Keys to the city
After years of concern over mounting “overtourism”, 2020 was the year that honeypots such as Venice, Dubrovnik, Athens and Barcelona found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly deserted. In 2021, those visitors who do return could find they have the run of the piazzas, parks and promenades, unencumbered by tourist hordes — as well as finding hoteliers and restaurateurs eager to welcome them back. And, given that many national coronavirus vaccination programs are prioritising older people first, it seems possible that a lucky group of elderly travellers could find themselves in the vanguard, with a unique opportunity in 2021.
“We have definitely seen an uptick in interest from our more ‘experienced’ clientele, who show a real ambition to visit their favourite cities without the madding crowd, as soon as they are able to have the vaccination,” says Ted Wake, joint managing director of Kirker Holidays. He reports receiving a letter from an octogenarian client who visited Venice in August and found it “more sublime than I can ever remember . . . it reminded me of my first visit in the mid-1950s”. She is now planning to return, post-vaccination, in March.
Adventure at home
As borders closed in 2020, many countries experienced a boom in domestic travel. This led to a summer crush at popular beaches and resorts, but it also created demand for more upmarket and adventurous domestic trips — itineraries that would provide both an escape from the crowds and a proxy for the excitement of a far-flung jaunt. Wildnis (wildnis.co.uk), for example, was set up in October and will be launched fully to guests this spring, offering luxury guided expeditions in the Scottish Highlands. Founded by former members of the British army, it uses a mobile base camp where chefs prepare dinners on open fires and barbecues, and a fleet of Land Rover Defenders to take guests between activities including pack-rafting, scrambling and sea kayaking. Prices start at £3,000 per person for a four-night trip.
American operator Under Canvas (undercanvas.com), which operates safari-style camps in seven wilderness locations across the US, reported a surge in demand in 2020 and already has “strong” advanced bookings for 2021. Its tents come complete with king-size beds, wood-burning stoves and daily housekeeping and some have en-suite bathrooms; there’s also a range of adventurous experiences on offer in the national parks and monuments close to the camps. This spring it will launch two new locations: the first, in April, on a plateau overlooking a canyon on the edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, to be followed in May by a camp on the coast of Maine, ideal for exploring Acadia National Park. Two more are also planned for Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks, though opening dates have yet to be announced.
While the majority are likely to return to international travel with baby steps, tour operators report growing numbers of inquiries for full-on “once-in-a-lifetime” adventures. Partly, it seems to be the result of pent-up demand; partly, a sense of needing to take life by the horns before it’s too late. “I’ve just got off the phone with someone who wants to organise a 50th birthday party, which was meant to take place last year, but now they want to do it with twice as many guests and do it in Africa,” says Geordie Mackay-Lewis, co-founder of Pelorus. “There was already a move towards increasingly adventurous trips, but the pandemic seems to have really accelerated that trend.”
One key destination for 2021 is Antarctica, where a complete solar eclipse on December 4 is providing another spur to book. Already availability on yachts capable of sailing the region during the austral summer is becoming scarce. “Normally not that many yachts go down but next season lots are going and they are all getting booked up,” says Mackay-Lewis. Another option is to fly to Union Glacier, the remote camp in the Ellsworth Mountains from where most polar athletes set out. Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (antarctic-logistics.com), which runs the camp, says it has had to increase capacity for its eclipse trips, after vaccine approvals “calmed nerves” of prospective travellers. A 12-day trip to see the eclipse at Union Glacier costs $39,800 — or there is also the option of watching it from a field camp at the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony on the coast of the Weddell Sea, from $58,500 per person.
For obvious reasons, retreating to the seclusion of an island has seemed increasingly attractive in recent months. “Currently the Maldives and the Caribbean are the main areas where we are seeing a significant rise in demand,” says Sarah-Leigh Shenton, director of marketing at tour operator Red Savannah.
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The Maldives, in particular, has made great efforts to restart tourism, on which two-thirds of its GDP depends. A branding campaign has positioned it as “a safe haven for travellers”, and despite the second wave of the pandemic in the US and Europe, the Maldives continues to welcome visitors from all nations with no quarantine requirements. Tourists must have a negative PCR test taken within the 96 hours preceeding their arrival and some resorts have introduced their own testing regimes — Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani, for example, give visitors a second PCR test on arrival, confining them to their rooms until a negative result is received (usually within 24 hours), while also testing staff every five days. The inherently isolated nature of the Maldives island resorts also lends itself to a controlled, Covid-safe environment.
