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International Travel Outlook and Trend Report

COVID-19 and travel at SEA Airport More Information

May 11, 2021

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) hosted a virtual event in April 2021 on the international travel recovery outlook and what that means at the airport. Expedia, Edelman, Visit Seattle, Traveling with Denella Ri'chard, Washington Tourism Alliance and Greater Seattle Partners joined the conversation to share how Washington state can connect to the economic recovery, the travel trends driving consumer behavior, and how destinations can adapt to welcome travelers. 

With more than 250 people tuned in, the robust program was sprinkled with Q&A from attendees to dig into the opportunities and challenges on the horizon for international travel. Here are the conversation highlights! 

Panel of virtual event speakers

SEA big insights  

SEA is well positioned for the recovery and is less affected than many other U.S. airports. Half of our pre-pandemic international services are already currently operating, and we expect to see a steady return of flights as international restrictions are relaxed. The main barrier to international travel remains border restrictions.  

  • SEA’s top international markets have changed due to COVID​-19. London, Tokyo, and Seoul have historically been SEA’s largest international markets. Today, the top four markets are all in Mexico. Current international demand is largely being driven by three main factors: ease of entry/border restrictions, sun and leisure opportunities, and family visits. With multiple daily flights to beach cities, few entry restrictions, and strong cultural ties with Washington State, Mexico has seen by far the strongest recovery. In fact, over the last year travel to/from Mexico (including passengers who connect as well as fly nonstop) made up nearly 40% of SEA’s total international traffic, compared to just 15% in 2019.  
  • Traveling to visit family, and diversity of our region, have been key components of SEA’s recovery. As people fulfill long pent-up desires to visit family and loved ones, the market segment known as “visiting friends and relatives” (VFR) has been one of the first to rebound. The Puget Sound region’s diverse and international population has fueled demand for international destinations as varied as Mexico, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. The strength of this demand was a key factor in Qatar Airway’s decision to launch brand-new Seattle-Doha service January 2021, with the majority of passengers connecting beyond Doha to destinations throughout the Middle East, Africa, India. The decision to begin a brand new flight during these uncertain times is a testament to the confidence in the strength of the region and the expectation of SEA's post-pandemic recovery. 
  • Our local business market​ is resilient. The Seattle market enjoys a very strong business climate with deep ties to global markets across multiple industries. Major employers in Seattle like Microsoft and Amazon have done well through the crisis and have historically generated significant travel volumes. Although business travel will recover at a slower pace than other market segments, the strength of the region’s economy means this critically important market segment Seattle will eventually recover, albeit with some marked differences. SEA’s favorable mix of both business and leisure travel makes the airport less vulnerable and better positioned to make a strong recovery.  
  • SEA is a hub for two strong global airline alliances​. With Alaska Airlines recently joining the oneworld Alliance​, SEA is now the largest oneworld hub in the western U.S. and the fourth largest in North America. SEA continues to also be a hub for SkyTeam and Delta Air Lines’ West Coast international gateway. SEA will do well as airlines focus on connectivity and rebuilding strong networks​ and it bolsters our competitive advantage as one of only a few airports in the world that is a hub for two global alliances.  

Visit Seattle on the future of tourism

Visit Seattle President and CEO Tom Norwalk shared great optimism that while we are at crossroads of recovery and balancing an ongoing pandemic, there is an opportunity to grow international travel to Seattle more than any other segment. International travels stay longer, spend more money and visit more destinations within a region, which is critical for the region’s overall economic recovery.  

Norwalk spotlighted that the future for travel hinges on successful vaccine rollout. In early April the CDC issued new travel guidance for travelers who are fully vaccinated that you can safely do so within the United States without needing to self-quarantine or get a COVID-19 test. Moreover, Europe is considering welcoming vaccinated U.S. travelers this summer. The U.S. Travel Association is currently developing a blueprint with the Biden administration with the hopes to find a risk-based approach to open the U.S. to the world by July 2021. “The outlook and promise of what are to come is all the more reason to double down on vaccines ... ultimately our future for travel hinges on vaccine success,” said Norwalk.   

Edelman’s three travel trends to watch in 2021  

Ian Jeffries, senior vice president and travel and tourism lead with Edelman, dropped some knowledge on the consumer behavior trends this year.  

  • Carpe Diem — also called revenge travel​ — is reflective of the reality that we’ve all had to cancel travel plans over the last year​ and we’ve all lost time in the last year. The world has observed that life is too short, and that it’s critical to make the most of the time you have​. There is massive pent-up demand. People are seizing the day and planning travel; travelers are planning longer and more off the beaten path trips. COVID-19 remains a concern, but 72% have “ready to travel” mindset​ and 88%* have travel booked​ coming up.  
  • Squad tourism is a Millennial driven travel trend of taking trips with groups of friends. This is further bolstered by the desire to reconnect with family and friends and indicates massive opportunity for group travel planning. Traveling with a group of friends may seem like a logistical nightmare — but the explosive growth of short-term rental services makes it easier than ever for squads to find group accommodations around the world.  
  • Trust leads the way in trip planning. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that trust in news sources is at a record low, and business is now seen as the only ethical and competent institution. When the government was still debating masks, airlines, airports, rideshare companies and other travel businesses stepped up and introduced mask requirements — and enforced them. Travelers appreciated this leadership. Airports and airlines were also some of the first to deploy public education campaigns about how they were responding to the pandemic to protect your health. The biggest opportunity to earn business trust is guarding information quality. 

