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Promising COVID-19 Vaccine News Has Some Itching To Travel Again

People bike along the beach in Miami on Dec. 20, 2020. "People are tired of being at home," one travel advisor says as an industry decimated by the pandemic begins to see small signs that a recovery might be on the way.
Daniel Slim
AFP via Getty Images
People bike along the beach in Miami on Dec. 20, 2020. "People are tired of being at home," one travel advisor says as an industry decimated by the pandemic begins to see small signs that a recovery might be on the way.

Recent promising vaccine news has many people hoping to finally see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and maybe even daring to think about getting on a plane bound for snowy mountains, a tropical beach, or just anywhere.

The Pizzarello family in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., is among them. They love to travel. So much so that, Ed, the patriarch, has been hesitant to even bring up the subject during the pandemic so that his 14-year old daughter and 10-year-old son wouldn't get their hopes up.

But he says the other night, at the dinner table, "I just said nonchalantly, like, it wasn't even something I planned. I said, 'You know, hey, like, if we were done today and there were no more travel restrictions, what's the first place you'd want to go?' "

Pizzarello — who writes a travel blog called Pizza in Motion and in a normal year between business and leisure, would fly more than 100,000 miles — was expecting cautious, contemplative responses. Instead, he got the opposite.

"Both the kids and my wife, all shout out places that they are just, like, raring to go," he says. "There was Italy, and then there was Australia, and then my son changed from Australia to China to Japan and back to Australia, and my daughter realized she wants to go to Iceland. ... So there were a lot of choices," he added with a laugh.

Pizzarello says that with so many travel restrictions still in place and uncertainty over how long the pandemic will last he's not ready to book a trip yet, but he is looking. And a lot of other people are itching to travel too.

"Certainly, we are on the uptick and that's extremely encouraging," says Kendra Thornton, owner of the travel agency Royal Travel and Tours in Chicago's northern suburbs. "I think there is an incredible amount of pent-up demand."

"People are tired of being at home," Thornton says. "We hear that over and over when we speak to clients. They want something to look forward to. It's a new year. They're feeling optimistic and they really want to have something on their calendar."

Some are even looking to book last-minute trips, long weekends away in February and March, and spring break vacations, Thornton says. Others are looking into booking travel in summer, fall or even planning for next year.

She says the recently announced federal requirement that those coming into the U.S. must first test negative for the coronavirus caught many in the industry off guard and it has chilled some of that travel enthusiasm.

Thornton says 2020 was a roller coaster. The year started off even stronger than the record travel year the industry had before it, 2019. By March, as the coronavirus spread and stay-at-home advisories and travel restrictions were put in place, Thornton was extremely busy cancelling trips for her clients. The third and fourth quarter of last year, she says "were crickets."

"It's been a yo-yo. We probably aren't fully [in] the clear yet but we're very optimistic and we know people want to travel," Thornton says. "We're cautiously optimistic for 2021 and we're expecting a tsunami [of business] in 2022."

One reason for that positive outlook is that airfares are really low right now, and many airlines are dropping change fees and penalties, making it easier for would-be travelers to book without fearing they'll lose money if they need to change their plans.

Thornton says hotels and resorts have more flexible cancellation and rescheduling policies, too, so customers can "feel more comfortable that they can plan a trip and wouldn't risk losing their money should things change again and they have to cancel."

Some hotels and resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean are even offering guests free COVID-19 testing to help them meet the new testing requirement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent survey by the American Society of Travel Advisors indicates that 87% of Americans plan to travel this summer, but where they'll travel to and how they get there may be influenced by the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

But the CDC still cautions against traveling as the coronavirus still poses a major public health threat. It warns that travel "increases your chances of getting and spreading Covid-19" and staying at home is the safest way to protect yourself and others.

For the last 10 months, many Americans have been heeding that advice, and in the process, the pandemic has decimated the travel industry. According to the U.S. Travel Association, since March, hotels, airlines, car rental companies, theme parks, restaurants and other U.S. businesses that rely on tourism have collectively lost more than $500 billion, and the industry's unemployment rate soared to over 50%.

Roger Dow, the association's CEO, says that before the pandemic, the travel industry accounted for one in 10 jobs in this country, so as the travel industry goes, so goes much of the U.S. economy.

"Simply put, the broad based economic and jobs recovery is impossible without the revival of the travel industry," he said.

In a virtual "State of the Travel Industry" address this week, Dow urged the Biden administration to take more aggressive action.

"America must get a handle on this virus," Dow said. "We must vigorously adhere to the sound, health and safety practices, especially wearing masks and physical distancing. We also need federal leadership to accelerate vaccine distribution."

In addition to speeding up vaccinations, Dow says the U.S. and other countries need to collaborate to increase COVID-19 testing.

"We are very much in favor of international testing," he said. "It will be the thing that opens up international travel around the world."

But despite some encouraging signs, economists expect the travel industry recovery to be a long and slow one, and it could cost thousands more workers their jobs.

United Airlines notified 14,000 employees on Friday that they may be furloughed on April 1, when a second round of government aid runs out.

And other airlines will likely follow suit, unless people really start to feel safe enough to scratch that travel itch and start booking trips.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.