The End and the Beginning

Head of Research and Insights
Published 1/19/22
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Eight indications that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery of tourism is near

January 2022 marks two years* of dealing with a historic global pandemic. A once in a 100-year health and economic emergency and an unprecedented crisis for travel and tourism. After millions of lives lost around the world, billions more infected, massive social disruption and trillions of dollars in economic losses in tourism alone, we may finally be able to predict an end to this pandemic. In fact, March and April 2022 may present a radically different and more positive picture compared to the last 24+ months.  

Sources: The assessment below is based on a range of expert data and analysis, notably the COVID-19 members taskforce briefing organized by the World Travel and Tourism Council and shared by Dan Richards of Global Rescue.  You can watch his briefing from the 6:50 mark in the WTTC recording of this meeting here. Additional resources include coverage from the New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist plus other sources throughout the summary.

Disclaimer: A couple of important caveats. I am not a medical expert and there are real and substantive risks in predicting the trajectory of any pandemic, notably the risk of a new and more challenging COVID-19 variant emerging. However, tourism needs to learn to live with risks. Whether the possibility of a new infectious disease or increased threats from climate change or political instability, elevated risk will remain a very real part of tourism’s future.

1. Omicron is massively infectious but appears to be far less severe than other COVID-19 variants. Following the typical evolution of pandemic diseases, omicron presents a far lower risk of serious illness or hospitalization. This is especially true for the triple vaccinated (double vaccinated with a booster).  Note: I said very low risk, not no risk. So, make sure you are fully vaccinated, continue to be cautious relative to the spread of COVID-19 in your community or travel destination and your own personal health/age profile (or that of your guests) and follow expert health advice such as mask wearing.  

Studies are increasingly pointing to less severe outcomes from Omicron.
Source: The Economist. January 18, 2022

2. Incidental cases are dominating the COVID hospitalization numbers. Those in the hospital for other reasons and who tested positive on arrival or contracted Omicron while there. If you remove these “incidental” cases, hospitalization numbers for COVID-19 appear to be dropping across all age groups in the U.S. – most clearly in states like New York. There is also evidence that excluding these incidental cases, global deaths from COVID-19 are also in decline.  

3. Omicron’s widespread infections will leave behind a very high degree of population immunity and resistance. This dramatically expands population immunity from vaccines and past COVID-19 waves bringing us far closer to the much discussed “herd immunity”.  There is also increasing evidence that those infected by Omicron build good immunity against other COVID-19 strains including the more dangerous (but less infectious) Alpha and Delta strains.

4. Omicron is predicted to peak in the U.S. by late January 2022. It will likely then rapidly drop potentially creating an inflection point to “post pandemic” conditions from March or April.

New York state’s Omicron COVID-19 case numbers rose and peaked quickly following a similar trend in Africa and Europe.
Source: New York Times COVID-19 Tracker

5. Most health/travel restrictions may become redundant by April 2022.  Some governments such as in Spain and Thailand are already starting the shift to managing COVID-19 as an endemic disease as we do other respiratory illnesses. Such a shift sees a focus on education and protecting the vulnerable rather than broad-based health and travel restrictions.  

6. The full reopening of travel should quickly follow. If these dramatic improvements in COVID-19’s impact emerge we should see a rapid shift in health, travel and border restrictions. However, given the caution that many governments have shown, there may be delays in quickly aligning these restrictions with a new “post pandemic” reality. There is likely to be a particular risk for international travel. This creates an urgency for our industry to monitor these trends and if needed, advocate strongly for prompt action. Just as some governments touted their pandemic response as “go hard and go early,” so the roll back of restrictions and barriers, if no longer justified by the health risks, should also be rapid and decisive.

7. 2022 should see a very rapid and full recovery of travel. Both domestic and international travel should continue to return over the (Northern Hemisphere) spring and summer months. This could quickly create capacity issues as pent up demand surges back and continued issues such as widespread staff shortages (the WTTC just published a global report on staff shortages). Business travel, the cruise market and meetings and events are three sectors expected to be somewhat slower to recover.

Miles has aggregated a wide range of resources & best practices in sustainable tourism strategies or destination master plans.
Source: Miles Partnership’s Strategy Toolkit for Building Back Better

2022 must mark the end of a pandemic and the beginning of tourism that is “better.”

8. Building back better is critical. In such a period of rapid growth, it will be vital for DMOs and their industry partners to thoughtfully manage the recovery of travel. Tourism needs to return with widely shared benefits and be prepared to manage problems of congestion, affordability, workforce issues and environmental impacts. After two years to rethink our approach plus substantial government recovery funding to help tourism “build back better,” politicians and communities will be expecting signs we have used this time and money wisely. In this regard, 2022 must mark the end of a pandemic and the beginning of tourism that is “better” – better for our communities, better for our workforce, better for the environment – and better for visitors. Make sure your DMO and industry organizations have the strategies, resources, and skills to better manage, not just market, the recovery of tourism. See our range of resources on “building back better” including sustainable tourism strategies, a global study of resident engagement and 26 practical actions to tackle climate change.

Additional Resources:

*The COVID-19 coronavirus was first reported in December 2019 and called an international public health emergency by the WHO on February 12th, 2020.  Travel restrictions and border closures started soon after.