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The growing divide between urban areas and regional towns

By Mike Ford, Founder and Managing Director at SiteMinder


It’s been five months since COVID-19 became a reality for most of us. In that time, we’ve seen hotel bookings drop to below 9% YoY globally, and then show an encouraging and sustained recovery to surpass 54% YoY in July. At a global level, booking levels have plateaued since, but not in every part of the world. While a lot remains unknown, what is clear is that the new behaviours and preferences of today’s traveller are likely to linger for a while yet, if not become permanent changes for some.

As early as May, we reported on signs that today’s traveller would be seeking an immediate escape from the confines of a building and holidaying, instead, outdoors. Those early signs, detected in the UK, have since come to fruition across the globe as we see more and more travellers opting for a nearby coastal or regional town destination rather than a densely-populated major city.

We see that in:

  • Australia, where YoY booking volumes sit at 22.8% and 4.2% in the country’s most populous cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Yet, they sit at 69.6% in Townsville, a coastal town up north.
  • Thailand, where the booking momentum in the capital city of Bangkok is at 28.1% YoY while it is at 51.8% in the resort island of Ko Samui.
  • The UK, where London’s hotel bookings are at 40.4% of last year’s volumes, while they are at 75.7% in Bristol, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital.
  • Spain, where YoY booking volumes in the major cities of Madrid and Barcelona are hovering around 26%, while they have surpassed 62.8% in the coastal region of Málaga.
  • The U.S., where New York City has not been able to rise above 14% of 2019 volumes, while Tampa in beach-filled Florida has again exceeded 2019 volumes.
  • Mexico, where the booking momentum in the capital of Mexico City remains below 38%, versus 72% in the coastal resort town of Playa Del Carmen.

We also reported on the rapid rise of last-minute bookings as early as June and, indeed, globally, guest arrivals in August and September now comprise literally half of all non-cancelled hotel bookings made to date. In countries such as Canada, August and September stays comprise almost 90% of all non-cancelled reservations.

Additionally, we continue to see countries progress through the new stages of hotel booking recovery:

  • In Asia, Indonesia has maintained steady growth, led by domestic bookings which have comprised over three quarters of all bookings since April.
  • In Europe, Portugal has enjoyed an acceleration in both domestic and international travel.

These trends mean a few things:

  1. Every traveller today is a transient traveller. Booking lead times have shrunk and, now more than ever, extended stays are harder to secure. Every player within the hospitality and travel industry needs to re-strategise accordingly.
  2. While a number of hotels have done well to reimagine their spaces for corporate guests, the reality is corporate travel will remain under pressure for as long as domestic tourism is the only option, or the safest option. Travel operators need to be thinking about how leisure travel can fill the gap.
  3. Sensible travel bubbles are critical for island destinations. We can see the value of travel bubbles in Costa Rica, where the booking momentum is up over 100% MoM after international travel resumed on 1 August. The country is now open to travellers from Canada, select EU nations and the UK. By contrast, we can see that the Cook Islands and Fiji in the Pacific continue to struggle and could face a humanitarian crisis if international travel is not opened up soon from neighbouring countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Only South Africa surpassed Costa Rica as this month’s fastest riser. The country’s booking momentum is up almost 300% MoM, after the government lifted nearly all travel restrictions. It’s a bold move from a country that’s reported the fifth highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, but it stands as testimony to the challenges involved with balancing a health crisis and keeping your economy afloat.

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