Since the travel restrictions started to lift after the initial coronavirus lockdowns, I've probably travelled to more places in Australia than the rest of my life combined - all in the name of bringing you weekly stories, of course!
I've snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef and swum in rock pools beneath waterfalls in the Northern Territory. I've visited art galleries in Broken Hill and a museum full of warplanes near Port Stephens. Across the country, I've been on kilometres of hikes and more wine tastings than I can remember (or, as I like to call it, my 'trails' and tribulations).
At dozens of destinations, I've chatted with tourists and tourism operators alike about the way travel has changed in 2020 - and, most interestingly, how travel will change permanently. Some of the shifts may have happened anyway, it just took a deadly virus as the catalyst, while other developments have been a direct response to the crisis but have proven to actually be popular with travellers.
So, as we prepare to go into 2021, it's worth considering how the travel industry will look going forward post-pandemic.
I think, for instance, we'll find hotels and other accommodation offer more contactless options, where you can pick up your keys with a code, or even use your phone to open the door. At the same time, the service may be more personal - just not necessarily at check-in. I've found more hotels like to phone in advance to explain how they work, answer any questions, and make any special arrangements.
One of my favourite changes is being able to order drinks from a seat at the pub (no need to interrupt a conversation to get another round from the bar) and more restaurants are also asking customers to use their phones to place meal orders as well. While it's nice to be able to chat to the wait staff about the dishes and inform them of dietary issues, I can see a hybrid model working well, where the conversations still happen but you use an app for all your ordering, to keep track of your bill, and then pay it automatically at the end.
Many accommodations are using coronavirus as an excuse not to do daily cleaning of rooms and this obviously saves money but is also good for the environment, with fewer towels and sheets needing to be washed. But perhaps in the near future we might see a system where you can nominate what you would like done each day, such as emptying the bins and replacing the tea and coffee.
Airlines have been one of the hardest-hit parts of the tourism industry and they've had to really loosen their conditions for travellers wanting to change their flights. This was presumably not an act of kindness, but an act of desperation to encourage people to buy tickets. However, it may become the norm for quite a while that you can reschedule flights without charge (within reason). I've found flying domestically to be very smooth and safe, and making it even easier for people to get around the country will help the broader economy.
Across the whole Australian tourism industry, flexibility seems to be the focus now. It's not just about rescheduling, but also understanding that people aren't travelling exactly as they once were. Guests may want to cook more meals at their accommodation, and I've seen a lot of partnerships with local shops to provide food hampers. People are more likely to bring their pets on holidays, so more sites are becoming accommodating of animals. And road trips with no set itinerary are rising in popularity, so businesses are making it easier to book things last minute online. Once these processes are put in place, there's no reason to get rid of them when life returns to normal.
A different perspective
Australia, like many countries, has always had a divide in its tourism industry between international visitors who want to see sights and domestic visitors who want to relax. But the closed borders have forced many companies here to evolve, creating tours for locals and highlighting unique experiences that are worth travelling for.
This is certain to continue and you may find that 'a trip down the coast' becomes about more than just beaches and beers, with Australians looking for ways to connect to local cultures - and local tourism operators more than happy to oblige.
If there was one thing I could put on my Christmas wish list for the travel industry, it would be for even more support for these small businesses across the country. I've met so many wonderful people - running B&Bs, distilling gin, taking people on motorbikes, running ecotours in national parks - and they are the future of our industry.
Overseas visitors are normally much more likely to stay in chain hotels and take tours with big companies affiliated with their travel agents, but if we can make sure these small local (and often family) businesses become the face of Australian travel, international tourists will be more inclined to book with them too.
And if that is a development we see in the future, travel will definitely have changed for the better!
- You can see more details on Michael Turtle's Travel Australia Today website.