A new survey from Japan offers a fascinating insight into how COVID-19 has changed leisure travel preferences. Going through the data, it is clear that this survey from Japan provides insight into global travel by examining how international traveler perceive getting back in the air. As such there are lessons here for travel providers and travellers alike.
Let’s Break It Down
Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya and Samurai & Ninja Museum, two key experience providers from Japan, recently studied and analyzed the effects of the pandemic on travel behavior in depth and found out that people are likely to skip major cities and vacation for longer going forward. Post-quarantine and -lockdown, travelers generally seem more concerned about sustainability and the need to support local businesses. However, the only lasting changes may come with extra safety precautions and sustainable travel choices, with other aspects reverting more or less back to normal.
For example, most travelers think virtual tours and online experiences are no substitutes for real-life activities. Most also have no intention of giving up on shared group activities or museums and prefer traditional accommodation options to AirBnB. Little change is apparent, other than increased demand for premium and safe travel experiences and the potential positive impact of working from home on the intentions to travel abroad.
Recently, there have been news stories in the mainstream media that travel after the Coronavirus pandemic would change the behavior of tourists fundamentally. Many stories mentioned how people would avoid indoor places and favor home rentals over hotels . The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) declared that the future of tourism still has many uncertainties after recording a 60~80% decline in 2020.
In response to this new environment and to understand travelers’ priorities, Tea Ceremony Maikoya and Samurai & Ninja Museum conducted a survey asking international travelers about their future plans and also checked whether the survey findings matched recent Google search trends, a practice common in tourism research.
Behavioral intentions of Future International Travelers
1. People will try to visit small towns more (but first-timers may not)
By now it is clear that people are likely to avoid major crowded cities and explore remote towns with secluded areas after the pandemic. This finding was clear in answers to both our open-ended and closed-ended survey questions. However, this finding did not apply when we compared monthly travel-related search queries on Google for small towns and big cities from 2019 and 2020. We expected that the decline for travel-related search queries would be low for small towns and huge for major cities but the level of decline was almost the same. We think this may be attributable to the fact that most first-time travelers still want to see famous landmarks and check out things to do in big cities where major airports are located.
2. Less frequent but longer trips
More than half our survey respondents indicated that their future travels would be longer as can be seen in Table I. We also confirmed this finding with our Google search query comparisons. We were surprised to find out that the decline for “1-month Japan itinerary” search queries in 2020 was far smaller than the query for “1-week Japan itinerary.” The same pattern existed for search queries of “1-week Europe itinerary” and “1-month Europe itinerary.”
3. Travelers will still visit indoor museums and join group activities
As Table I shows, most of the travelers intended to visit (indoor) museums and join food tours which involve interacting with a group of strangers. To our great surprise, almost a quarter of the respondents wanted to visit museums more than before. Moreover, most travelers indicated a greater willingness to participate in food tasting tours after the pandemic. This finding tallied with Google search frequencies: the decline in queries for local museums and food tours was lower than for generic travel queries. Apparently, people’s interest in food and culture has intensified while being stuck at home for an extended period during the pandemic.
4. Travelers will not necessarily choose AirBnB and home rentals over hotels
Our survey showed that travelers’ intentions to choose AirBnB over hotels slightly changed after the pandemic (Table I), but that this change was not necessarily positive. While about a quarter of respondents intended to choose AirBnB over hotels, about the same percentage indicated that they were less willing to consider AirBnB. When we compared the frequencies of Google search queries for AirBnB and hotels in major cities in 2019 and 2020, we found that AirBnB was actually getting less popular than hotels. The decline for AirBnB queries on Google was significantly higher compared to searches for hotels. While this may have to do with mistrust of third-party hosts’ sanitation practices, it may also have to do with new post-Corona regulations or AirBnB’s marketing practices or the safety perceptions of upscale hotels.
5. Sustainability and supporting local businesses will be trendier
We asked an open-ended question to all participants about how they thought their travel behavior would differ in future. About half stated that provided the pandemic ended, their approach to travel would remain unchanged. Numerous travelers reaffirmed how they would still care about hygiene, sanitation and safety even after the pandemic. About one fifth of respondents mentioned the importance of taking fewer but longer trips and supporting local experience providers and local businesses. The fact that these were spontaneous answers reflect a steady shift towards sustainability.
6. Wealthy people will be first to travel abroad
We did not ask the survey respondents when they were planning to travel as international travel depends on whether the borders are open and the kind of governmental policies applied in each country. However, when we analyzed Google Search queries for various hotels, we noticed that luxury hotels were impacted less than all the other types in general. It was interesting to see that the number of queries for “budget Tokyo hotels” dropped almost twice more than the queries for “5-star hotels in Tokyo.”
7. Working from home means slightly more opportunities to take vacations
Another pattern that emerged from our data was that those who worked from home plan to travel more in future (Appendix II). As remote working gives people more opportunities to travel, those working from home tend to prefer more trips that are longer. At the same time, 43% of office workers thought they would be taking more trips than they used to after the pandemic ends. A side note that should be mentioned here is the difference between remote workers and office workers when it comes to intentions to travel was only 10%. While working from home means people can go on “workations” anytime they want, it also means that people may take fewer family holidays as now they have more time to spend with their families.
8. Virtual tours and online experiences will be for special occasions only
We asked the respondents whether they would be interested in online cultural experiences and virtual walking tours for approximately half the price of what it would cost for an in-person equivalent. Most respondents said they would not be interested in virtual experiences because it would not be the same as the real thing, unless it was a cooking class where they could get the ingredients beforehand. Meanwhile, over the past half year, Maikoya Tea Ceremony, Geisha Maikoyaand Samurai & Ninja Museum have received a number of inquiries for teambuilding and cultural group activities via Zoom for special occasions (celebrations, birthdays, etc.). We thus concluded that virtual tours and online experiences are usually for special occasions and unlikely to replace actual tours and experiences in the near future.
9. Masks will be around for a while
Respondents mentioned that even after the pandemic they would pack masks and sanitation materials whenever traveling abroad. Accordingly, we can expect mask-wearing habits to persist and hotels and ryokans will be careful in providing extra sanitization services, even after the pandemic.
10. Women care more about travel safety
Consistent with the past tourism studies, we found that female respondents were more concerned about safety in general and cited safety and hygiene concerns more frequently than male respondents in the sample. We also noted that females were more likely to choose hotels over AirBnB.
What are travelers’ concerns about online experiences and virtual tours & classes?
Our Open ended Responses and Google Trends analysis yielded these results:
- Time Zone Differences: Any online experience during the day time would exclude about half the world population.
- Labor is the same but perceived value is lower: Travelers don’t think online experiences can have the same value despite the fact that experience providers need to spend about the same amount of time and effort, if not more.
- Problems with shipping the ingredients overseas: Our survey shows that participants want the ingredients or tools necessary for online experiences.
- Diminishing novelty: The number of Google searches for typical virtual tours and online cultural experiences is decreasing except for the demand forvirtualteam building that Maikoya focuses on.
Differences between domestic travelers and International tourists
Comparisons of Google search queries in Japanese and English yielded these results:
- Weekends only: Domestic tourists usually consider local cultural experiences mostly on weekends because of their jobs or family obligations.
- Certain times of the year only: Domestic tourists usually don’t stay overnight except for certain seasons and the searches peak just before the national holidays.
- Not Once-in-a-lifetime: Most locals do not search for history tours or bucket list cultural experiences in their home countries.