Rampant inflation – complete with $10 egg cartons, thank you very much. A contagious crisis in the banking sector. Rising interest rates. Through-the-roof energy prices. Volatile markets that could slice your 401(k) into a 201(k). Mass layoffs. Crypto busts. The irrational exuberance the 2021 stock market sublimated into sector swoons – in 2022, global equities lost a whopping $18 trillion. And of course, a grim inverted yield curve – with 2-year U.S. Treasury bond yields exceeding those of 10-year ones – that too often foretells recessionary conditions.
This shakiness in the economy from many angles – not to mention the war between Russian and Ukraine – has Americans on edge. To put it bluntly, many would rather keep their hard-earned cash under their mattresses and out of the reach of Silicon Valley Bank and its ilk – FDIC be damned. Despite a sputtering financial sector and fears of a full-blown recession – a prolonged downturn in the economy marked by two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth – the Chicken Littles worried about a deeper descent into economic woes are mostly unwilling to put their travel plans on hold. Globe-trotters, indeed, are reluctant to park their green-backs in safe havens alone. They’d rather have that money take them to paradisical havens in far-flung locales.
Why? After so much time during the pandemic when travel was limited or entirely off-limits, people are still feeling that pent-up demand and natural human instinct toward exploration, despite the fact that their portfolios are taking it on the chin.
Travel in 2023, then, is all about the Rs – revenge, resilience, revival, resurgence.
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After so much time in quarantine and lockdown, with so many locations off limits and so many opportunities missed, people are continuing to strike back – like a coiled-spring finally loosed upon the world.
“People are still embarking on revenge travel, and I anticipate that this will be a trend for several more years at least,” said Dr. Terika L. Haynes, Melbourne, Florida-based CEO and founder of Dynamite Travel and treasurer of ASTA’s Central Florida chapter. “Inquiries for destination weddings, group travel, and business travel are at all-time highs.”
That’s in the face of economic anxiety. In fact, Haynes pointed to a recent Longwoods International tracking study of American travelers that indicated 93% of them have trips planned in the next six months, the highest level in three years, despite the fact that a quarter of the same travelers from the study reported concerns about how their personal financial situation will greatly impact their travel decisions in the next six months.
Previously side-lined travelers seeking those revenge trips are just unwilling to compromise and cancel or postpone their adventures despite economic headwinds. That momentum seems here to stay, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for Travelzoo, who expects summer and holiday travel in 2023 to mirror the enthusiasm seen last year. That’s because, he said, there’s a paradigm shift in how people are viewing travel – less as a sunk-cost and more as a yield-generating asset for their happiness.
“Travelers are emerging from the pandemic seeing travel less as an expense and more as an investment,” Saglie said. “Investment in family – we didn’t see many of them for a long time during Covid, so planning on and budgeting for multigenerational trips is on the rise. And an investment in seeing and experiencing something new – the pandemic proved that our ability to travel is not guaranteed, so for many, it’s a privilege worth embracing sooner rather than later.”
And Americans are looking to invest in earnest. A Travelzoo survey of 15 million U.S. members conducted in October 2022, found 78% would spend their disposable income in 2023 on leisure travel (compared to just 33% on home improvements and 29% on dining out). A quarter of respondents said they intended to take two leisure trips within the U.S. in 2023 (16% said they’d take four domestic leisure trips), and 43% indicated they intended to take one international leisure trip.
"Value" in travel is inevitably being redefined to be more than just price points, more than just about dollars and cents – and more about making it a vehicle for enhancing our lives,” Saglie added.
The Resilience of the Travel Industry
And that’s mindset has created a protective buffer for the travel industry at large amid the threat of an economic crisis.
In fact, about 25% of consumers told ASTA last summer that, “nothing will stop me from traveling.” When ASTA surveyed consumers again in October 2022, 25% said they plan to take a dream vacation by March 2023 – despite mounting economic worries.
Travel is integral to who we are as human beings, especially as people make up for lost time.
“The pandemic was a crushing blow for the travel industry, but if we learned anything from the post-pandemic bounce back, it’s that travel is essential,” said Jonathan de Araujo, owner of The Vacationeer, a travel agency specializing in Disney, Universal and cruise travel. “As soon as people could get back to traveling, they did – in a big way.”
Travel has historically performed well even amid times of economic crisis, said Hannah Lawnik, a travel advisor manager at Backroads, an active travel company founded in 1979.
“We’ve seen time and time again that active travel remains a priority for many travelers,” Lawnik said. “Adventure travel is what returns us to our roots, as it reconnects us with nature, our families, friends, fellow travelers, and other cultures. Even with an economic cloud, travel will remain as secure as ever.”
People are prioritizing their wants over their fears, said Brittany Mendez, travel expert and CMO at FloridaPandhandle.com.
“In the pit of inflation and falling stocks, data proves that people are still traveling,” Mendez said. “Even if they might be stressed about the economy, they are putting themselves and their wants first.”
Timothy Hentschel, CEO and co-founder of HotelPlanner, noted this desire for adventure and exploration will buoy the industry should economic conditions take an even more precipitous dive.
“Even if the economy falls into a recession this year, we remain confident that three years of pent-up travel demand will keep our industry thriving through the end of the decade and beyond,” Hentschel said. “We are now in the new Golden Age of Travel.”
