Since 2007, the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the University of Florida has studied many disasters that have threatened the travel industry, from hurricanes to the Zika virus. Beginning in January, prompted by the coronavirus-related threat in China, it began a periodic survey of Americans who travel on their perceptions of risk and anxiety related to Covid-19, and the impact of those perceptions on future travel decisions. In the latest survey, taken by 517 respondents in the first week of April, about 74 percent reported feeling anxious about travel within the United States, up nearly 300 percent since the survey project began.
“We haven’t seen a global crisis that’s impacted every country globally and every facet of the tourism industry,” said Lori Pennington-Gray, the director of the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative.
In an interview, Ms. Pennington-Gray shared the results of her ongoing surveys. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In a late January survey, 15 percent of your respondents were postponing trips. But in February, only 9 percent were. Why?
Even when we started to see cases in the United States in February, we started to see a dip in concern and anxiety. I think some initial messaging — that it’s not such a big deal and that young people aren’t getting it — may have been linked to that. Over time, as there’s been increased attention to stay-at-home orders and not traveling and protecting yourself and protecting others, we’ve started to see an increase in levels of travel anxiety and concern.
Are there demographic differences in the results?
Some of it is consistent with what we’re seeing in the media, especially regarding younger people maybe not having the same level of travel anxiety. What we were seeing with the scenes on beaches, that’s what was expressed in the data. Older populations, those that are more concerned with the impact personally, are stating that they have higher levels of travel anxiety. It’s consistent with what the virus is doing and what people are hearing. I think that’s the important part. The messaging is really key to getting everybody in different demographic populations to respond in the same way so that we can level out the curve.
Respondents in the Northeast are the most concerned about travel now, which tracks with the outbreak. What else does regional data indicate?
Regardless of whatever crises I’ve worked with, people always ask the same kind of question: When do you know when the crisis is over? We’ll have some markers along the way that start to signal the crisis is over, but it’s really important that destinations realize their particular destination may be at a different stage of the crisis wave than other destinations. So, it’s important for them to monitor at a global level as well as at a more micro level. The data will help them determine what they need to be doing at what stage to be able to prepare to bring people back.
What are the implications for the travel industry ahead?
As far as the travel and tourism industry, one of the things that we’ve seen from crises in general is that the industry is very resilient, and that we rebound fairly quickly. We also are seeing that there will be some pent-up demand and that people will be ready to travel. There’s some indication that travel will be closer to home initially and that people will do more driving tourism But there’s going to be a segment of the population that is more willing to jump on a plane and go overseas.
In a March survey, those making over $125,000 were more interested in traveling than those with lower incomes. Did that surprise you?
No. For the most part, we know that travel experience is related to perceptions of risk, and that the more people travel, the more they are exposed to different levels of risk and that they feel more equipped to be able to deal with it. So, their self-efficacy goes up and therefore their perception of risk goes down and their willingness to travel goes up. Income is related to experience, so they’re more likely to have traveled more frequently and to a greater variety of places, whether for work or leisure.
Those under 25 report less anxiety than older people. Why?
The youth market tends to be more accepting of risk. They’re more adventure travelers. They participate in riskier activities, not just in travel but in their lifestyle in general. Overall, everybody’s perception of risk is increasing, but relative to other age groups, theirs is less.
What’s been the response to your research?
We’ve had a lot of engagement. People are generally interested in travel. I think staying at home probably piques people’s interest in travel as well. Travel is a part of our life and when we aren’t able to do it, we realize how much it plays a role in what we’re looking for in our plans and in our future free time. They’re looking to figure out when they can get back to doing what they want to do, whether that’s seeing the world or going to see their families.