Travel after coronavirus (COVID-19): The era of cheap travel for the masses is over

I was the only kid in my high school year who went on regular overseas holidays. Everyone else went on camping trips, or beach holidays, or just hung around for the summer in those central Queensland towns I called home.

My parents weren't particularly rich – our car was a bit of a bomb, our house was fairly modest – but they were passionate, lifelong travellers, and so much of their savings and annual leave was spent on end-of-year trips to the USA and Europe. I would go back to school at the end of those summers embarrassingly pasty, as pale as a ghost; my friends would all be burned a few shades darker by the Australian sun.

This was the 1990s, when people just didn't travel that much. One of my school mates only left Queensland for the first time when he was 21. Another good friend took his first flight in a plane when he was 20 (and he jumped out, bizarrely – it was a sky-diving trip).

That was normal. I was the weird one. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were only about 2 million overseas departures by Australian holidaymakers in 1990. Skip forward to last year, and there were 11.2 million leisure trips taken. That's almost one in every two people going on an overseas journey and an increase of 560 per cent. Australia's population over that time has only grown 47 per cent.

Travel has changed, clearly. It has become cheaper, easier, and far more common. It has become democratised, open not just to the passionate, committed explorers or those with a lot of money but to anyone with the merest inkling that a holiday in another country might be a nice thing.

And so we Australians now flock to New Zealand, to Indonesia, to the UK and the US. We go for a week; even just five days. In real terms, the cost of airfares has fallen dramatically: back in the 1980s, your economy-class flight would have cost you the equivalent of a business-class ticket today. The destinations we now visit are often cheaper than the places we have departed, too, the likes of Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia offering extremely good value for the Australian dollar.

This is the great opening of travel. Everyone can do it now. And almost everyone does.

Or at least, they did. Because international travel, obviously, has now ground to a sudden and complete halt. Thanks to COVID-19, no one is going anywhere anymore. Our borders are closed. Overseas travel just doesn't exist. And it's hard to know when that is likely to change. Even though the European Union just announced it will allow Australians to visit as part of its "safe travel" list, our own government still has a ban on us going overseas. 

What seems a little more assured, however, is that in the short- to medium-term – until we have a vaccine, or rather if we have a vaccine – we're facing the end of this democratisation of travel. No more cheap, easy holidays for the masses. Things are going to change.

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Ask around and any expert will tell you: the first sector to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis will be the luxury one. The wheels are already in motion. Resorts based on small islands are already repackaging themselves as private, single-group accommodation, offering up COVID-safe access for you and your loaded friends to the entire site for hundreds of thousands of dollars a night.

Small-ship cruise companies are battling nervousness about sharing a vessel by offering private charters, hoping to entice families or small groups onboard for three or four days for almost $200,000 a throw.

That's the pointy end of a wider drift into more expensive travel. Think about it: for social distancing, you need fewer people, and for fewer people you need higher prices. It's the space of first class as opposed to the cram of economy.

After initial discounts to encourage wary passengers back onto the water, cruises with fewer people will cost more money, post-corona. Flights that allow time in their schedule for deep cleaning before and after, thus spending more time on the ground, will cost more money. Hotels with better hygiene practices and a higher level of public trust will cost more money. Tours with fewer passengers and more space will cost more money.

Travel won't be for everyone anymore – not for a while, anyway. It will be for those with plenty of cash. It will be for those prepared to commit a large amount of their savings to the enjoyment of a holiday.

You may take a positive view of this, proclaim "we're the virus" and welcome the end of overcrowded destinations and the associated problems of overtourism. And in some ways that is true. Plenty of destinations will be happy to enjoy what they call "quality" visitors over quantity.

But in other ways this is a sad development. You can rightly call for changes to the way we travel, in the same way I have in the past, but surely no one ever said that the answer was to reserve it solely for rich people. Travel should be an egalitarian pursuit; everyone should be allowed to see the world and experience its wonder.

This is a regression, a fall back into travel as a luxury enjoyed by the few. We will go back to classes of kids who haven't seen the world, who haven't experienced the ups and downs, the joys and the curses, the wonder and the longing that travel engenders.

I never enjoyed being the only kid who travelled, and I don't wish it upon anyone else. Travel, done right, done responsibly and sustainably, is for all of us – and we should all be sad if that changes.

Do you think the covid crisis will end the democratisation of travel? Is the experience likely to become more expensive? Will you still travel if it does cost more?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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

See also: The 20 biggest questions about the future of travel, answered

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