Following a year of unprecedented demand—and passion—for travel, Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley assesses the opportunities and challenges ahead.
The last few years have truly been a roller coaster ride for travelers, for those like me in the business certainly, but also for those for whom travel is one of life’s greatest joys.
It’s been said that “Travel is food for the soul.” I believe it also makes us better, more expansive people and I think so many have a craving to get back out in the world and to spend time with others because the inverse is also true—staying in one spot shrinks the soul. This seemed to be one of the many shared experiences of lockdown.
I started Indagare with a conviction that, when done thoughtfully, travel positively impacts us and the places we visit. The passion I’ve seen from people ready to go back out and explore—and the tenacity I’ve seen from the travel industry in 2022—has reinvigorated my desire to connect travelers with the best of the industry.
My Personal Return to Travel
I personally went from traveling 121 days in 2019 to sleeping in the same bed for six months straight, a first in more than 25 years. But this past year could only be described as a full-throttle return to travel—I was on the road for more than 200 days in 2022.
For context, 2019 had been a record-breaking year for global travel by all measures, judging by the number of airline routes, hotel revenue records and number of international travelers—more than 1.8 billion. At Indagare, every one of the last six months surpassed our levels of trips in 2019, and 2023 looks even stronger. We have never had so many long-term reservations booked. Many people who had gotten used to grabbing last-minute rooms learned last summer that they need to plan ahead.
A year ago, in the midst of the Omicron surge, I wasn’t so sure that travel would have the great rebound many had predicted. But very few people actually canceled their holiday plans during the chaos of Omicron despite the need for Covid tests to cross many borders and to return to the U.S.
Similarly, when Russia invaded Ukraine, we were worried about an onslaught of cancellations that never came. And despite the ongoing war in Ukraine and growing political tensions, by June of 2022 we were seeing the Roaring Return of Travel as most European cities and resort areas experienced the busiest summer—and highest average hotel rates—in history.
Global Demand Is Back… Availability and Affordability Are Not
The biggest problem for us as a travel company and community and for the vast majority of our hospitality partners was the availability of airplane tickets, hotels, tour guides, hotel and restaurant staff and even our own staff to field the flood of incoming requests for trips.
Because while the demand roared back, the infrastructure that delivers the travel experience had been devastated, with long-term consequences. More than 40 airlines went bankrupt due to Covid, including Virgin Atlantic, Alitalia and Colombia’s Avianca, the world’s second-oldest airline. Those that survived have slashed many routes, lost staff and retired planes, making it unlikely for airline capacity to reach 2019 levels before 2024.
Hotels have faced similar struggles, resulting in higher prices for rooms and frustrations with availability and customer service. Flight cancellations and delays have surpassed pre-pandemic levels. According to USA Today, one out of every six bags was mishandled this summer. Hotels have also faced major challenges with labor shortages, supply-chain issues and delayed renovations, all of which are leaving them struggling to provide the highest levels of service.
Meanwhile, surging demand and inflation has led to substantial cost increases. According to research conducted by The Family Vacation Guide, the average room price skyrocketed more than 200 percent compared to 2019. At Indagare, where we book a lot of four and five star hotels internationally, we have found an average trip spend increase from around $20,000 in 2019 to nearly $30,000 in 2022.
Where We’re Going
Even at higher prices, though, travel is an expenditure that people are prioritizing. The pandemic reminded us that we should never take anything for granted and that time and the freedom to explore are precious, which is why we’re seeing more people now deciding to take their once-in-a-lifetime trips or return to the places they love.
At Indagare, we’ve also seen more people game to travel to the ends of the earth, so to speak. I just returned from taking 17 of our members to Antarctica for the first time and I have to say that it is certainly the ultimate experience for true nature lovers. I have always believed that the power of visiting places of amazing natural beauty lies in part because the works of Mother Nature reveal a kind of magical artistry, and faced with what we cannot easily comprehend, a beautiful mystery, we find ourselves bathed in reverence and wonder, inspiration and peace, nostalgia and optimism, love and loss—all are kindled somewhere within us as we stand before beauty that is beyond the creative abilities of man.
