Vacationing in a pandemic: Coronavirus-wary Americans expected to forgo flights in favor of road trip getaways this summer

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN Business) — Coronavirus fears and related shelter-in-place orders didn't stop many Americans from getting out of the house and hitting parks and beaches last weekend.

Travel industry experts say they expect more of the same in the coming months as vacation season ramps up and many states ease Covid-19 social distancing mandates. Recent research suggests many Americans who are still afraid of catching the coronavirus will avoid flying and hit the road instead.

"There is this pent-up demand for travel," Amir Eylon, president and CEO of Longwoods International, a tourism market research consultancy, told CNN Business. "What you're first going to see is day trips, [people] going wherever [they] can get to in a couple hours and coming back home that day."

Americans concerned about the virus are likely to avoid hotels and movie theaters in favor of escaping to the great outdoors after being cooped up inside for weeks, according to Eylon and other researchers.

On Monday, the National Park Service, which manages federal parks throughout the United States, said it is preparing to increase recreational access and services on a "park-by-park basis" while also complying with coronavirus-related health and safety guidelines outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House.

Travel industry economists and researchers who spoke to CNN Business said the next few months will be pivotal to America's economic recovery from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Roughly eight million of the estimated 30 million jobs lost in the United States were in the travel sector, according to an April study from the research firm Travel Economics, which said the pandemic's economic impact has already been nine times more severe on the industry than the 9/11 terror attacks.

"When travel is down, everything else is down," Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the US Travel Association, told CNN Business. "When travel comes back, everything else comes back."

Eylon's firm, which conducts weekly US traveler surveys to gauge consumer demand, recently found interest in commercial travel has rebounded notably after plummeting in March, when many Americans canceled vacation plans. A Longwoods survey conducted March 10-11 found 58% of US travelers said they were changing travel plans for the next six months due to the coronavirus. Two weeks later, that number rose to 84% and stayed at that level through almost all of April. But on April 29, the decline in demand dropped to 67%, according to Longwoods, which also found 86% of respondents plan to visit a domestic destination in the next six months. Just 8% of those polled last week said they have no intention of traveling during the next six months, Only 4% said they planned to travel internationally.

"People are going to be traveling and taking summer vacations this summer, it's just going to be different," Adam Sacks, president of the Travel Economics research firm, told CNN Business. "Traveling is going to be weighted towards traveling within one's driving region, " he added.

Sacks and other researchers said both outbound and inbound international travel will continue to suffer as Americans remain leery about how the pandemic is being handled abroad. In turn, foreign travelers remain hesitant to visit the US because of the virus and shutdowns of many tourist sites, the researchers said.

"There's a little bit of a silver lining there," Sacks continued. "All of those outbound trips, many of those will get diverted into domestic trips. That's going to offset some of the declines from [foreigners choosing not to] travel into the US."

Longwood International's findings are supported in part by new data from Adara, a data research coop of more than 270 travel industry partners. A recent study provided to CNN Business found year-over-year advanced flight bookings made between March 15 and April 25 for Memorial Day plummeted nearly 90% compared with the same period in 2019. The researchers found advanced flight bookings made during the same time frame for Labor Day, however, fell just 23%.

"Sixty-one days out, you begin to see some interesting patterns relative to upticks in demand, particularly for families and solo travelers," Adara chief marketing officer Carolyn Corda told CNN Business. "The idea that people are going to be driving for vacations, I think that's true. ... a lot of people are saying it's going to be the year of the road trip."

Dow, the US Travel Association president, says the state and regional travel authorities his trade group regularly works with have adjusted much of their marketing strategies to appeal more to regional travelers hitting highways.
He and others said states -- like New York and California -- that maintain stricter social distancing mandates that prevent hospitality businesses from reopening may lose out economically to states such as Florida, where those mandates have been reduced. "There might be some earlier economic winners," Dow said. "Some areas are going to come back faster." But those states easing social distancing rules could take an even bigger economic hit if Covid-19 resurges within their borders, as it already has in parts of Georgia, whose governor recently permitted certain businesses to reopen.

Read more here