“It is the trust among travelers that is helping to fuel this recovery,” ended Jeffries. “Moving forward, it’s going to be even more important to keep in mind that your customers, the travelers, are counting on business to be transparent in sharing timely and accurate information to maintain this trust as they continue booking travel and hitting the road.” 

*Findings from Destination Analysts Research and Skift’s Recovery Index 

Expedia’s return to travel ​predictions  

Seattle-based Expedia is tuned to how people are planning and booking travel. Nisreene Atassi, senior director and global head of PR and social for Brand Expedia, revealed predictions marking how we’re returning to travel.  

  • Expedia’s 2021 Vacation Deprivation study confirmed there is a lot of pent-up travel demand. Americans plan to take an additional week of vacation in 2021 to make up for lost time and 81% of working adults worldwide are placing more value on vacation, ready to start checking experiences off their bucket lists — which have been growing since the pandemic started. Vaccination roll-out and travel restrictions lifting are helping people feel more confident about making plans​. 
  • Queue the bucket lists! Expedia’s research indicates travelers intend to travel more post-pandemic, and they have been saving up money for longer, bucket-list style trips​. 61% of people are willing to put more budget into their bucket list vacation in 2021 than originally planned​ and two-thirds of people globally were inspired to create a travel bucket list for the first time​.  
  • Travel trends in 2021 indicate booking windows are lengthening and travelers are staying longer. The top destinations reveal travelers are sun-seekers headed to Mexico, the Caribbean, Florida and Hawaii​. 2020 trends such as road trips and nature will continue into the summer, with National Parks and domestic drive-able beach destinations remaining popular​. Expedia’s top-searched city destinations for Q3 of 2021 include Orlando, Las Vegas, Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles 
  • Price used to be king, but post-COVID travelers weigh their priorities differently. ​What travelers want now is flexibility, relevant and timely information​, transparency and reassurance​, value​ and simplicity.   

“We know that travelers are looking for the health and hygiene practices for their travel providers,” shared Atassi. “We’re working really hard to make sure that is as transparent as possible, because we understand that helps to reassure a traveler. As people are looking to get the most out of their trips, it is no longer about finding the cheapest way to travel. It is about getting the most of out of your experience.”  

Insights from Traveling with Denella Ri'chard  

Travel expert Denella Ri’Chard has visited several warm-weather destinations throughout the pandemic and shared her travel experiences in the last year.  

  • First, Ri’Chard recommends understand entry requirements like COVID-19 testing, health visas and health safety terms and conditions. Additionally, protocols for healthy and safety like wearing a masking and social distancing are still in place. Many resorts and lodgings now offer COVID-19 testing as an onsite amenity for guests. Some resorts like Sandals have made it complimentary to remove a pandemic travel barrier. 
  • “Another thing I discovered is that vacation now gives you an opportunity to connect with nature,” said Ri’Chard. “Before I may not have left the resort to discover these things. Vacation is a little bit different, but we’re discovering new, amazing things that we can do when we travel now.” 
  • Ri’Chard reinforced the need to support small businesses while traveling. “When you decide to travel and visit these destinations, support small businesses. Aid and support them in their recovery.” 
  • Her final advice is to work with a travel advisor. Lean on the knowledge expertise of the travel agent community to ensure you don’t miss any important steps to have an amazing vacation.  

Never waste a good crisis 

Washington Tourism Alliance Executive Director David Blandford closed the program to focus us on future as we welcome travel and tourism recovery this year. The tourism is often one of the most impacted in a global crisis, whether economic or a pandemic. A mantra for the industry is never waste a good crisis.  

“We learned to sustain our advocacy programs, we formed industry partnerships around new innovations, we kept our customers and clients dreaming and believing,” remarked Blandford. “We need to get global travelers back to Washington through SEA, staying at our hotels, visiting our attractions and dining in our restaurants.” 

Blandford emphasized responsible travel and promotion, real-time travel advocacy, public health education and education around the new logistics of travel, and an ongoing commitment to consumer trust and travel confidence.  

Welcome here, welcome home  

IAF at SEASEA is putting the finishing touches on our new International Arrivals Facility, the perfect way to welcome you back to international travel.​ Even though international passenger volumes will take some time to recover, having a modern and spacious facility is more important than ever in an era of social distancing. In addition to providing expanded passenger capacity, the IAF also adds additional international gates, and we expect to need those in the not-too-distant future. The IAF brings more elbow room for passengers, a more efficient and tech savvy arrival process and more flexibility for our airport.  

As Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman shared during the event, “We came through this storm together and are beginning to feel a bit of wind at our backs. We have good reasons to be optimistic about the future … Thanks to the community standing together, we are ready to welcome the future, and that future will be bright.”  

Watch a recording of the event and review presentation slides
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