In Antarctica, I stand in awe and recognize just how small and powerless I am, buoyed and blessed. What a visit to Antarctica does is magnify any experience that you have had in the presence of the Grand Canyon, the ancient redwood forests or the cliffs of Big Sur and blow it up exponentially. Because when you arrive to the seventh continent, the magnitude of the awe you feel in the presence of what Mother Nature can render is magnified a millionfold.
Why? Everything as far as you can see is made by Mother Nature—be it the brightest blue imaginable, clear of any pollution or dust or angry grey with threatening clouds—to the snow pack beneath your feet or the floating icebergs that seem to glow turquoise from within. Her powers are writ large and are completely free of man’s touch. The Antarctic world is not just exceptionally beautiful but it is also dangerous. And you are aware that this landscape is unforgiving.
This is not a trip for the faint of heart, but on my trip I realized that when people compare a visit to Antarctica to visiting space, what they mean by that is the only way that I might be made more humble in the face of the power and majesty of Mother Nature would possibly be by visiting another planet and looking back at earth. Only then would you see even more clearly how tiny we really are.
But just as we are seeing unprecedented demand for true expeditions, people are also craving to return to what they know and love—and sometimes discovering more. They are traveling all over Europe, to France and Italy, which have seen record numbers of Americans, but also to Slovenia, Malta and Ibiza.
On my trips this spring to Malta and Slovenia, it was incredible to discover ancient European cities, like Ljublana and Valetta, the oldest planned city in Europe, with so few tourists and such layers of fascinating history. One Slovenia host explained that her grandmother has lived in five countries without ever moving just because of border changes in the last century! Both regions have incredible historical treasures as well as great natural beauty and yet they felt like undiscovered secrets. It turns out that many filmmakers have used Malta as a backdrop for epics such as The Godfather, Gladiator and Game of Thrones. So I guess it’s not an unseen destination, but it still felt undiscovered.
And despite the challenges wrought by Covid, we continue to see great improvement and innovation in the travel industry, from increasing airport efficiency with biometric to new luxury lounge options and new ways of holding airlines accountable for delays and cancellations.
During the pandemic, I wrote a lot about the dangers of undertourism and what a vital role travelers play in protecting environments and supporting local communities. The return to travel immediately lifted up communities that relied solely on tourism, allowing people to work again in countries like Kenya and Rwanda and shone a light on issues like poaching that saw huge spikes during the pandemic.
A Rejuvenated Sense of Collective Purpose
Across the board, we’ve seen a powerful commitment to cultural and environmental sustainability coming from consumers, and the industry is responding accordingly.
At this year’s G20 summit, the United Nations World Tourism Agency stressed the importance of using tourism to achieve the UN’s Sustainable development goals. To help accomplish this, national and regional governments are trying to involve local communities in tourism development efforts, including adding tourism taxes to combat overtourism and providing free public transportation. And aviation companies have committed to developing and investing in more sustainable fuel.
Indagare is also committed. Our tagline is How You Travel Matters, and we have long focused on responsible travel and supporting cultural, community and environmental sustainability, but this year, in addition to committing one percent of our total revenue to conservation efforts, we have offset 45 percent of the carbon footprint of our members’ travel and are on track to being 100 percent carbon neutral in 2024.
This incredible bounce back of travel—coupled with the strengthening of travel infrastructure and the commitment to sustainability—reinforces that the human desire to explore will never go away and that it can and will be a growing positive influence in communities around the world.
Related: Melissa Biggs Bradley on The Future of Travel: A Considered vs. Consumptive Approach
Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for assistance planning a trip in 2023. Our specialists can match you with the destinations and hotels that are right for you, plan great meals and activities, introduce you to our favorite guides and arrange for special access.