Islands in the Mediterranean are in demand too, and especially for holidays staying in private villas. Red Savannah says the numbers of people looking for trips to Menorca and Ibiza on its website are up 14 per cent and 77 per cent respectively from the same period a year ago, with the Greek Islands up 52 per cent. The Thinking Traveller, which rents villas in Sicily, Corsica, Mallorca and the Greek Islands, says availability in its most sought-after properties is already limited for the summer 2021.
A post-lockdown yearning for open space, along with anxiety about crowded places, has brought remote, empty destinations to the top of many wishlists for 2021. Namibia, the world’s third-most sparsely populated country after Greenland and Mongolia, is tipped by tour operators including Steppes Travel, Black Tomato and Original Travel. “Physical distancing has been a way of life in Namibia for millennia, and the wide-open spaces of the Namib Rand and Etosha [national parks] are the perfect antidote to the current situation,” says Jarrod Kyte, product and sales director at Steppes Travel. Even Namibia has tourist hotspots, though, so he recommends a self-drive trip staying at the newly opened Natural Selection camp at Kwessi Dunes, which offers an authentic desert experience away from the celebrated dunes of Sossusvlei, and then Safarihoek Lodge, on a private reserve beside Etosha National Park. A 12-day trip with Steppes would cost from £3,495 per person.
Botswana is also likely to be popular, both as the 11th-least densely populated country, and thanks to a rash of new safari camps, including the reimagined Jack’s Camp, the no-expense-spared Xigera and Little DumaTau.
A survey for Original Travel found that 48 per cent of its clients wanted their first post-lockdown trip to be “somewhere outdoorsy to enjoy some wide-open spaces”. As well as Namibia, and for something very different, it tips Nova Scotia and the Atlantic provinces of eastern Canada for their “intriguing maritime past, time-stood-still fishing villages and staggeringly beautiful and untouched landscapes that are begging to be hiked”. It offers an 11-day self-drive tour, including time on Cape Breton and Fogo islands, from £4,300 per person.
An industry buzzword for years, “slow travel” could finally gain mainstream traction in 2021. The idea is simply that you take fewer but longer holidays, thereby reducing carbon emissions relative to your contribution to the local economy, while also giving yourself time to properly immerse in a different culture.
Travel disruption continues
The outlook for travelling remains uncertain, with entry and quarantine rules as well as local lockdown restrictions changing rapidly. Those planning international trips should check with the destination country’s website and their local embassy, while also ensuring any bookings are refundable
Less time in airports and more time to relax, unwind and explore seem obvious goals post-pandemic. Wild Frontiers Travel says that from September to November its biggest-selling trip was a 48-day odyssey along the Silk Road, taking in six countries and 15 world heritage sites (£11,395 per person). Also in demand is a 21-day trip through the Karakorum from Kashgar in China to Kashmir. “These trips are particularly popular with semi-retired or recently retired people looking for that true trip of a lifetime, and Covid has given them the time to plan for it,” says Jonny Bealby, the company’s founder.
Data from eDreams Odigeo, Europe’s largest online travel group, seems to confirm the trend. In the summers of 2020 and 2019, the most common trip duration was seven to 13 days. Its forward bookings for 2021 show trips of that duration (32 per cent) are now outstripped by those of 14 days or longer (35 per cent).
The “slow travel” idea also relates to the style of trip, and walking holidays — perhaps the best way to become absorbed in a destination — also seem poised for greater popularity. Wild Frontiers has developed a range of new guided European walking tours in response to demand, often with a focus on local produce and wine, and including less-visited destinations such as Albania, Macedonia, Slovenia and Poland. Its “walking and wine” trip in the Italian Apennines, for example, explores the hills around the historic towns of Urbino and Gubbio, including a night in the tiny hamlet of Bacciardi, perched on a ridge and surrounded by forested slopes (eight days from £1,995).
