How Will Travelers Respond to Coronavirus Warnings?

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that people will always travel. Despite devastating incidents in recent history and increasing fears related to global health epidemics, terrorism, climate change and natural disasters, people summoned the courage and the desire to get back out there and see the world. While the coronavirus certainly is alarming, with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring it a global health emergency and several airlines temporarily cancelling flights to and from China, we at MMGY Global are confident that travel will continue. We anticipate people will adjust their itineraries to unaffected regions in the short-term, helping to bolster the industry overall. 

To provide some perspective, we know from our MMGY Travel Intelligence data that travel rebounded quickly after the Great Recession of 2008, with a spending recovery not far behind. While we don’t yet know the reach of coronavirus nor do we understand the true impact it will have on the travel industry globally, we do know that – for travelers around the world – travel is as much a birthright as it is a leisure activity, and it takes a lot to keep us down.

What we’re seeing now with the coronavirus is scary stuff, but it’s not without precedent. Outbreaks of SARS and the Ebola virus in past years have jolted the global travel economy for short periods of time. In fact, a decade ago we studied the impact of Swine Flu and other potential global health pandemics on traveler sentiment. Specifically, we asked travelers to tell us in the event of a pandemic outbreak how likely they would be to alter their travel plans. One in three travelers said they would alter their plans, with 15% of travelers indicating they would postpone travel until the outbreak subsided. Eleven percent of those travelers chose to visit a different destination instead, and another 10% said they would cancel their trip altogether. 

In instances like this, concerns are heightened about forms of travel that require people to gather in relatively confined spaces – airplanes, cruise ships and other forms of mass transit. And, pending what we continue to learn about the most common forms of transmission of coronavirus, these concerns are certainly appropriate. Yet, it makes me wonder if other forms of travel may actually experience a concurrent uptick even as news of this health crisis spreads. 

For example, our data revealed a significant spike in road trips in America as a form of travel experience over the past five years. In 2015, 33% of American travelers reported taking a road trip within the past 12 months. By 2019, this percentage had increased to 53%, with 63% of travelers indicating an intention to take this form of trip in the year ahead. This trend could actually accelerate when travelers are concerned about crowds and confined spaces. Adventure travel, or trips where people get back to nature (ex. hiking, biking, exploring, etc.) and away from crowds and confined spaces, may well experience growth in times like this. We also know from research that travelers are now more likely to avoid tourism destinations and experiences that are increasingly overcrowded in favor of more local, authentic experiences. Might a global health pandemic like coronavirus impact and accelerate this trend, too?