What will school travel look like post-pandemic?

Students taking a break from their trek in Tasmania | Holly Van De Beek
Students taking a break from their trek in Tasmania | Holly Van De Beek
No one could have predicted the total disruption that would occur in 2020. Borders opening and closing, social distancing, certain companies unable to keep trading through the pandemic, and the uncertainty and safety concerns that arose meant that all school group travel programs were off the table for consideration - for the immediate future at least.

If anything is certain right now, it is that those in charge of organising service learning or school adventures for their students will be asking themselves the same question; “what will school travel look like in the future?”.

Horizons will be broadened closer to home.

In the short term, there will be a strong demand for experiences much closer to home. This is largely due to the current international border closures, however, even if borders opened tomorrow the preference of many principals or school executives will likely be to wait for the world to be either fully vaccinated or a level of global herd immunity to be achieved. 

So, it’s lucky that we live in one of the most popular travel destinations on earth. Packed with World Heritage wilderness, stories from our own first peoples and the knowledge that we were one of the best countries in the world to manage the Covid pandemic, there has never been a better opportunity to introduce students to the magic of their own backyard - a backyard that is the top of the ‘bucket list’ for many around the world.
Many of us are guilty of thinking that overseas destinations offer more unique experiences but tell that to the 9.5 million tourists that visited Australia in 2019. They weren’t coming all this way because there wasn’t much to see or do here. 
Our natural beauty is a given, but world events in 2020 put a spotlight on an important conversation, our indigenous history, an understanding of which is being viewed as a crucial piece of the puzzle of what it means to be Australian. 

The best way to learn about this aspect of our national identity is through lived experience. Immersive Australian experiences delving into aspects of indigenous history and culture also work to build understanding, compassion and empathy.
A night under the Central Australian skies can be mesmerising |  <i>#cathyfinchphotography</i> Snorkelling with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef |  <i>Jake Parker</i> School group on top of Bishop & Clerk on Maria Island |  <i>Holly Van De Beek</i> Intricate rock art, Kakadu National Park |  <i>Peter Walton</i> A spectacular sunset experienced on the Yellow Waters cruise in Kakadu |  <i>Peter Walton</i>

There will be a requirement for greater financial protection

Before COVID, no one could have foreseen what was to come for the travel and hospitality industries (and others) and up until then, it was business as usual with payment and booking terms and cancellation charges imposed by the supply chain for securing tourism services. Demand has always been high for such services and naturally, this was the only way to lock in to guarantee the delivery of the same. 

Once COVID emerged, the litmus test for how companies had been managing the financial protection of the schools and parents of the participating students for their tour programs, rose to the surface. As an organisation who has always strongly focused on this element of our dealings, World  Youth Adventures have worked hard with our third-party suppliers including airlines and hotels to limit the potential of financial losses for schools and their communities. The propensity for the reputational damage to the sector when occurring large losses cannot be underestimated. Yet, we must implore readers of this blog, that it can be managed.

There is no doubt that, deposits are necessary to secure flights, accommodation, and other trip services, however a reputable organisation will be able to negotiate with their partners to minimise or eliminate the impact of deposits being lost forever.
As part of the World Expeditions Travel Group, we used the relationships that we’ve built over the last 45 years in operation to do just this. Terms and conditions are a part of life, they exist to protect all involved however in times of crises we are all in it together. Flexibility and empathy is needed to ensure that potential financial damage is eliminated or at worst, minimalised. In most cases we ask for as little as AU$250 per person with nothing more to pay until a little over a month before the trip.

Build a Covid column into your risk management plans

We know. We shudder at the thought too, but Covid is likely to be part of life for the foreseeable future. 
That means that in order to provide children with the best possible opportunities we need to adapt and learn to live with it, namely by minimising the risk of transmission.
Reputable organisations should already have developed Covid-19 safety measures for the field, following common-sense procedures and protocols to ensure that all operations are in adherence to the best possible practice. 
Our parent company has already proved this is possible, running many group tours across Australia, New Zealand, and the UK in late 2020, safely and without incident. We've adopted their Covid safe policies for our programs, including our first student trip for 2021 that will depart in July.


Travel where social distancing comes naturally

We suspect that more schools will want to avoid cities and other densely populated regions and seek out authentic wilderness experiences, where social distancing is often the modus operandi as it allows students to truly connect with the places they are visiting among many other benefits.
Wide-open spaces are our bag. Our company was started over 45 years ago with the express purpose of offering enriching experiences in the world's great wilderness regions, whether that be the Himalaya or the Red Centre. 

When we need to be in the company of other members of the public or groups, risk will be mitigated using chartered land transport, private guides and isolation of groups within hotels to minimise mingling with the general public to name a few measures. 
In fact, these policies have always been in place on our trips for safety reasons and the good news is that we know this can all be done without diminishing the experience for students.

There is never a 'better' time 

Humans have evolved by adapting to their new environments. This shouldn't change when it comes to immersive travel - in fact, it's a lesson that can be taught. So you can choose to either wait for a 'good' time or learn to adapt your programs to safely achieve your goals in new ways.
While school travel may look very different to the globetrotting experiences we have all become accustomed to, opportunities for personal growth are just as possible within Australia. 
There is no doubt that Covid has wreaked havoc, however, it has also provided a very special opportunity to foster global citizens right here at home.

Don't underestimate the value of experience

While few companies have traded through a pandemic before, navigating through very tricky waters (think airline collapses, government travel warnings, SARS, natural disasters like the Boxing Day tsunami or Nepal earthquakes) serve to reinforce important, key values to companies such as ours.
The emphasis on being flexible, good financial management and the importance of offering a variety of educational travel opportunities, not just around the world but also in our own backyard, are critical elements you should be looking for in companies to travel with so you can continue to offer students with safe, affordable and meaningful educational travel opportunities.

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