The death of the city vacation

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Around the world, cities are taking a pounding from Covid-19 as travelers are avoiding visiting large conurbations during the global pandemic. In turn, tourism numbers in metropolises have plummeted. In Madrid, tourist arrivals dropped by 63.8% during the first half of 2020.

© Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
With Broadway closed through May 2021 and NYC’s Times Square looking very different these days, many travelers are passing on the urban vacation.

The components that usually make for a great city escape are now the very reasons travelers are staying away. Crowded museums, restaurants and public transportation aren’t appealing in the time of Covid-19 when we’re encouraged to socially distance ourselves to lower the risk of contagion.

Avoiding the big city

“Many cities have been hit hard by the pandemic, so it’s not a good look to go gallivanting around while people are dying,” says New York-based travel writer and editor Teddy Minford.

Minford canceled a trip to Mexico City in March but is eager to visit as soon as it’s safe to do so. “I’m hoping to travel there as soon as I’m welcome in order to support one of my favorite travel destinations with tourism dollars,” she says.

© Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB/LightRocket/Getty Images
Due to the pandemic, travelers like Patricia Estrada are opting to visit Italian towns like Calabria (pictured) instead of large European cities.

Mexico has been hard hit by the virus with 761,665 reported cases and 79,088 deaths. The population of Mexico City is estimated at nearly 22 million people making it difficult to avoid crowded places. Trips to Mexico’s capital usually include visits to world-famous museums, street-side taquerias, and day trips out to ancient Indigenious sites such as the Teotihuacán pyramids.

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Staying in a big-city hotel is out; RV travel is in.

Mexico is open for American tourists but as Minford doesn’t yet feel it’s responsible to visit Mexico City she’s been visiting family in rural areas of the US. “A remote visit feels safer. The chances of accidentally getting somebody sick feels lower simply because you’re barely seeing anybody.”

What’s even open?

The decline in city vacations is a result of people heeding advice regarding avoiding crowds, indoor activities and high-risk attractions. Travelers are also deterred by the fear of getting stuck in a city that’s liable to go back into quarantine.

There’s also uncertainty about which attractions are open for visitors as many major cities are under partial lockdown. “We haven’t booked a single city-focused vacation. Fear of the virus has a lot to do with it, but, it’s about missing out on the actual experiences,” says Sarah Groen, owner of Bell & Bly Travel. For her clients, trips to Chicago, London, Beijing and New York are off the table.

Coronavirus has halted the urban retreat. Hotel occupancy declined 77.6% in municipal markets. Rural counterparts are performing better. For example, the Hilton Garden Inn Auburn in Auburn, NY (pop. 26,000) told CNN Travel that the hotel’s occupancy rates are leading the top 2% of occupancy across the entire Hilton brand in the United States. Similarly, the mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, has seen a steady stream of tourists since June — total visitation only dropped by 7% from 2019.

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Even relatively smaller cities like Helsinki have seen a decrease in visitors, many of whom are opting to spend time in more remote parts of the country.

(It remains to be seen what travel to Aspen will look like come ski season.)

Road trips and RV living

RV rentals are also booming during the pandemic. RVshare fall bookings increased by 123%. Kesi Irvin, a long-term traveler, was scheduled to fly to Detroit but the morning of the flight she canceled. Instead, she went on a road trip through South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana in an RV with friends — a trip the self-declared “city girl” never would have made if it weren’t for the pandemic.

“A road trip through the middle of America provided much-needed tranquility,” Irvin says. “I have to thank the pandemic for showing me the beauty of the US and the healing nature of traveling to rural areas.”

Major tourism conglomerates have evidence indicating the pandemic has encouraged travelers to gravitate away from city breaks. Amtrak Vacations told CNN Travel that train trips to city destinations are down by 8% compared to the same time last year. The American railroad service has seen a decline in trips to New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C.

Visitor spending in the US capital city was down 81 percent ($6.5 billion) with hotel revenue down by 89% ($1.2 billion) from March to September compared to the same period last year, according to the city’s tourism board.

