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Early signs of life in travel industry as COVID-19 vaccines revive Americans' wanderlust

Could life return to normal by summer?
Could life return to normal by summer? 07:42

The beaten down travel industry is showing signs of life as coronavirus vaccines allow homebound Americans to start thinking of hopping a flight.

Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare, a membership-based travel company that operates its own tours around the world and that had seen 14 straight years of growth before the pandemic, said new bookings fell to zero as COVID-19 took hold. By June 2020, sales had plunged nearly 100% compared to the year-earlier period. 

In recent weeks, however, business has started to pick up. "I had three phone calls today with people who said, 'I haven't travelled in a year, I got both of my vaccinations, where am I going?'" Bradley told CBS MoneyWatch.

As of January, traffic to Indagare's website was down less than 2% compared to its pre-COVID level. New bookings have jumped over the past three weeks as the U.S. vaccine rollout accelerates, with sales in mid-February at their highest point since before domestic and international travel effectively shut down last year. 

Data from consumer spending research firm Facteus show that travel spending has edged up for the last three weeks. For the week of February 21, travel spending was down 42% compared to the year-earlier period. But that's still up four percentage points from the prior week. Travel bookings were also up six percentage points last week, according to Facteus.

2020 was the worst year in tourism history, U... 05:18

Maine resident and avid athlete Paula Laverty, 73, is looking forward to a solo ski trip in Park City, Utah, early next month. She arranged the excursion in late January after getting her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (as recommended for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines). 

Laverty still plans to take precautions, and doesn't expect people who have not yet been vaccinated to want to ski with her. It's one of the first strips she'll have taken in roughly a year, when she visited New York City.

"I am still not comfortable going inside restaurants, and I will be double-masking and probably skiing by myself," she said. 

Dreaming of warm weather

So where are Americans most eager to travel after being cooped up for year? Beach vacations rank high in online searches, according to fare aggregators and booking sites. For example, as of late February, searches for flights to Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island were up 31% compared to the same period a year ago, according to Kayak.

Popular overseas destinations now include Egypt, Kenya, Costa Rica and Belize — locales that are open to visitors and relatively easy to reach from the U.S., Indagare's Bradley said.

Boutique hotel booking site Tablet Hotels has also noticed a recent uptick in website visits, many of which have led to bookings. "January was really quiet, and we have seen steady growth since the last week of January. Over the past couple weeks site traffic is way up," CEO Lucy Lieberman said.

Mexico sees increase in American tourists 02:51

Among Tablet Hotels' hottest destinations: Austin, Texas; Miami; Paris; and Tulum, Mexico. 

"It's totally related to vaccine. In late November, when the initial vaccine announcements started to come out, we saw an immediate spike in bookings," Lieberman said. "People had raging cabin fever and were booking for really far out — around Thanksgiving, people were booking for Thanksgiving 2021."

Hotels that promote their safety protocols and cleanliness stand out with consumers. Travelers are also more interested in hotels — which tend to have professional staffs, housekeeping and safety standards — than home rentals. 

"We get the sense people are done doing their own laundry and cooking and cleaning," Lieberman said.

Travel is top of mind, too, as spring break, Easter and Passover, and summer holidays come into view. Users of the travel site are even booking for college graduations in May and June, Lieberman said. 

The efforts to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations 12:49

Too soon to call it a comeback

Of course, no one expects 2021 to be a banner year for travel, especially as different strains of COVID-19 threaten to trigger another wave of infections. 

"We are expecting for 2021 to be lower volume than 2019 for sure," Lieberman said.

Bradley of Indagare, expects that by June sales will be about 35% of what they were for the same month in 2019.

Home-sharing company Airbnb, with more than 4 million hosts across the country, on Thursday reported its 2020 revenue was $3.4 billion, down 30% from the same period in 2019.

Still, CEO Brian Chesky told Wall Street analysts he is optimistic that travel will recover from the pandemic, particularly as more companies ditch their offices, giving employees the opportunity to work from different locales. 

"Travel is coming back," Chesky said during the company's earnings call. "And we are laser-focused on preparing for the travel rebound."

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