk an unexpected destination quarantine. If one opted to travel, it was usually to a sunny spot where the outdoor dining opportunities were plentiful and the wearing of masks was not rigidly enforced.
Although December was marked by the rise of the more contagious although less severe omicron variant, a monthly data report by the U.S. Travel Association showed that travel spending has rebounded, with total travel reaching $92 billion in December, only 2 percent below December 2019.
Leisure travel planning is also on the rise. According to a survey by Destination Analysts, 81.5 percent of respondents said at the end of January that they are in a ready-to-travel state of mind, a 5-point bump in a two-week period and one of the highest rates since the onset of the pandemic. The survey also reflected a growing frustration with COVID’s lingering presence, with 63.3 percent of respondents stating that life should go back to normal.
Many Americans have pent-up cabin fever. Expedia has dubbed 2022 the year of “the GOAT mindset,” an abbreviation for the greatest of all time, meaning travelers are planning dream vacations to make up for lost time. While 59 percent of U.S. survey respondents are pursuing a domestic itinerary, 37 percent are planning international vacations.
The return to international leisure travel coincides with the announcement by several European countries that they will be rolling back their COVID restrictions. On February 2, Denmark became the first European country to eliminate all domestic COVID restrictions including requiring masks and vaccine passports at restaurants, clubs, gyms, and other venues. Switzerland, Norway, and Ireland also discontinued some domestic and international COVID restrictions. (READ MORE: Tourist-Shaming: A Snobby Way to Save the Planet)
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen celebrated the return to normalcy. “We are saying farewell to the restrictions and welcome to life as we knew it before corona,” she said at a press conference last week.
Denmark’s entry requirements for international travelers were also relaxed. While many European countries, including Germany, Iceland, and France, require U.S. leisure travelers to be fully vaccinated, Denmark will also grant entry to U.S. travelers who present either a negative COVID PCR test or negative antigen test. Unvaccinated U.S. travelers will still be required to self-isolate for 10 days with the possibility of breaking the quarantine on the sixth day contingent upon a negative test. And while a forced quarantine is restrictive, it is less discriminatory than blanketly denying entrance to unvaccinated people.
Given that only 64.1 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated due to medical, religious, or other concerns, coupled with increasing numbers of breakthrough cases, flexible COVID screening protocols, including the wider deployment of rapid testing domestically and internationally in lieu of vaccines, is essential. This accommodation not only acknowledges COVID’s continuing presence for the foreseeable future but also reinforces the importance of reclaiming personal liberties including the ability to travel freely. Countries that facilitate this return to normal will attract a wealth of tourists.