Jana Buhl has not sold many holidays in recent weeks. Normally, her customers would have booked their annual vacation with the Berlin travel agent long ago. But now they’re just seeking advice. Many do not want to make binding bookings for a trip yet.

“Customers are understandably still very reluctant at the moment and are trying to book as late as possible,” Buhl told DW. Like the entire tourism industry, she is pinning great hopes on COVID-19 vaccines.

Person with a straw hat lying on a white sanded beach looking out at the sea in Varadero, Cuba

Long-distance travel: Most Germans are still hesitant with their bookings

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Travel industry fighting to regain customer trust

Germans’ desire to travel is great, according to recent surveys, but there is a lot of concern as well. In December, sales of prebooked package tours for summer 2021 were 68% below the previous year’s level. And even for the period around Easter, demand is still subdued, according to travel associations. Things only appear to look up starting in late May. For the summer, booking figures are even slightly better than after the outbreak of the pandemic last spring, Jürgen Schmude, professor of tourism economics at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, told DW.

Customer confidence is an existential issue for the travel industry. In the spring and summer of 2020, images of repatriations and stranded tourists went around the world. That scared off many would-be travelers. It has now become common to promise customers that they can cancel package tours free of charge if travel warnings are issued for the vacation destination. This gives travelers a greater sense of security, Schmude said. Tour operators have also been enticing people for weeks with generous conditions and favorable offers. But for many, uncertainty remains: Will international travel be an option this summer? And if so, under what conditions? 

An overcrowded beach on Germany's Baltic Sea coast

This could happen again: overcrowded beaches on the Baltic Sea coast in summer 2020

Long-distance travel remains the exception

Admittedly, making any predictions at the moment feels rather like looking into a crystal ball. New virus mutations, difficulties in procuring vaccines, debates about a European vaccination passport, and existing travel warnings make accurate forecasts impossible. Currently, the German government is even arguing for stricter restrictions on travel.

But one thing is certain: Most people will not be able to travel as they did before  the pandemic. Long-distance travel — with a few exceptions — will remain the exception for the time being. And even though summer bookings have already been made for top European destinations, including Spain and Greece, many vacationers might even decide against traveling within Europe this year. And this, despite the fact that two-thirds of Germans prefer to spend their annual vacation abroad.

This year, how attractive a vacation destination is will depend not only on possible quarantine requirements but also on how high the number of coronavirus infections are, as well as the local vaccination rate. “The safety aspect, which previously played a minor role, has become enormously important for vacationers,” says Schmude. He believes that as in 2020, a large proportion of people will travel domestically. This is also confirmed by a survey conducted by the market research institute YouGovlast December. Of the survey respondents, 40% said they planned to travel within their own country in 2021. 

A treetop holiday home

Vacation homes in Germany are already 60% booked

Crowded coasts and Alpine resorts

This represents a ray of hope for the German tourism industry, which has been badly hit by the pandemic. Industry sales slumped by 61% in the first nine months of 2020, according to the Federal Statistical Office. Ingrid Hartges, CEO of the German Hotel and Restaurant Association (Dehoga), is confident, saying in an interview with DW: “Even after the lockdown last spring, people had an unbelievably great desire to go to cafes and restaurants and take a vacation. I am convinced that when we are allowed to reopen, we will again have a great demand from our guests.”

Like last summer, southern Germany and the coastal regions stand to benefit the most. According to the German Holiday Home Association, popular destinations in the Alps and on the North and Baltic Sea are already around 60% booked for the peak travel period in July and August. There, the rush in the COVID-19 summer of 2020 was so great that the destinations were completely swamped. Fully booked hotels, overcrowded beaches, crowds in the mountains, irritated residents: German destinations were facing overtourism. The industry has to find solutions for this summer, says Schmude. But travelers could also help by avoiding the hotspots this summer and looking for offers in other regions.

Reporter Olivera Zivkovic rock climbing in the Saxon Switzerland region of eastern Germany

Discover Germany: The trend of outdoor vacations and camping continues in 2021

Sustainable travel increasingly attractive

Wherever the destination — sustainable travel, whether hiking, biking or camping vacations is now a popular trend. Sales of bicycles, motor homes and camper vans exploded last year. Travelers also increasingly relied on vacation homes and campsites for accommodation instead of big hotels. “Holiday homes and campervans were absolutely ahead of the game last summer, because you could travel and yet retreat to your own four walls at the same time,” says travel agent Buhl. She assumes that this trend will continue this summer.

Schmude has also noted a growing interest in sustainable travel as a result of the coronavirus pandemic: “Outdoor and ecotourism was already experiencing rising demand before the coronavirus, and the pandemic acted as a catalyst.” Demand for air travel and cruises, on the other hand, has plummeted and is not expected to return anytime soon.

Chances are good that this trend will consolidate not just this summer, but also beyond the pandemic. In surveys, one-third of respondents said they wanted to change their travel behavior compared to before the pandemic, says Schmude. “Many have discovered travel destinations in Germany that they hadn’t even considered before,” says Buhl. She hopes that people will gain a new appreciation for travel through COVID-19 — also in terms of sustainability. According to Schmude, there is no way to avoid it: “The discussion about overtourism, flight shaming and cruises has indeed been pushed to the sidelines by the coronavirus. But it hasn’t gone away; it will continue.”