Scott’s Cheap Flights surveyed members in July and shared with CNN Travel that only around 18% of those polled said they’d go to a large city. Gabby Beckford, a travel blogger, predicts that she’ll be comfortable visiting a large city outside of the States by early 2021.

Beckford had plans to travel to cities across the globe this year but instead has been visiting smaller locales in her home state of Virginia. She says the rural areas were thrilled to have travelers supporting the local tourism economy as big cities usually receive all the tourism traffic. Beckford longs to visit friends in Los Angeles but she’s chosen to avoid major cities.

Many international travelers are following suit. In 2019, some of the most popular points of interest on GetYourGuide were the Colosseum in Rome, Italy; viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper masterpiece in Milan, Italy; and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City. Those popular sites in Italy are distant memories — travelers are now using the platform to book nature and outdoor activities instead.

Italy had one of the strictest lockdowns. The capital city of Rome experienced a major drop in tourism and many hotels have yet to reopen. According to Giuseppe Roscioli, the president of the Rome hotel association Federalberghi, the hotel sector in the city is losing €100 million a month. Roman hotels slashed their fees in half in hopes of restarting tourism in the city.

Countryside calls

However, travelers in Italy are still opting to visit destinations in the country with smaller populations. “Italians are seeking more remote options like mountains, nature preserves, as well as bodies of water like oceans and lakes. For Italians, London and Paris were replaced with the Etna Mountains and the Maddalena Archipelago,” says Carlee Stellfox Loya, a manager at GetYourGuide.

Florence-based Patricia Estrada typically goes on weekend trips to European cities. Due to the pandemic, she’s been visiting Italian towns instead like Calabria, La Spezia and Corniglia. “I feel that by traveling to a bustling city, I’m contributing to the spread of this virus,” she says.

Other Europe-based travelers have decided against visiting cities in spite of how easy it is to travel between major cities across the continent as city travel is simply just not appealing during the pandemic. Yishyene C., a travel blogger in Portugal, had plans to travel to London but ever-changing rules and restrictions kept her in Portugal. She’s been going on road trips in the country and stopping in lesser-visited towns, purposely skipping Lisbon to lower the risk of being infected or transmitting the virus.

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Places like the Blue Ridge Mountains in Appalachia have grown more popular amid the pandemic.

“It seemed a good decision to keep away from cities,” she says. “The idea of ‘escaping’ to a city has lost its appeal. Especially with the new rules requiring reduced capacity or opening hours for many establishments, it doesn’t seem worth the time, effort, or money.”

© JACK TAYLOR/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
TOPSHOT – People wear facemasks amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus while walking along Khao San Road, a popular area for tourists in Bangkok on March 6, 2020. (Photo by Jack Taylor / AFP) (Photo by JACK TAYLOR/AFP via Getty Images)

Even smaller cities have taken a hit. In Finland, despite relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases, overnight stays in the capital city of Helsinki decreased by 75& from March through June. Half of the overnight stays in the city were from business travel. Heli Mende, Head of Visit Finland North America, shared that tourism usually generates 1.6 billion euros annually in Helsinki.

It’s no surprise that all of the trips travel planner Groen booked to European capitals for 2020 were canceled. One of her clients wanted to go to Paris but decided to wait and go in the future when they won’t have to worry about whether the restaurants and sites they want to visit will be open.

© Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images
Although US citizens can visit Mexico, many are opting for more remote locales like these ruins in Chiapas as opposed to a visit to Mexico City.

Flexible city itineraries are nearly impossible as many bucket-list sites and restaurants are requiring advance reservations. For instance, the Louvre is open but it’s recommended to reserve a time slot in advance to guarantee entry. “People just aren’t interested in spending their vacations stressing out about what they’re missing out on,” comments Groen.

It’s easier to mitigate risk by avoiding epicenters of the deadly virus — dense urban areas. City breaks are likely to remain off the table for most travelers until a Covid-19 vaccine becomes widely available.

Urban travel will return, but until then travelers are expected to continue to funnel their spending into remote tourism as the pandemic advances.

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