Clarissa Fisher, 23, is nowhere near ready to hop on a plane. She used to fly regularly to visit her boyfriend in the U.K.
"This past week I have seen so many people return to their normal activities like nothing has happened," Fisher, ofFrankfort, Kentucky, tells USA TODAY. "This scares me and has made me reconsider my travel plans for the remainder of this year and possibly the next. I'm afraid to board a plane knowing that I might step off infected. Being trapped in a small space with a large amount of strangers for several hours is a pandemic nightmare scenario."
Like others in her generation, she's grown up with crisis after crisis: From 9/11 to devastating school shootings to COVID-19, this generation, born after 1996, is used to living in dangerous times. This is a generation primed to handle crisis after crisis, and one that will adapt to extra safety precautions.
Thirty-five percent of 18 to 34-year-olds don't plan on going on vacation this year, according to a June 2020 Morning Consult online poll commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association – though 27% have taken a non-business trip including an overnight stay since March.
Members of Generation Z are going to approach future travel differently by being much more cautious about stepping on a plane, washing their hands frequently and otherwise mitigating risks to adapt to an uncertain world, with concern for both their families and themselves at the forefront of their minds .
'A worried generation'
Ann Fishman, a marketing expert who specializes in generational targeting, defines Gen Z as those born between 2001 and 2019 – though models differ on this. Pew Research Center, for example, marks Gen Z beginning at 1996 with no end point just yet.
Fishman points out this is a generation that has never lived without terrorism, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. "For all of their lives, they have been a worried generation quite different from millennials," Fishman tells USA TODAY.
"There’s a certain amount of self-reliance that is within these younger generations, that they do have to take care of themselves because they feel like the adults have let them down," she says.
She thinks they will be more inclined to stay in hotels that offer good deals and with cleanliness standards that make their parents and grandparents feel comfortable. They will also look to go camping and "glamping," because those will be safer environments too.
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As of the week of June 8, Generation Z, millennials and travelers in the South were the most excited about travel in the next month and were open to travel inspiration, according to Destination Analysts, a travel and tourism market research firm.
But their enthusiasm may be tempered by COVID-19 surges in more than a dozen U.S. states, including California, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Georgia, pushing the country's total number of cases close to the 2.7-million mark as of Thursday morning, according to Johns Hopkins data.
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This is a group that will turn to their friends to check on their travel habits, according to Fishman. Ninety-five percent of 13 to 17-year-olds have smartphone access, per Pew, and 72% of teens use Instagram. Teens are known to also have fake Instagram accounts called "finstas" where they'll share posts with friends they don't want the general public to see. Fishman thinks this means they will look to their peers for travel advice during this pandemic.
“If they go to the trouble to have two Instagram accounts – my public face and my private face – and they only trust their friends to reveal their innermost thinking, then they’re looking for that in travel," Fishman says.
Of course, generations may not be so different now given that everyone is dealing with a global pandemic. Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica's Minister of Tourism, says that that all generations are morphing together right now into one: Generation COVID.
"I think that what we’re seeing emerging now is more of a merger of all the previous demographics," Bartlett tells USA TODAY, explaining that destinations will have to show they are COVID-resistant to meet the health security needs of today's travelers.
Fishman says, however, there are nuances to each generation's reactions to COVID-19 and the future of travel. Gen Z will take all precautions to keep themselves safe and their families assured that they're doing so.
Baby boomers, by contrast, "haven't seen their grandchildren in a long, long time" and "are torn between being afraid of getting coronavirus and tired of putting their lives on hold," Fishman says. "Look for them to take safe travel ... Cruise lines with great cleanliness records before coronavirus regulations or family trips to the great outdoors where social distancing isn’t hard."
Fishman contends millennials have a more laissez-faire attitude about the virus and therefore it won't have as much of an impact on their travel plans.
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While Fishman says Gen Z isn't typically afraid of flying (since they tend to do their safety research before traveling), several members of the generation tell USA TODAY they aren't inclined to do so at present.
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Fisher is most likely to try to stay with friends or family if she travels next; if she couldn't do so, she likely wouldn't go on the trip. The data bears this out: 48% of 18 to 34-year-olds said they were more likely to stay with family or friends for their next vacation, according to the June Morning Consult poll.
The pandemic has upended Fisher's dating life, too.
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"It has been three months since I have seen my boyfriend in the U.K., who I usually see every six weeks," she says. "I'm also apprehensive to fly to Scotland this August to start my graduate studies. If I do, I will have my N95 mask and hand sanitizer at the ready."
Fishman says this will be the new normal for this generation: to wash hands at all times, wear a mask at certain times and social distance.
"I don't ever think that I'll look at traveling the same for a long time, if ever," Alexis Fox, 21, of San Francisco, says. "As time goes on, I think I might relax a little, but I think sanitizing frequently and wearing masks on planes might be a permanent thing for me."
Gabby Beckford practically forgot there was a pandemic on her week-long road trip in late June. Relaxing in the pool at her Cape Coral, Florida, Airbnb was a welcome moment of respite.
"Being able to be in the direct sun, outdoors, listening to the sound of that water, I could completely forget that the pandemic was happening for the first time in months," the 24-year-old Gen Z travel blogger from Fairfax, Virginia, tells USA TODAY. "It was our own world."
That's not to say Beckford isn't taking the pandemic seriously. "I'm definitely in the part of Gen Z that is taking the pandemic seriously and not hanging out with friends or going out without wearing my mask," she says.
Beckford and her mother were careful to avoid major areas and create their quarantined vacation in Florida, favoring an escape to another home instead of gallivanting out and about. Perhaps that's a model for this generation going forward, she wonders.
"The pandemic has me rethinking travel and I won't be traveling like before for the foreseeable future," she says. "But I think with some sacrifices and care, it could be somewhat possible."
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