The pandemic has shaken the travel industry to an unprecedented degree, according to industry experts who claim airports and hotels are seeing historic business declines during the normally busy holiday season.
Doug Yakel, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, said passenger activity at the main gate to the Bay Area for travelers decreased 80% this month compared to last year. What’s worse is that the daily average of 13,226 passengers passing through the airport in December is down 15% from the previous month, when the daily average was just 15,572.
In recent years, the airport has consistently set new records, especially during the holiday season. In terms of context, Yakel said in 2018 that officials expected up to 2 million travelers to pass through the airport between the end of December and the New Year.
The pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions that require travelers in the Bay Area to be quarantined for 10 days after arriving have also messed up traditional patterns, said Yakel, who couldn’t predict which day was the busiest this year the season would be.
“Given the dynamism of current case trends, it is difficult to predict the busiest days,” Yakel said in an email. “I can say that passenger activity has been going down since Thanksgiving and is still far from what it was during the 2019 holiday season.”
Federal, state and local authorities have instructed everyone celebrating holidays this year to avoid travel and instead keep their gatherings small, made up entirely of people living under the same roof.
For those who fly, health officials have found the virus does not spread easily due to the airlines’ air circulation and filtration systems. However, the risk persists as travelers sit around strangers for long periods of time. Also, there are often crowds at airports and public areas shared by large groups.
Those who travel are asked to wear a mask, maintain a safe social distance, wash hands or disinfect frequently, avoid touching their mouth, nose or eyes, avoid contact with sick people, get a flu shot and get tested before and after the treatment excursion.
Sick people are strongly discouraged from traveling for fear of the spread of COVID-19 or other infections.
The threat from the pandemic is harming not only the airport industry but also local hotels and restaurants, said John Hutar, CEO and president of the San Mateo County / Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In a normal year, Hutar said, vacationers filling hotels would make up for the losses caused by suspending business meetings during the winter months. But in the absence of any travel, Hutar said that many in the hospitality industry struggle to keep their heads above water.
“The guard arrangement removes virtually all of the legs that support our stool in the travel industry – creating a dire situation for the hotel / restaurant / travel industry,” he said in an email.
What is worse, he said, the hardship has placed many in the difficult position of weighing their potential health risks against a threatened livelihood.
“Our industry is in a unique position: while everyone wants to be part of the solution that brings the pandemic to a close, current travel restrictions have created a dire financial situation that has made the travel industry all the more unsustainable,” he said.
And while some hope for vaccine distribution is looming on the horizon, Hutar noted that buzz is measured against growing fears of a mutated virus.
In the absence of clarity on when the health threat will subside and the industry can recover, Hutar said those in the hospitality industry are stuck and trying to survive in a year like no other.
“The vacation travel season this year is very different from anything we’ve seen before,” he said.