The travel industry is taking off again after the pandemic grounded much of its business.
“I’ll tell you, people are ready to get out and travel, and they’re booking big trips,” said Kelly Nieder, president and co-owner of Open Skies Vacations in Washington. “They’re looking for seven-day vacations. They’re taking their families. I have families of 16 going. I have groups of 10 going. They’re going, and they’re going big.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidelines Friday, April 2, to allow fully vaccinated people to travel, but the local interest in travel has been inflating since the start of March.
Compared to the winter 2020-21 holiday season, which Nieder said is typically the busiest time for air travel, Open Skies Vacations had a 300 percent increase in this year’s March bookings. She made at least 50 reservations within the first three weeks of March and is considering hiring another staff member to help handle the increased business.
Travelers have had added interest in ground travel, too, according to Loyd Bailie, general manager of Mid-American Coaches & Tours. The company typically tours the U.S. and Canada.
Mid-American Coaches’ revenue is up by more than a quarter since this time last year. With 11 of his 18 coaches back up and running, bus trips scheduled for the next few months “have reached the triple digits,” Bailie said.
Pent-up demand for travel has local officials gearing up for an influx of visitors to Franklin County as well.
“In general, I would say March is when I start getting a few calls here and there for people wanting some information,” Washington’s director of tourism Emily Underdown said, “and I would say that has doubled or tripled just to a regular year.”
Last month, Underdown received about 10 phone calls per week, she said. Rather than the standard scattering of day trips, people have expressed interest in weekend visits to the downtown area and local wineries. Three parties of 20 to 40 people signed up for tours as of March 25, and normally she doesn’t book that number until June.
“I think it’s just going to send a surge to our local economy,” she said. “I hope that this just continues to support our local business and hopefully make up for what was lost in 2020.”
Business was so bad for the travel industry last year that Nieder compared it to a post-Sept. 11, 2001, environment.
Even in 2001, however, the company could continue to operate with its regular clientele: employees of the airline industry, such as flight attendants, who needed standby flights and accommodations booked.
To survive 2020, Nieder said, her 26-year-old company had to shift into the retail travel market for the first time, which covers passengers’ bookings.
With Open Skies Vacations’ work in the two markets, Nieder can see that airfare will rise. But not yet. Tickets are still near the baseline cost.
“If you’re traveling from St. Louis, say, to Fort Lauderdale, for an airline employee, it’s going to be one flat rate,” she said, “whereas for a retail traveler, that’s going to vary. But right now, those rates are running neck-and-neck.”
That’s not going to persist, she said. “Every day, I see them creeping back up.”
According to the CDC’s new guidelines, if fully vaccinated people are planning a domestic trip, they do not need to self-quarantine, nor do they need a COVID-19 test before or after departure.
For international trips, passengers on flights entering the U.S. must present a negative COVID-19 test result, or they need documentation of a full recovery from the virus. They should take another COVID-19 test three to five days after returning and quarantine for at least a week.
They should still wear a mask, stay six feet away from others, wash their hands often and follow all guidelines from the state or country they are visiting.
People who are not fully vaccinated should avoid traveling.
Nieder said the parties purchasing trips tend to be in their 30s to 50s and often are planning family outings. People 65 and older, or the most vulnerable population, remain wary.
The most popular destinations for Franklin County flyers are Las Vegas, South Carolina and parts of Florida without the spring break crowds, Nieder said. Those looking for trips out of the country are heading to the Caribbean or Mexico.
Coach passengers are mostly traveling to the Northern and Western regions of the U.S., Bailie said, and are “cautious” about going to the South.
“Normally, this time of the year, we would be taking multiple coaches to Florida or the spring training games, and this year, we have had none,” he said.
Following an influx of tourists to Florida, the state’s COVID-19 cases increased by over 24 percent from March 14 to March 28. According to a Johns Hopkins University report, the seven-day average case count had jumped from almost 4,500 confirmed cases to nearly 5,600.
As more vaccines are distributed, Nieder and Bailie are expecting more business through their doors, but after a year of tumultuous change, they said they were hesitant to give an industry forecast.
As for local business, “predicting after last year is something I try not to do anymore,” Underdown said. “But I really do think that the summer is going to be very busy. I think our festival season is going to kick off and be very, very successful.”