All those questions about when we might travel again, which dominated every holiday-related conversation in 2020, are slowly being replaced by somewhat more upbeat questions about where we might go and how we might get there.
The Covid-19 crisis has not yet abated and travel off the island is still very much off the table for a great many people. But with vaccines slowly being rolled out and testing systems being implemented in airports all over the world, and countries working hard to bring the pandemic under control, there are at least some signs that overseas leisure travel might be a possibility at some point in the months ahead.
Claire Doherty is the product director at the Travel Department, which specialises in guided holidays all over the world, and while she is not brimful of misplaced optimism about the year ahead, she is at least hopeful that as the year goes on there will be more people travelling to and from Ireland.
This year everything is going to be about flexibility. People will want to know what the refund policies are before they book
She says there has "definitely been more interest in travel within Europe than in long haul, with trips to Asia and the US not on the horizon as of now". And she points to a desire among many would-be holidaymakers to reduce their potential exposure to Covid-19 in airports by opting for trips without transits.
There is, she says, an increased appetite for holidays to remote locations – or at least locations far from the maddening crowds attracted to European hotspots.
"We are seeing a lot of interest in walking holidays to locations such as Lake Garda in northern Italy over trips to the iconic sites like Venice, where crowds are traditionally drawn," she says.
“There hasn’t been that much interest in city breaks yet but they do tend to be shorter-term bookings and the first half of the year is looking quiet for obvious reasons. We are seeing bookings for September and October and I think there is the hope that by then vaccines will be rolling out and there will be an end in sight.”
In a normal January, travel agents and tour operators do as much as 40 per cent of their business but that is not likely to be the experience this year, as people remain anxious.
Doherty has noticed a significant number of bookings from solo travellers even as times remain uncertain. “Many of these would have been living on their own during the pandemic and perhaps the isolation has been getting to them more than others as a result and they are very keen to travel again.”
Paul Hackett is the chief executive of online travel agency Click&Go. He says that while bookings are sluggish for the early part of the year there are at least some positive signs of a pick-up in the second and third quarter.
“This year everything is going to be about flexibility,” he says. “People will want to know what the refund policies are before they book.”
Camping is a holiday which is largely outdoors and where social distancing can be observed and people can spend time on their own deck and move around without too many crowds
He says data mined from his website suggests that when it comes to bookings, Lanzarote, the Algarve, Gran Canaria, Tenerife and the Costa del Sol are attracting significant levels of interest. It is, perhaps, not hard to understand the appeal of the first four places on the list as the rate of Covid in the Canary Islands and parts of Portugal have been lower than elsewhere across Europe throughout the course of the pandemic.
The popularity of the Costa del Sol with its many overcrowded beaches and bars full of tired and emotional lobster-red tourists is perhaps harder to explain, although Hackett suggests the frequency of flights from Ireland to Málaga will always make it among the most popular Spanish locations for Irish holidaymakers.
He says the demand for sun holidays out of Ireland this year is outstripping demand for almost every other type of holiday by a factor of about four to one.
He also says that package holidays with Aer Lingus flights attached are outselling ones linked to Ryanair "by a factor of three to one at the moment". Most likely because Click&Go has a €1 deposit for packages with Aer Lingus flights while customers are obliged by Ryanair to pay in full at the time of booking if a package includes a flight with it.
It all goes back to what Hackett says is an understandable fear over what might happen if things go pear-shaped again this year. Some people struggled to get refunds or even credit notes after flights and holidays were cancelled in 2020 – and that will inform their future choices.
"What people want are plans that are flexible. They want to know what will happen if things go belly-up and they have to cancel for reasons beyond their control," says Pearse Keller of the Ballinasloe-based campsite operator Kelair. "People really want to travel but they want to know what will happen if they can't."
While last year was a wipeout for Kelair – and all other operators – Keller is upbeat about the year ahead and says for many people camping will tick all the boxes. “It is a holiday which is largely outdoors and where social distancing can be observed and people can spend time on their own deck and move around without too many crowds.”
He also notes a heightened interest in ferries for 2021 – despite price hikes by some ferry operators of about 10 per cent. “On a ferry it is easier to socially distance, and there is the fresh air,” he says.
Keller cautions people against leaving bookings late in the hope of snagging a bargain because so many families have simply moved their holidays from 2020 to 2021. “There isn’t going to be the capacity people think might be there, firstly because we have all these forward bookings and another reason is there won’t be as many airline seats as there was last year.”
He highlights three French sites proving popular at the moment. Les Ormes in Brittany has recently installed an aquadome "that rivals anything you would see in Center Parcs", he says and he points to Le Littoral in the Vendée and La Sirène in Argelès-sur-Mer, which are also popular with clients.