In fact, the U.S. Travel Association predicts increased travel spending in 2023 compared to 2022, and even compared to 2019 before the pandemic.
“All recent reports are pointing toward continued travel demand, despite the economic downturn,” said Lauren LaBar, co-founder and COO of Upaway. “The travel industry holds this security because we have a natural human instinct to explore and adventure.”
Travel Revival: Wellness Prevails
Travel has healing properties, too – something that’s front and center in people’s decision-making and desire to prioritize special trips in the face of economic hardships. Amid the revenge and resilience, travelers are seeking to revive their themselves and improve their health after a couple hard years. According to InteleTravel’s 2023 U.S. traveler intentions survey, more than 40% of respondents cited mental health wellness in particular as one of their top reasons for traveling.
“More and more people are looking for completely new and novel experiences, rather than just having the average vacation, and many are focused on wellness trips,” said Aiden Freeborn, senior editor at The Broke Backpacker. “There is also a rise in trips focused on overall wellness, spas, relaxation, and spiritual journeys.”
People became all too acquainted with the perils of neglecting their health during the height of the pandemic. Travel is a way for people to take back that self-care.
“Showing yourself real love is even more prevalent than pre-Covid,” wrote Jack S. Ezon, founder and managing partner at luxury travel advisory EMBARK Beyond, in his trends report for the first quarter of 2023. “The biggest difference is that we are seeing clients ask for a wellness experience with a specific outcome in mind. They have specific goals ranging from better sleep, losing weight, dealing with diabetes.”
The destination spa business is up almost 58% from 2019, and there’s big demand for sleep therapy in particular, EMBARK Travel noted. Mandarin Oriental introduced CENAS Sleep Clinic, Equinox has a sleep psychologist on hand to create the ideal room for slumber, Langham teamed up with World Sleep Society for its Sleep Matters program, and the Rosewood Alchemy of Sleep employs acupuncture, naturopathy sessions, and herbalists to promote rest.
Ultimately, using travel as a gateway toward health and happiness is consistent with current trends. Consumers see travel as the top provider of enjoyment and value for their investment, according to ASTA consumer research from March 2023: Asked to rank seven discretionary purchases, 47% listed a vacation as No. 1, twice as many as the No. 2 choice—a home improvement or renovation (23%). That stayed consistent across generations. And with that enjoyment comes an emphasis on mental health. The emotional rewards of travel are particularly significant in these uncertain times, with ASTA consumer research from March 2023 also revealing that 78% of respondents agreed with the statement, “Now, more than ever, a vacation would do wonders for my mental health.”
Resurgence: A YOLO Mentality
Amid the foreboding economic clouds ahead, it is clear that revenge travel, the resilience of the travel industry in the face of challenges, and the revival of wellness are all led by a prevailing resurgence of a you-only-live-once (YOLO) motivation to travel.
“In most people's small corner of the world, nothing significant has happened to make them reconsider a spending mindset or YOLO mindset,” said Kim York, Stillwater, Minnesota-based owner of Journey to Discover Travel, LLC and an ASTA member. “I think it may take travelers even longer to respond to any economic downturns purely out of spite from the pandemic experience.”
Samuel Keller, Mallorca-based founder of Wild Sky Guides, a travel agency that specializes in adventure tourism, says that despite inflation and uncertainty in the economy, people are indeed increasingly cognizant of the importance of seizing the day.
“We all possess an innate awareness that the present is all that we have, that memories are built now, and that a greater importance has been put on experiences and building memories,” Keller said.
Come what may, Keller said, people are realizing they need to take advantage of distinctive experiences before they don’t have the opportunity.
“Travel has always been a fundamental part of human experience, and there is reason to believe that people will continue to prioritize it even in challenging times,” Keller said. “I believe that the travel industry will continue to be a vital part of human experience and will adapt to the changing circumstances as needed.”
That’s why Keller sees people taking advantage of one-of-a-kind hiking, climbing, canyoneering, caving, and general exploring opportunities in Mallorca and Madeira where he facilitates tours.
Mark and Kristen Morgan, British-American creators of the travel blog Where Are Those Morgans, were traveling in Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat when they wrote in with a boots-on-the-ground account of people’s desire to suck the marrow out of life.
“We can tell you from experience, the entire place was crawling with tourists from all around the world,” they wrote. “People have never been more motivated to travel and make the most of their experiences. We are seeing a positive change in travel post-pandemic because travelers have a newfound appreciation for being able to explore dream destinations.”
Gregg R. Humble, Cedar Falls, Iowa-based president of Humble Travel Service, Ltd., sees momentum with his older cohort of customers who are committed to maximizing their enjoyment while traveling, no matter the economic conditions.
“Particularly our Baby Boomer customers are upgrading airfare to business class for trans-Atlantic flights to embark on their river cruises in the European continent,” he said. “They are booking private sedan transfer and upgrading to 5-star hotels for the pre- and post-cruise stays.”
Ultimately, travel advisors are seeing the no-day-but-today mindset motivate their clients, no matter the state of the economy.
“People who had to wait two or three years to go on that ‘big trip’ are determined not to wait any longer,” said Carla Woolstrum, Atlanta-based owner of Cruise Planners and an ASTA member. “I also believe that Covid made many people aware that if they keep putting off that bucket list vacation, it might just be too late.”
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Ross Kenneth Urken originally wrote this feature for the 2023 Travel Advisor Magazine.