Itching to Take a Vacation? The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact Upon the U.S. Travel Industry

Tourists are slowly returning to the streets of New York after a rough year for local businesses and tourist attractions.


Russell Kwong

The city once filled with tourists has now been reclaimed by New Yorkers taking to the streets under the night sky.

A dozen passengers sit aboard a double-decker tour bus heading north on Tenth Avenue. A small group strolls down Grand Street on a walking tour of Little Italy. As the weather warms, tourism is starting to return to New York, but nowhere near the levels in years past, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Over the past year, many Americans, hesitant to travel, have cancelled their vacation plans. TSA screenings across the country dropped by 96% in April 2020, only rebounding to 30-40% of normal screenings during the summer and fall of 2020.

In the hopes of alleviating passengers’ worries of safety, American Airlines, among many others, is taking extra precautions to reduce the risk of spreading germs on the plane. This includes using UV light to disinfect all high-traffic areas such as seats and tray tables after every flight as well as using HEPA filters to reduce airborne transmission. Many airlines had also temporarily halted the sale of the middle seat for social distancing.  However, Delta is currently the only major airline continuing to restrict the sale of the middle seat, though they will be ending this policy on May 1st, 2021.

According to Tourism Economics, travel spending totaled $679 billion in 2020, down 42% (nearly $500 billion) from last year. Due to the many travel restrictions in place in foreign nations, U.S. international travel spending dropped 76% while domestic travel spending only dropped 34%. 

Meanwhile, business travel spending fell 70% as many companies are allowing their employees to work from home compared to a 27% drop in leisure travel. Known for its heavy dependence on the tourism industry, Hawaii suffered the most, experiencing a 60% drop in travel spending from last year.

As more Americans get vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccines, they are also planning vacations in the hope of being able to travel soon. In a survey conducted by ValuePenguin, about 61% of Americans say that their first trip in 2021 will be to visit friends and family, with the majority of respondents answering that their trip will be by car

Cruises which have been halted over safety concerns have been recently issued new guidance towards returning to sailing in the near future. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against cruises in the meantime, many cruise lines are revising their sanitization protocols to meet those set by the CDC. Major companies such as Carnival Cruises have extended their suspension until at least April 30th, 2021 and have committed to developing plans to require vaccinations for all travelers and their crew. 

In New York City specifically, an iconic location and entertainment source, Broadway, was devastated by the lack of tourism. Broadway performers who have been out of a job for more than a year look forward to when they can return to the stage and see the audiences rejoice at the theater. Many actors have found other roles, and some have taken part in public outdoor performances for the city. 

The Times Square Alliance is proud to announce its month-long DJ residency with The Lot Radio to showcase the musical talent of the local DJs and musicians from New York. The Lot Radio will be broadcasting from a repurposed street-level DJ booth every day in May 2021, celebrating an international music community.

“We’re so excited to bring a piece of nightlife back to Times Square with The Lot Radio’s unique roster of musical talent,” said Times Square Arts Director Jean Cooney. “As the city’s epicenter of hustle and bustle, we’re shining a light on the DJs and musicians who have faced opportunity loss over the past year, and look forward to creating a space to celebrate music as a common thread that unites individuals and cultures everywhere.”

As for the future of travel, much preparation is now required for Americans to even consider traveling. In the past, families planning last-minute vacations were able to easily leave town for their tropical getaway. The CDC currently advises against international travel until full vaccination, but allows domestic travel with the following safety considerations:

Before traveling, assess your health as well as the health of other members of your household. Those with underlying health conditions should take extra precautions to avoid getting sick. To minimize the risk of contracting a serious illness, consider inoculation and wait at least two weeks after the second vaccine dose to build up immunity. 

As of April 1st, 2021, travelers into New York are no longer required to present a negative test or quarantine to enter the state. However, each state has different guidelines that may require a negative PCR test or a mandatory self-quarantine, especially if you are traveling from an area with a high risk. Those who travel outside the country may have to fill out forms and follow guidelines or risk a hefty fine and even imprisonment. 

While PPE can be purchased at any local convenience store around the world, packing and carrying around extra masks and hand sanitizer may come in handy. 

The TSA has revamped its cleaning and screening processes to reduce contact and transmission as well as to secure the safety of both workers and travelers. Masks must be worn during the screening process, and each traveler is allowed one container of hand sanitizer (up to 12 ounces) aboard the plane. Now, travelers are requested to place personal items such as phones, keys, and wallets in carry-on bags rather than in bins. Following these guidelines will help to expedite the screening process and reduce contact with others.

Many bus and train companies such as Greyhound and Amtrak still require travelers to wear masks and practice social distancing during the trip and will enforce their safety protocols aboard the vehicle. When using a ridesharing service, avoid sitting near the driver and open the windows when you can, in order to increase airflow in the vehicle. 

Major hotel companies and Airbnb often list COVID-19 policies and their cleaning protocols on their websites. You should also consider sanitizing and disinfecting high-contact surfaces such as door handles, light switches, and remotes. 

Cities around the world are ready to welcome back tourists safely, but for those not ready to travel, there are also hundreds of ways to enjoy and explore New York without an expensive place ticket.

Click HERE for a useful resource regarding how to beat jetlag during your travels. 

Click HERE for several data points on 2021 travel, as well as a road trip checklist and multiple resources to support those planning an upcoming road trip.

“As the city’s epicenter of hustle and bustle, we’re shining a light on the DJ’s and musicians who have faced opportunity loss over the past year, and look forward to creating a space to celebrate music as a common thread that unites individuals and cultures everywhere,” said Times Square Arts Director Jean Cooney.