As the Great Recession kept more travelers tethered and a thwarted Christmas Day terror attack ramped up security concerns, 2009 was an annus horribilus for the travel industry. What’s on the horizon for 2010? USA TODAY’s Laura Bly dusts off a crystal globe.
1. Terminal confusion
Thanks to last month’s bungled bombing attempt aboard a U.S. airliner, travelers will have to "expect the unexpected, and tolerate a certain degree of risk," says airline security expert Richard Bloom of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
In the near-term forecast: more airport delays and hassles as airlines, screeners and passengers cope with evolving, inconsistently applied rules, and more widespread use of whole-body imaging scanners that use X-rays or radio waves to detect objects under clothing with what critics call "virtual strip-search" accuracy.
2. Let’s make a deal
If you thought last year was a buyer’s market for travelers, just wait: Even as airlines, hotels and other suppliers talk "cautious optimism" for 2010, a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll showed only 16% of respondents plan to fly more or stay more often in hotels this year than they did in 2009 — with about 30% saying they’ll travel less often.
The probable upshot: stable or lower prices, increased willingness to negotiate, and more online auctions from companies trying to unload unused inventory.
3. Rise of the real-time Web
"In the still rapidly expanding online world, instant gratification is even easier to obtain: ‘Digital’ has become synonymous with ‘instant,’ " says Reinier Evers of the trend tracking site Trendwatching.com. With nearly half of U.S. adults using social networking sites, expect more time-sensitive "flash sales" offered via Facebook or Twitter, more real-time postings of travel experiences, and faster response from companies and institutions fearful that negative opinions will go viral. (Are you listening, TSA?) One wild card: Google Wave, a much-hyped but still little-used online tool for real-time communication and collaboration that could set a new direction for trip planning.
4. Appetite for apps
Thanks to a global rollout of high-speed data networks and robust sales of GPS-enabled smartphones, look for an explosion of travel-related apps for everything from airport security (On the Spot System’s new iPhone app lets users rate TSA screening checkpoints) to ordering hotel room service before you check in (just-released apps for Hilton, Embassy Suites and Doubletree)."Traditional travel services will meet geo-location and social networking to make travelers’ lives easier," predicts Alan Warms of review site Appolicious.com.
5. Wi-Fi breaks free
McDonald’s offer of gratis wireless in more than 11,000 of its U.S. restaurants starting this month is the latest example of making Internet access "part of the plumbing of our lives," says tech columnist Larry Magid. Expect more upscale hotels to join their economy and midpriced brethren in letting guests surf for free. Amtrak, meanwhile, will launch free Wi-Fi this spring on Acela Express trains.
6. A la carte airlines
Odds are good you won’t have to pay to use an in-flight toilet in 2010, despite Irish discounter Ryanair’s repeated threats. And "we’re probably already at the limit" for checked-bag fees, says airline analyst Darryl Jenkins. But, adds Jenkins, look for more charges for "perks" like aisle and window seats, and greater traction for the "plane as retail store" model of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which sells everything from travel pillows to show tickets on board.
7. Betting on Vegas
With gaming revenue and visitor arrivals down, recession-ravaged Sin City is counting on last month’s debut of the glitzy CityCenter to generate new buzz — and enough bodies to fill the complex’s nearly 6,000 hotel rooms. But bargain-hungry visitors will still be hitting the jackpot in what Getaroom.com’s Bob Diener declares the USA’s "No. 1 value." This winter, says Diener, weekday rooms are as low as $15 a night at a just-opened Hooters and $99 at the high-end Trump International Hotel & Tower. Other sure bets: Orlando (where Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens this spring) and cruises in the Caribbean, where Cruise Week’s Mike Driscoll says passengers can set sail this winter from a "record low" of $349 a week.
8. High scores for Vancouver and South Africa
Both locations will be front and center in travelers’ consciousness this year, thanks to the Winter Olympic Games (held in metropolitan Vancouver and nearby Whistler from Feb. 12 to 28) and the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament (held in nine South African cities, June 11-July 11).
And while Bob Whitley of the U.S. Tour Operators Association notes that Americans have historically shied away from such high-profile events over worries about overcrowding and jacked-up pricing, "the aftermath brings a huge benefit," thanks to infrastructure improvements and a barrage of free publicity.
9. Healthy outlook for medical tourism
As Washington lawmakers continue to grapple with health-care reform, more Americans — an estimated 1.6 million by 2012, according to Deloitte Center for Health Solutions — will combine foreign vacations with carpal tunnel surgery, dental crowns and other short-stay, outpatient procedures that cost 30%-70% less than U.S. prices. Driving the trend: more coverage of overseas medical care by major U.S. insurers, an increase in individual insurance policies that typically carry a high deductible, and a marketing push by companies that combine travel and medical services.
10 On a wing and a prayer
With more than 300 million people traveling each year for religious and pilgrimage reasons and with annual revenues that exceed $18 billion, faith tourism has become a significant global industry that extends from cruises to volunteer vacations. Fueling extra interest in 2010: the 375th anniversary of Germany’s once-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play, a rare exposition of the Shroud of Turin in Italy, and Spain’s Camino de Santiago. The ancient route to Galicia, whose cathedral reportedly shelters the remains of James the Apostle, typically draws more visitors when the saint’s Feast Day, July 25, falls on a Sunday, as it will this year.