The travel industry has an enormous challenge ahead, but it shouldn’t waste the opportunities that the pandemic has created. We should be looking at making some improvements – there’s no question that we did, to some extent, overtravel.

Travel is going to be local at first; if you’re in London, that’s going to mean travel in the UK and Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe. No one is going to be thinking about going on holiday to North America or South America, and certainly not to Asia or Australia. We are not going to immediately return to a reality where easyJet is in full operation and Emirates is flying all over the world.

There are going to be all sorts of changes that are here with us forever. The added security that was introduced after the 9/11 attacks has been there ever since. We expect to be carrying liquids in a bag and going through X-ray machines. These measures are here and they’re not going to change. The pandemic is a bigger hit, but the effects will be similar: there will be lots of changes, and we don’t know what they really are yet. I suspect that we are going to be asked to prove our health before we get on a flight.

It is easy to forget that, decades ago, the outbreak of mad cow disease in the UK shut down travel around the country. There have been other occasions when travel has been badly hit and managed to bounce back.

Lasting change

There has been a lot of talk about how we are never going to see the mini-bar again, and we may never see the buffet breakfast again. Operators are going to have to reassure people that it is safe to travel while making these changes. We have gone on for years increasing carbon emissions created by air travel. Then, suddenly, we turned the world upside down and virtually every flight was cancelled.

We have discovered that this is not very comfortable, but we can do it. A lot of travel was unnecessary. Now, the question is should we be taking cruises to the Arctic or flying to Europe for the weekend to get drunk? Striking the balance between sustainability, supporting the countries we visit, and ensuring accessibility to all, is going to be key.

Travel for everyone

Many people are saying that when we start to travel again it’s going to be the people who can afford it. If there are fewer flights and they have to be less crowded, then prices are going to go up.

Airlines are also worried that their business travellers are going to disappear. At the same time, there’s going to be an incentive to have more separation from people rather than jostling elbows back in economy class. Maybe this will push people into the more expensive seats if they can afford them. I think there’s going to be lots of changes that we don’t really anticipate yet. Accessibility is very important; travel should not be a privilege just for the rich. The budget travellers are very often the most intrepid, and more likely to have a positive impact on the countries they visit and the communities they return to.

We should get back to these other countries as well because, previously, our tourism business has supported them and they need it. We have got more used to working from home and we’re all adept at Zoom meetings now. But it’s not like being in the office and kicking ideas around and meeting face to face. It’s a poor substitute, so I think that we will want to get back to real life when we can – to actually living with people and getting on with them.

Tony Wheeler was speaking at London Business School’s Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.