Cork-based campsite operator Eurocamp is similarly upbeat about 2021. It says there was a surge in bookings in the run-up to Christmas as people grew confident that vaccines would be coming on-stream in the new year.
Daly O’Brien is Eurocamp’s assistant manager and like Keller he points to the appeal of a camping holiday in the times of coronavirus. “The holiday is largely outdoors and – if you pick the right site – social distancing is easier,” he says.
He comments on the simple pleasure of eating al fresco on decks on warm evenings, which means the need for visits to crowded restaurants are minimised or removed. “And if you pick the right accommodation, you get your barbecue, a full oven, a microwave and a dishwasher to take the stress out of the self-catering,” he adds.
O'Brien says Eurocamp sites in France and Spain are popular this summer and he highlights Playa Montroig, some 90 minutes south of Barcelona's main airport or a 20-minute drive from the Ryanair serviced Reus. People familiar with the site may be pleased to know that the train tracks, which have long cut the sprawling beachfront site in two and seen trains thundering through the place at frequent intervals through the day, are no more. The campsites along the Costa Brava coast all chipped in to build a new train track far from their pitches.
Irish holidays have been selling faster than ever, particularly places like Belfast, the Antrim coast, Cork and Kerry. People are prepared to accept higher prices because of the sense of security a holiday at home brings
O’Brien says many campsites’ strictly enforced rules against large groups and excessive partying at night and he highlights the fact that all Eurocamp staff on all its sites in France, Italy and Spain will be going through an extensive Covid training programme, with all the mobile homes deep cleaned and steamed after each family leaves.
In years past, the Travel Department specialised in long-haul jaunts to exotic locations such as China but it has pivoted to trips much closer to home as a result of Covid. It has seen a surge in the popularity of Irish holidays in recent months. "They have been selling faster than ever, particularly places like Belfast, the Antrim coast, Cork and Kerry," Doherty says.
She says the cost of home-based holidays is something being raised by customers. “But I think so [many] people are prepared to accept higher prices because of the sense of security a holiday at home brings. Many people will have holidayed at home in 2020 and may decide it is what they want to do in the future.”
Six trends to watch in 2021
1 Camping is up there with the most pandemic-friendly holidays. It is outdoors, socially distanced, and the people found on campsites are not likely to be on the lash. There is little or no need to visit the on-site restaurants with the self-catering option and if you want you can access many of the warm and sunny sites in France in particular on a ferry to shield yourself even further if that remains a priority when the time comes to go.
Many regular campers will have rolled their 2020 holidays over to this year, so demand at top resorts is likely to be high, making an early booking is advisable. Most operators only require a relatively small down payment which should take the stress out of that.
2 Long-haul holidays will be a harder sell this year, particularly if trips involve transiting through multiple airports and if the destinations are struggling to bring the spread of the virus under control, as was the case in the US in recent weeks. Destinations such as Dubai may prove popular not least because of the strict health protocols being enforced on tourists arriving in the country. Emirates has also been offering economy passengers travelling to the country one night free in a five-star hotel upon arrival while business class travellers and beyond get two nights.
3 Off the beaten track locations in Spain, including Asturias and Galicia, will be a draw for many people. The regions in the north west of Spain tend to be less visited by tourists from around Europe and have pleasant summer weather, rugged coastlines, stunning mountain ranges and cheap and delicious food. There are also likely to be direct flights from Ireland to Bilbao and Santander over the summer months.
4 There are countries that have done extremely well at containing the spread of Covid-19 within their borders and they are likely to be rewarded by travellers making decisions based on where is the safest place to be. Restrictions on travel to Australia and New Zealand mean they are not accessible now but tourist-friendly spots in the Caribbean, including Barbados, are likely to see a high-level interest as people look to have a bit of luxury without a side order of Covid.
5 While the cost of renting a private villa with a pool in the Tuscan hills or along the Algarve shore might seem eye-watering, many such houses can comfortably accommodate three families, so bills get split three ways. Not only that, but families who choose the villa option get to holiday in a convivial atmosphere with friends they like without worrying about being coughed on by strangers at the pool. You can limit your contacts in a way that wouldn't be possible in a city or holiday park. Just don't be the one to bring Covid to the party. That would most likely make for a pretty miserable fortnight away.
6 With almost everyone forced to stay at home in 2020, many of us were introduced to the many joys of Ireland on holidays for the first time in a long time. There will be a great number of people, encouraged by the lovely food, nice people, good value and the absence of the need to visit an airport, who will be happy to go back for a second bite of the staycation cherry.
This could be a bumper season for short holidays to the likes of Center Parcs and high-end hotels. Many Airbnb hosts, B&Bs and holiday-home complexes around the country, or at least those ones that did a good job over the past 12 months, could also have a great year. The ones who let people down or ripped them off will pay the price.