Tour operators are reporting a huge demand for gap year travel despite the coronavirus closing international borders and bringing existing trips to an abrupt halt. With A-level results released today, operators report that – rather than being put off travelling – students are pursuing potential projects while keeping an open mind about which country they may end up in.
“Covid stopped gap year travel in its tracks, but there is a huge, pent-up demand,” David Stitt, the founder of Real Gap Experience (realgap.co.uk) told us. Milly Whitehead, co-founder of The Leap (theleap.co.uk), agreed, saying she is experiencing more than double the amount of interest in trips than she usually does this time of year.
“We have never been so busy with online gap year consultations,” she said. “Gappers are keen to get a place on any programme that’s running as clearly there is going to be limited availability for 2020-21. They are not hanging about.” She has seen a lot of students who would normally wait to travel in January say that they are now prepared to travel from September onwards, in case there is a second wave of the virus. What is more, these students say they are prepared to go anywhere that is open.
It may seem strange following a summer of travel bans but this urge to travel could be explained by a reluctance among some students to start university now. Research on the impact of the coronavirus by the Sutton Trust revealed a fifth of university applicants (19 per cent) had changed their mind about attending university this autumn or have yet to decide what to do. Some of these students are now planning to take gap years.
One of these is Max Elliott, who is considering travelling but doesn’t feel confident about booking right now. “University seems to be an equally unpredictable route to go down,” he told us. “Neither the social nor the academic experience that you’d expect will be the same, and it’s difficult to predict the implications this will have on everyone’s studies and social lives.”
For students looking to volunteer on a gap year, there are ways of doing so without needing to travel. The National Trust has traditionally offered a range of volunteering opportunities to suit young people and, as its sites continue to reopen, new volunteers will again be given the chance to get involved. Students can also find information on home-grown volunteering projects on the careers website Prospects (prospects.ac.uk), as well as at Studenteer (studenteer.co.uk), a new project that aims to connect students – and furloughed employees – with charities needing help with specific tasks.
Trips to Ireland and Scotland that launched this summer were not popular enough according to The Leap, with travel to Ireland still not easy and many students preferring to cling to dreams of travelling further afield.
The good news is gap year companies say they feel more positive about the 2020-21 season than they were even a month ago. A spokeswoman for Oyster Worldwide (oysterworldwide.com) said they were aiming for a relatively back-to-normal 2021, albeit with added safety procedures.
“Many young people from the programmes we had to cancel in 2020 are deferring their places to 2021,” said Sean O’Brien, communications manager for Raleigh International (raleighinternational.org). Applications for its 2021 programmes are open and the company is optimistic. It even hopes to run newly shortened programmes to Costa Rica and Nepal – which have attracted considerable interest – at the end of this year, as long as they can operate “safely, while delivering real development impact”.
I-to-i’s paid and unpaid internships teaching English in Thailand, China and Vietnam are also expected to go ahead next year.
The most responsible gap year companies are asking hard questions about the impact their trips might have on local communities. “Do locals want us back or are they fearful of us?” said Milly, from The Leap. “What are the real numbers of virus cases and can their hospitals cope?”
Raleigh International is reviewing the way it works with local communities and is considering stringent medical screening and response protocols. Volunteer groups might work in “bubbles” and the company could implement its own protocols if it does not believe local government requirements are sufficiently strict.
Many of the trips run by Real Gap Experience now operate with smaller group sizes and journeys that would normally have used public transport will now use private vehicles.
Students hoping to travel independently will find it harder to just book a flight and “wing it” as backpackers did in years past. “Gappers are looking for reassurance and guidance like never before,” said Milly. Should countries decide to close their borders, The Leap has helped scope out the development of an app that could provide a 24-hour SOS service.
The reality is, restrictions remain in place in many popular destinations. This has left operators advising students that the best thing they can do is research and register their interest.
Sean, from Raleigh International, advises A-level students to get in touch and discuss what is available. “Young people can sign up with us and know that in the event of our programmes not running they will have a number of options,” he said. “We have permanent staff in each country and good contacts with authorities.”
The Leap is keeping its customers abreast of the situation by managing a “wish list”, where students are notified about new programmes as they open up and about rule changes.
For students hoping to commit to long-term travel in the next academic year, it seems flexibility is vital. It is a waiting game but “once it’s safe to travel,” said David, of Real Gap Experience, “people will book in droves.”
Gap year ideas: Where can you actually go this year?
Go for: teaching English, cultural holidays
Partly open. The UK has relaxed restrictions on travelling to Italy and Greece, for example, but students should prepare for infection spikes
Go for: conservation work and volunteering
Open. UK nationals are allowed in under conditions but the country is not exempt from the UK travel ban and Britons will need to quarantine on their return
Go for: volunteering and adventure
Closed, though a ban on international flights is lifted on Monday. Not currently exempt from the UK travel ban and Britons will need to quarantine on their return
Go for: teaching English, beach holidays and conservation
Closed. One of the most popular destinations for gap year travel, operators are hopeful for 2021. Exempt from the UK travel ban but Britons need to quarantine on their return
Go for: beach holidays, cultural experiences
Closed. Operators are hopeful for 2021, though Indonesia is not currently exempt from the UK travel ban and Britons will need to quarantine on their return
Go for: paid work, adventure and conservation projects
Closed. Travel operators are hopeful that students on working visas will be allowed in by 2021. Everywhere but Victoria exempt from the travel ban
Go for: paid work, adventure tourism
Closed. Travel operators are hopeful that students on working visas will be allowed in by 2021. Exempt from the UK travel ban