Imagine a European youth hostel without any Australian backpackers. Picture a trans-continental bus tour with none of those familiar accents.
That's what awaits this summer in Europe as the continent emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns and winter hibernation. The expectation is that travellers are about to return, and that this will be the beginning of the new, post-vaccine normal. Only, with no Australians.
For the companies who would usually rely on the annual influx of Antipodean visitors, it has meant making other plans.
"We have such a strong association and history when it comes to Australian guests," says Dylan Lazarus, the head of digital marketing for Beds and Bars Group, which manages such legendary backpacker venues as the Flying Pig hostel in Amsterdam, and St Christopher's in London's Shepherds Bush.
"There's a direct association between our brands and Australian backpackers, and obviously they have their own association in terms of the culture and the atmosphere they bring to our properties. So how is it without them? It's noticeable, definitely. Part of the success of hostels is that you have that real international dynamic, and the Australian market is a huge part of that for us."
Due to Australia's ban on international travel, the number of Australians visiting Europe has plummeted more than 98 per cent. Although Australia was never the largest tourism market for any European country, Australian tourists were significant for many tourism businesses.
Before the pandemic, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show more than 200,000 Australians a month headed to Europe during the northern summer in 2019, more than 76,000 to the UK alone. Last northern summer, as COVID-19 ravaged the continent and Australia's ban kicked in, the numbers dropped to a little over 3000 a month.
With no Australians to fill the dorm rooms this year, and COVID-19 restrictions changing the style of accommodation hostels are able to offer, Beds and Bars has had to alter its offerings for the summer, including the Aussie-free social events it puts on.
"We've saved a bit of money on clean-up," Lazarus jokes. "The events have had to change anyway with the new rules, but certainly we don't have as many people asking to watch AFL as there once was.
"I say this sincerely and earnestly though, we are absolutely missing the Aussies. We're also missing our Australian staff, because we had loads of Australians who would make up so much of the energy of the teams. But obviously a lot of them have gone home over the past year, and you can feel that gap. We're really hoping they decide to come back and join us [in 2022]."
Insight Vacations, owned by the Travel Corporation (which also owns Trafalgar Tours and Contiki) would traditionally be preparing for a huge number of Australian travellers to join its European tours in the summer season. Insight's CEO, Ulla Hefel Bohler, says the loss of Australians will mean a change in the products being offered this year.
"Australians are such important travellers for us," she says, "and what will change a little bit this summer is that Australians like longer trips, they come for two weeks or three weeks and do back-to-back trips, while Americans tend to gravitate towards shorter stays. But honestly right now it's more about where can we go, what's open. Normally we go to 44 countries in Europe, we have over 140 different itineraries that we offer, so now it's just about figuring out what we can do [for the guests we have]."
Currently there are several options for international visitors in Europe, with more likely to open in coming weeks. Iceland, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Spain and France are all accepting international travellers, with varying entry requirements. Switzerland will begin to do so from the end of June, Ireland from July 19, and the UK from late July. And the message to travellers who want to take advantage of that in the future is: get vaccinated.
"The Americans are really advanced with their vaccination program," says Hefel Boher, "so when we announced [in March] that Iceland was opening up to anyone who was vaccinated, and that we would be running trips there ... we had bookings coming in the minute we announced this. That was really the litmus test, and the pent-up demand is very real. Once you have that certainty that you can travel, people can't wait."
For Australian travellers, Insight is now focusing on its new domestic program, though with an eye to welcoming Antipodeans back to Europe in the summer of 2022. "Australians are such wonderful travellers," Hefel Boher says, "they have this thirst for exploration, they're such good fun – we can't wait to have them back."
The Beds and Bars Group, too, is focusing on 2022 for the return of its traditional client base.
"I guess the message we want to convey," Dylan Lazarus says, "is that we're good. We're operating. We're surviving this whole thing. And as soon as you're ready to come back here, give us a heads up, we'll deck the place out for Aussies. We'll be ready."