If it has been decided that travel can proceed, the experience will probably differ from previous trips. If travelling by air, the process is likely to be more laborious. Passengers may be asked to arrive at the airport early, be subjected to temperature checks and discouraged from taking hand luggage. Most airlines have now made face coverings mandatory and restricted the service of food and drink during flights. In some cases, you may now even need to ask for permission to use the toilet!
Upon arrival, you should expect longer than normal wait times at immigration checkpoints as officials carry out temperature checks and collect health questionnaires. A swift escape from the airport with only hand luggage may no longer be possible, so be sure to factor in time to wait for your luggage. Travellers should also expect socially distanced queueing for on-the-ground transport, as many places are likely to have a high demand for taxis as people continue to avoid public transport.
The experience once in your location will be very much dependent on the restrictions in place there. In many countries, restrictions on bars and restaurants may limit the possibility of enjoying the more social aspects of a business trip. Amenities previously taken for granted, such as hotel gyms, may now be unavailable. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the social distancing guidelines within the location, along with rules on face coverings, and be aware that these can be updated at short notice.
According to ECA’s recent Global Mobility & Covid-19 Survey, the pandemic has made companies less optimistic than they were before, with more companies forecasting decreases than increases in both long-term assignments and short-term business trips. In addition, 62% of companies expect to have fewer international business trips going forward compared to their pre-pandemic plans. However, the most common expectation was that numbers would return to pre-pandemic levels within six to 12 months. Only a small minority of respondents did not expect business travel or overseas assignments to ever return to pre-pandemic levels.
So what is the travel outlook for the rest of 2020? Over the coming months we can expect countries to increasingly adopt a risk-based approach to immigration restrictions, taking into account the extent and trajectory of infection in a country, as well as the reliability of the data. Transparency and international cooperation will be essential in facilitating reciprocal ‘air bridge’ agreements which permit travel without quarantine. Countries that are heavily dependent on international tourism and business travel are likely to adopt a more lenient border policy as economic concerns become more pronounced. However, countries such as New Zealand, which until this week appeared to have eliminated the virus, are unlikely to risk their hard-won ‘Covid-free’ status and are expected to maintain strict border controls for the foreseeable future.
As countries look to alternatives to quarantining arrivals, an increasing number of locations are now testing passengers to try and catch imported cases. Countries such as Iceland allow passengers to take a test on arrival. Results are often available the same day and as long as the test is negative you are not required to quarantine. As infection rates in some parts of Europe have increased again, Germany has recently announced mandatory testing for all arrivals from locations determined as high risk. As testing capacity improves, along with speed and accuracy of testing, countries are likely to progressively use these tools to mitigate the risk of imported cases, while avoiding an economically damaging blanket quarantine. This strategy is not without risk though, as tests can produce false negatives and the long incubation period could mean that passengers could test negative, but become infectious at a later stage.
In conclusion, international business travel over the coming months will likely be limited to essential trips, predominantly involving short-haul journeys to and from lower-risk destinations. The extent to which travel will expand in scope as the year progresses will be determined by the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent resurgence of Covid-19 cases across Europe, together with broader concerns over a sustained increase in infections as northern hemisphere countries start to encounter colder weather, will mean the majority of companies will most likely adopt a cautious wait-and-see approach.