Destination weddings and COVID-19: Will overseas weddings return after pandemic?

A decade ago, overseas destination weddings were unconventional and very, very cool: Why settle for just another big day, when your wedding could be an international event?

Brides, grooms and bridal magazines argued they were cheaper, would cut down on your guest list and above all, they would be a fun holiday with your best mates. The rise of budget airlines, Instagram posts hashtagged #destinationwedding and specialist travel agents fuelled an increasingly mainstream trend. Sure, there were cultural miscommunications and missed connections, but it all seemed to come together on the day.

Brides loved destination weddings. Guests, not so much.

"I skipped a number of destination weddings overseas because at the time, it was too hard," one friend quietly confessed.

"It would have been a dream, but they're more trouble than they're worth - you have to take annual leave, be able to afford it, buy a gift and then find someone to look after the kids.

"The brides get the pretty photos, but half the time it's not like you get the holiday you want, or need."

As the trend grew the internet swelled with tall tales of destination wedding woe; couples choosing resorts their friends couldn't afford to stay at, people calling off the nuptials the day of the ceremony, and the most common tale: the destination weddings where the whole bridal party went down with a case of buffet belly.

"I was part of a wedding where we all flew to Phuket, and were driven for three hours to a remote beach for the ceremony and reception," one guest told me.

"Most of us contracted a gastro bug which hit at the wedding, where there was only one drop-pit toilet. I stripped down to my bra and undies and spent time in the ocean for relief (and to feel a little cleaner)."

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Despite the horror stories, for a good decade destination weddings thrived, until COVID hit like a sledgehammer in early 2020. And like everything else, it changed (and is still changing) everything.

"We went from Destination Wedding Planners to debt recovery agents and conflict resolution councillors," says Karen Tancin, a destination wedding specialist who has run Classique Event, based in Melbourne, for 12 years.

"The uncertainty of international travel, elderly guests at risk and the increasing COVID numbers in other countries put the destination wedding sector out of business."

In Australia, it was a similar story. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics has only released data from January to June 2020, there was a significant decrease in the number of marriages that took place. This began in March, when COVID-19 restrictions resulted in a 31.9 percentage drop in couples being married.

Not being able to have a destination wedding in a pandemic might seem trivial to some, but for many couples it's the bitter icing on the COVID-19 cake, with lost savings and deposits, uncertain plans, bickering with vendors, and above all, broken dreams. If you've spent two years working towards what you sincerely consider the most important day of your life, you'd be devastated too.

With international borders unlikely to open anytime soon, it would be easy to dismiss the international destination wedding trend as dead in the water.

However, newlywed Dr Elise van der Jagt, whose domestic destination wedding took place in September 2020 under strict restriction, disagrees.

"The destination wedding trend will never be over because it's not really a 'trend'," argues Dr van der Jagt.

"There will always be couples who are tied to a place for one reason or another, or are from different parts of the world who need to bring their families together."

For Dr van der Jagt, who lives in Wollongong, her place was the Snowy Mountains, where she often snowboards through backcountry on weekends. Many of her guests had never seen snow before.

"Sharing the beauty of the mountains with my friends and family didn't only make for an impressive backdrop for the ceremony, but also helped them understand who my husband and I are as a couple."

They were married on the slopes of Guthega in a COVID-safe ceremony while their reception was on a property near a NSW/Victoria police border checkpoint.

"At first it was very stressful because we needed to check in or out when leaving and coming back to the venue, and it was a constant reminder that COVID was a real threat," she says.

"However, the police stationed there were so lovely and really got into the spirit. They had taken our license details so knew our names and made some makeshift cardboard signs congratulating us."

While the van der Jagt wedding snuck through, others haven't been so lucky. The Northern Beaches lockdown in NSW in December 2020 saw a bride and many guests fined after proceeding with their wedding in Pyrmont.

The same lockdown scuttled the Byron destination wedding of a well-known NRL player; while rumours swirled, the official line was it was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Globally, many industry sources are predicting a wedding boom - and backlog - as people who have delayed weddings hold them in late 2021 and in 2022. Others argue there has been a rise in elopements in the wake of coronavirus, with many couples planning to celebrate later.

Destination wedding specialist Tancin has seen a surge in enquiries for 2022 and 2023, and believes there are some positive outcomes for couples, with more flexible booking arrangements and renovated resorts and hotels.

"I do believe that the boom has already begun," says Tancin.

"I am struggling to find dates and venues in Italy and Greece from September 2021 onwards. In Tuscany alone, with more than 300 castles on offer, the majority are booked out in 2022."

See also: Good riddance: Seven things in travel that won't be coming back

See also: Our governments ruined tourism and now they want you to fix it

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