This Fourth of July holiday weekend won’t be the total washout that many in the travel and hospitality industries feared only a few weeks ago because of the impact of Covid-19.
But it’s safe to say that it will be unlike any seen in the last 50 years. Indeed, it could be, in relative terms, the weakest Independence Day travel period since the end of World War II, when America, a nation of 331 million people today, had a population of only 141.4 million.
No one expects the total number of vacationers this coming weekend to come close to the 43 million person-trips taken over the Independence Day holiday period last year, according to AAA. That was the second-most ever recorded for that particular holiday.
This year, though, AAA is not forecasting any number of holiday travelers for this coming weekend. It’s the first time since it began issuing such forecasts in 2000 that it has not produced a big holiday travel forecast number. The pandemic and its effects, and the patchwork of uneven state restrictions on travel and travelers simply makes it too hard to predict with any accuracy how many people will venture more than 50 miles away from their homes this holiday weekend.
Still, the number of Independence Day holiday travelers this year is not likely to reach the 31 million travelers who collectively set the most recent low-water mark back in 2009. (Back then many Americans were hurting financially as the nation remained near the trough of the so-called “Great Recession.”)
AAA reports that in 2009 26.4 million Americans traveled over the Fourth of July by car, 2.1 million by plane and nearly 2 million by other means (trains, cruise ships and buses, mainly). While it’s hard to predict how many will travel this year over Independence Day weekend by car we know that none will be traveling by cruise line because all cruise lines serving U.S. ports effectively have been shut down through the end of the year. And airlines, with the addition of several thousand more flights to their flight schedules effective this week, still can offer only 35 percent as many flights as they offered at this time a year ago. Meanwhile air passenger demand remains stuck around 25% of what it was a year ago.
On Sunday, June 28, the Transportation Security Administration counted 633,810 passing through its airport security check points around the nation (and some of those weren’t passengers, but airline crews and other personnel). On June 28, 2019, 1.6 million people passed through TSA airport checkpoints.
Car travel, however, promises to be very popular over the coming holiday weekend. International travel will be down dramatically because of the paucity of international flights and the stiff regulations imposed by most nations either blocking visitors from the United States or forcing them into long quarantine periods of they do fly there. That, along with continuing concerns about contracting Covid-19 while flying or passing through airport terminals means travel by car is even more likely during this Fourth of July holiday period than it is in most years.
Research done by Descartes Labs, which uses data from individuals cell phone locator information, shows that in many states people are traveling nearly as much now as they were before the pandemic began. But they’re doing more of it by car than before.
Mike Warren, Descartes Labs’ co-founder and chief technology officer, said that American’s overall mobility – as measured by their movements (tracked with their permission via their cell phones) declined dramatically in March and April as Americans stayed home to avoid the disease. “Since then their general mobility has gotten back up to almost the baseline (before Covid-19),” he said. “But airline travel is recovering much slower.”
In fact, general mobility – which as Descartes Labs uses the term includes not only people’s willingness to travel long distances but even to take short trips around town to go to work, shop for groceries, run errands, go to a restaurant or pay visits to friends and family nearby – has returned to pre-Covid-19 levels in more than two thirds of the states, Warren said. But long distance mobility has remained depressed. General mobility remains depressed, too, in several states like New York and New Jersey that were especially hard hit in the spring with Covid-19 cases and deaths. “And now it’s dropping again, to some degree thanks to the current outbreaks in places like Texas, California, Arizona and Florida,” he added.
That does not, however, means people won’t be traveling at all this coming holiday weekend. It’s just a bigger percentage of them than usual will be doing it by car. And the overall total of travelers will be down. Yet that’s creating some new opportunities for destinations that one wouldn’t normally expect to be vacation hotspots. According to TravelClick, a unit of travel booking technology giant Amadeus, the top five states for July 4th hotel books are: South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, South Carolina and Montana. Each has distinctive set of tourist attractions and vibrant tourist economies. But none have major amusement parks or other major attractions like those in perennial top tourism destinations like Southern California, South Florida, the Gulf Coast, New England or New York City. But many of the attractions in those places are either closed (beaches in Southeast Florida, Texas and Southern California, plus amusement parks) or in states that have been pandemic hotspots or slow to re-open.
“We’re seeing upticks in places like Salisbury, MD, and in Montana; not places we’d normally expect to see at the top of our list of hot destinations,” said Katie Moro, TravelClick’s vice president of Data Partnerships. “And the beaches we’ve seen closed in the last few days along Florida’s eastern coast really haven’t been where we’re seeing a lot of increased demand for this upcoming holiday and, really the rest of the summer. We’re seeing that more in the panhandle and across the Gulf Coast.”
But the most notable change that Moro said she and her team at TravelClicks are seeing a dramatic reduction in the so-called “booking window.” Over the last 30 years or so leisure travelers have shown a strong tendency to book their holiday travels weeks and weeks, or even months in advance. In some cases that’s to lock-in the most in-demand hotel or other accommodations at popular destinations, to save money by buying the cheapest airfares that are hard to get once summer begins, or to stake out a period in the summer when no one in the family can schedule other events like camps, sports tournaments or work trips. This year, though, families were frozen out of the advance planning game by the uncertainty related to Covid-19.
“What we’re seeing is a very short-term booking window,” Moro said. “Out past 14-days (before the strip starts) we’re not seeing booking activity at all. Zero to seven days (in advance) is our strongest booking window. That’s a total shift from the historical pattern. And we’ve seen it since May.”
Again, the obvious reason for that shift is consumers’ jitteriness about the spread of Covid-19. In April, a time when many people book their summer vacations, travel – by any mode – came to a near halt because of the pandemic. And few people were secure enough to commit money in advance to accommodations or to even leave their houses, let alone, go on a long-distance trip. But, at least until the last week or so as the number of new cases reported began to shoot back up in some places, people had become a little more willing to book a quick, previously unplanned trip.
But that does not mean that the market still isn’t being dominated by fear and uncertainty related to Covid-19.
According to polling done by IBM Watson for two tech-related companies called Influential and Killi, more than half of all American remain afraid to fly, 45 percent are worried traveling on business and 35 percent are planning to not take a vacation this year. Yet, perhaps a bit incongruously, most American are now eager and open to participating in “everyday” activities away from home, but only if they’re “local.” For example, 48 percent of the nearly 1,500 people surveyed said they’re excited about being able to go the movies and 70 percent are now comfortable eating out in a restaurant.
Killi, based in Toronto, provides customers a data security app that hides their personal data from companies that mine such data on the Internet and gives those people the ability to sell some or all of their data to specific companies willing to pay for it. Influential is an app-based service that helps companies attract the attention of, and win support and endorsements from social media “influencers” with large online followings.
Some of the highlights for their May polling regarding American’s levels of comfort with certain aspects of travel include:
· 50.71 percent said they are somewhat or very unlikely to travel by air for pleasure right now; while 35.21 percent said they’re somewhat or very likely to take a pleasure trip by air
· 52.11 percent said they are either somewhat or very likely to take a vacation or pleasure trip; 35.21 percent said they are somewhat or very unlikely to take such a trip
· 46.48 percent said they are somewhat or very likely to stay in a hotel while 36.62 percent said they’re somewhat or very unlikely to do so
· 70.42 percent said they’re somewhat or very likely to eat at a sit down restaurant. Only 9.86 percent said they’re very unlikely to do that while another 9.86 percent they’re somewhat unlikely to dine at such a restaurant
· Ironically, only 59.16 said they’re somewhat or very likely to eat at a quick serve restaurant, where theoretically they would have significantly less time exposure to potential Covid-19 infection than they would at a sit down restaurant.