Post-Omicron Travel Trends Reveal Major Shifts in Pandemic Attitudes

After weathering another winter spike in COVID cases, travelers are planning 2022 trips with a fervor unlike anything we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic.

Post-Omicron Travel Trends Reveal Major Shifts in Pandemic Attitudes

Travelers are in a ready-to-go state-of-mind.

Illustration by GoodStudio/Shutterstock

Last month, like countless Americans, my family finally received the dreaded, unwanted guest into our home: COVID came for a visit. My three-year-old preschool-attending daughter tested positive first, followed by my husband, then me. Four of us (including our vaccinated five-year-old son, who somehow never tested positive) entered a two-week home quarantine, thanks to a very inconvenient domino effect of cases. The kids remained healthy and full of toddlerish energy, while my husband and I—both boosted—hobbled along with a patchwork of cold-like symptoms, fatigue, and brain fog. Some days were easier than others.

I’m not sure when exactly during quarantine this happened, but there was a moment when I became rather obsessed (possessed?) by the notion of a truly amazing getaway for our family once this debacle was over. The light at the end of our COVID tunnel would be a thrice-postponed trip to Hawai‘i during my son’s February school break. The thought of exploring Oʻahu’s North Shore and Maui’s beautiful beaches with them, taking sunset walks along the coast, and disconnecting from our home life as we immersed ourselves into our temporary Hawaiian home, had me downright giddy.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

“American travel sentiment has . . . soared to levels not seen since the summer 2021 vaccine rollout high,” travel and tourism market research firm Destination Analysts reported on January 31.

According to Destination Analysts’ independent survey of more than 1,200 American travelers, 81.5 percent are in a ready-to-travel state of mind, “among the highest levels it has ever been in the pandemic era,” according to the firm. Additionally, nearly 77 percent of respondents said they were very excited to travel in the next 12 months, including internationally.

More than three-quarters of respondents have dreamt of and planned travel in the past week alone, the firm stated.

Sound familiar? It did to Brooke Lavery, a partner at New York–based luxury travel consultancy Local Foreigner.

“Historically, people return from their holiday travels eager to plot out their year. But this year, the first three weeks of January were very quiet and frankly a lot of our clients—and team—had COVID,” says Lavery.

There has been a dramatic shift following that initial three-week lull. “Since then, there has been a surge of requests, both former clients who haven’t traveled much during COVID and many new clients,” she says.

Lavery says that emerging from the Omicron surge, a lot of her clients are scrambling to plan one last-minute trip for now, followed with another trip for later in the year. With some international destinations still closed or just starting to open back up, her clients are booking a lot of domestic and Caribbean travel, but also Africa and increasingly Europe.

She adds that heading into 2022, travelers now have a much more relaxed attitude toward COVID than they did before. “It’s no longer a factor in holding them back from travel. I think people are more nervous about getting stuck somewhere than they are of getting COVID,” says Lavery, whose consultancy is a member of the larger luxury travel advisor consortium Virtuoso.

William Kiburz, vice president of Coronet Travel Ltd. and a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council, says his clients are experiencing pandemic fatigue, too, and really “just want to get away”—far away. “People are canceling their domestic plans and looking at longer-haul trips,” he says, noting that his clients are tired of waiting or putting plans on hold.

Global tour operator G Adventures reported its bookings have suddenly bounced back in a big way as well.

“The month of January was one of the biggest for G Adventures since the start of the pandemic, with a huge surge in bookings that were for trips departing within three months—which points to recovering Omicron cases or just pandemic fatigue in general,” says Steve Lima, director of marketing for G Adventures in the United States.

Popular destinations for G Adventures travelers include Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Egypt. Customers are booking bigger, longer trips, notes Lima: “In the case of those who had Omicron, it’s quite likely that they are eager to start traveling again due to having increased antibodies post-infection and [want to] embark on that big trip ASAP.”

Lima and others reported that while travelers are eager to get back out there, they remain focused on the outdoors and being outside as much as possible. Many travelers still want to stick with their pod (aka their family or an intimate group of friends), according to luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent.

After some disappointing cancellations and disruptions caused by the Omicron variant, A&K now sees guests planning bigger and more splurge-worthy trips, according to founder Geoffrey Kent.

Private flights and villa stays are still in high demand, says Kent. He adds that among the many shifts brought on by the pandemic, there is growing interest in slow travel and more immersive experiences focused on one region.

Remaining cautiously optimistic as we await the end(emic)

That travelers are planning and booking ambitious trips for 2022 indicates a high level of hope that the circumstances of the pandemic will continue to improve. But will they, really? (We’ve been down this road before, ahem: mid-2021, when we thought the vaccine rollouts would lead us to freedom from COVID.)

When asked if the United States is gradually shifting from a pandemic to COVID being endemic, Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases, said, “I would think . . . yes.”

He explains, “Omicron is spreading so widely, it’s leaving some natural protection in its wake. After it gets out of your body, it’s going to leave you protected for a period of time—we don’t know for how long.”

Between the protection that comes from the highly contagious Omicron variant, along with the vaccine and booster shot campaigns, “I think our population is getting progressively more protected and this will enable us to go from pandemic to endemic.”

Of course, there are some cautionary notes.

“As we move within the United States from pandemic to endemic, obviously we are going to ease up on our restrictions. However, much of the world is experiencing a lot of COVID transmission [and] that’s a circumstance where yet another variant could show up,” says Dr. Schaffner. “We don’t know that it will. If a variant of concern would show up, then we would have to respond to it and find out what it is about this variant that would oblige us to once again do some things differently.”

As the Omicron surge starts to recede and people begin to feel more jubilant, he acknowledges no one wants to hear this right now. But for travelers heading out on journeys near and far, he urges them to continue to wear their masks during travel, especially when they’re in public spaces and indoors. “It’s important to understand that the virus will not disappear,” he adds. “It will be with us.”

>> Next: Where to Go in 2022

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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