For those who prefer to walk alone rather than in a group, Inntravel has a range of self-guided trips, including new itinerary in Slovenia’s Logar Valley, “one of Europe’s most beautiful”, according to the company. Guests stay at the family-run Hotel Plesnik, the only hotel in this protected area, and make daily walks through the mountains (a week costs from £885). Slovenia’s cuisine will also be in the spotlight this year — the country has been named European Region of Gastronomy for 2021.
The explosion in remote working has led many to realise they could just as easily dial-in from a beachside villa or ski chalet as from their spare bedroom workstation. Accommodation providers say this is driving a trend for longer rentals and hotels are trying to extend their seasons by attracting remote workers. For example, the Quinta do Lago resort in Portugal’s Algarve is offering “work and stay” packages, from £2,135 per month, where guests stay in wooden cottages with two bedrooms, one of which has been converted into an office — or a more luxurious “Reserva” apartment, complete with private pool, from £8,000 per month.
Some countries are making a targeted bid to attract digital nomads in 2021, offering the chance to stay for longer than a tourist could and also waiving any need to pay income tax locally. Barbados has already attracted more than 3,000 applicants for its “Welcome Stamp”, which allows visitors to stay for up to a year, and a new residence permit for remote workers in Croatia is expected to come into law this month.
It seems increasingly likely that widespread vaccination, rather than simply testing, will be required to kickstart demand for big cruise ships — but, conversely, holidays on small private boats are already proving more popular than ever. The Adriatic seems to be especially in demand: Red Savannah says the best gulets along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast are showing very strong bookings for summer; the Allure, for example, which sleeps up to 14 and costs from £15,173 per week, has only two weeks left available (at the time of writing) in July and August.
Sail Dalmatia reports that 80 per cent of their new clients in 2020 were chartering a yacht for the first time. “The safe and secure environment of a yacht clearly appealed to many clients,” says Dora Vulic, the company founder. An uptick in 2021 inquiries suggests that trend might continue.
Meanwhile in July, Sunsail will launch “flotilla” holidays on the Croatian island of Brac. Guests sail their own yacht by day (either taking the helm themselves, or with a skipper) then rendezvous with others in the evening for drinks and other activities. There are daily briefings, a tailored itinerary and a lead boat with mechanic, skipper and host on board for support. A week costs from £1,052 per person, based on a group of four.
Aside from the pandemic, the salient trend in travel has been growing concern about the environment and the effect of tourism on the destinations visited. An annual survey by Abta, a trade association for UK travel agents and tour operators, found that in 2020 half of consumers deemed sustainability to be an important or essential consideration when choosing a holiday — up from only a fifth in 2011. Trips that don’t involve flying are similarly on the rise: Inntravel says it has had to triple the number of rail specialists it employs to keep up with demand, while Byway, a new British operator offering only no-fly holidays, was launched in defiance of the pandemic in November.
The latest mantra is “regenerative travel”, meaning trips that actively help rather than simply mitigating their negative impacts, often involving some charitable work or making contributions to fund positive projects. Steppes Travel, for example, has formed a partnership with the European Nature Trust to offer a range of trips in which guests accompany wildlife researchers and with donations to support their work included in the cost of the holiday. A week in Spain tracking the endangered Iberian lynx costs from £2,995.
Taking to the skies
While much of the aviation industry has spent the past nine months struggling for survival, two new start-up airlines are hoping to buck the trend and begin their first flights in 2021.
In November, Flypop announced it had received “significant investment” from the UK government’s Future Fund, which is designed to support “innovative and high-growth” British businesses. Flypop plans to launch low-cost longhaul flights between the UK and Indian cities such as Amritsar and Ahmedabad in the second half of 2021, using Airbus A330 aircraft, although it has yet to obtain the necessary Air Operator Certificate.
In the US, David Neeleman, the entrepreneur who founded WestJet and JetBlue, is currently recruiting for a new airline called Breeze, headquartered in Salt Lake City. It plans to start operations this year, serving second tier US cities that do not have air links and using Embraer E195 and Airbus A220 aircraft. As well as offering low-cost direct flights, Neeleman says the focus will be on customer service and that Breeze will be “the world’s nicest airline”.
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