Predictions for 2021: the who, what, where, when, how and why of travel a year on since the pandemic shocked the world

By Toh PR's Sophie Toh.

2020 presented the hospitality sector with a unique set of challenges. However, we learned that the consumer appetite to travel was not blunted by Covid-19, even if the ability to travel was curtailed.

As borders reopened over the summer, the demand for leisure travel, particularly in the UHNWI market, soared.  In October, the Financial Times reported that many of the world’s billionaires have seen their fortunes rise to record levels during the Covid-19 pandemic, as many benefited from high-risk investments in volatile markets and profited from the tech boom.

Despite the circumstances, 2020 proved to be a remarkably positive year in terms of holiday bookings for UHNWI, particularly in destinations that are accessible by private jet and with private villas. Ultima Collection, an ultra-luxury collection of private 5-star hotels, villas and residences across Europe, saw an increase in bookings once borders reopened thanks to the exclusivity and high level of privacy that their properties offer. The brand also reported that 95 per cent of their guests in 2020 arrived by private jet.

The 2020 Amex Consumer Trends Report polled 2000 individuals who took at least one holiday in 2019 and identified that travel was the top purchase that respondents are saving for in 2021. There is every indication that once borders reopen, and, in conjunction with mass vaccination programmes, the demand and willingness to travel will once again soar. We take a look at how different markets are approaching travel in 2021 with trends, observations and predictions across the GCC.

Luxury travel has been a lynchpin for the GCC economy, specifically driven from the UAE, which leads the way globally in terms of destination marketing.  Before the pandemic, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to the Middle East’s GDP was predicted by the World Travel and Tourism Council to reach $133.6bn by 2028.

Accelerated vaccine rollout fuels a year of recovery

Given subdued oil prices and a general economic slowdown due to Covid-19 restrictions, it is clear that the regional economy will be relying on travel and tourism to recover quickly, evidenced in the rapid roll-out of the vaccine in the UAE, which is leading the world in terms of vaccines per capita and has already vaccinated a fifth of the population.

MENA Hotel Forecasts estimates that 2021 will be a year of recovery, based on the assumption that hotel performance across the region is already improving. Major destinations such as Dubai and Cairo are estimating 2021 occupancy levels of 68 per cent and 65 per cent respectively. Overall, the average year-on-year growth of the 20 destinations researched was 47 per cent.

Outbound tourism to recover faster than inbound

Many of the important source markets of UAE tourism are in regions where the vaccine response is not as far progressed, such as Europe. Therefore, whilst international travel routes remain unclear, experts are looking to the domestic market to fuel occupancy, especially in the short term, with 2021 expected to continue 2020’s theme of being the year of the staycation.

Outbound travel is expected to accelerate quickly once flights and borders open up. In a recent survey of UAE residents by travel company Kuoni, 50 per cent of survey respondents, which included Emirati Nationals, said that they are planning three or more holidays in 2021 if global travel advice allows, with the main reasons being missed holidays due to the pandemic and the desire to revisit treasured destinations with their families.