What is the future for the Gap Year?

Five ways the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the Gap Year experience

Guest post by James Catterall

James Catterall has over 20 years travel industry experience. His passion for travel began at an early age during a school trip to India and he has travelled extensively since then. He joined Gapforce in 2009 and has held positions including Schools Manager, Operations Manager and General Manager before being appointed Managing Director in 2018. He is a firm believer in the positive impact that travel can have on people, equipping them with life skills to help them realise their dreams and unlock their full potential for future employment.

Rightly, he is concerned about the massive impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on experiential learning and in the following article James has used this considerable experience and expertise to set out how he sees the changes this will bring about for the many who see the Gap Year experience as an important stage in their development.

Introduction by Graham Derrick

Travel and education, two sectors inextricably linked to the Gap Year experience, have both been completely turned on their head by the pandemic. The rule book has literally been torn up and the pieces thrown into the air leaving us all scratching our heads; watching and waiting to see how pieces will land.

The vaccine breakthrough has given us all renewed optimism, and whilst there is no crystal ball to tell us exactly what the future holds for a Gap Year, there are a number of trends emerging which give us a clue. As we dare to dream of a return to normality there will inevitably be some changes to how we live our lives.

So how might the Gap Year experience change? Let’s take a closer look…

Demand will outweigh supply: gap year travel as a university alternative…

Contrary to many recent reports, the increase in students opting to defer their place to University and take a Gap Year rose only 2% in 2020 – 21 (source: UCAS). This can be explained in part by the fact that most of this cohort had already decided whether or not to take a Gap Year by the time the pandemic struck and changing plans at such a late stage would have only been taken as a last resort.

However, the university experience this year has not been a happy one for a large swathe of students leading to the class of 2021 – 22 (as well as some already at university) to revaluate their plans and consider taking a Gap Year rather than risk an unfulfilling and expensive first year experience.

Gap Year applications are predicted to hit an all time high this year, but with the world opening up slowly there will be less choice available. It has therefore never been more important for those considering a Gap Year to start planning early and not leave things to the last minute.

Post-Covid Travel: Travel less and travel better…

After an extended period of lockdown, the demand for travel has hit record levels with research suggesting that a long holiday is one of the first things people will splash out on when it is possible to do so. The difference is going to be how people travel.

Let’s face it, new protocols in airports, planes, buses and hotels is going to involve way more hassle and a lot more planning. Not only that but the additional complexities and restrictions will make travel more expensive. Suddenly, short breaks and last minute getaways overseas become less appealing with people instead looking to travel less and make it count.

For Gap Years, this means people spending considerably more time researching their options and seeking out unique travel programs that offer a once in a lifetime experience. As well as that, more value will be placed on assistance navigating the everchanging restrictions and protocols, as well as reassurance that suitable contingency plans are in place in case the unexpected occurs. For this reason, an increasing number of people will be looking for the peace of mind experience and support offered by group travel programs as opposed to do it yourself.

Sustainable Travel Trends Post-Covid…

The meteoric rise of the climate emergency into people’s conscious has forced people to take stock of their actions and think about the impact it has on the planet. The pandemic has given the world the chance to stop, rethink and reset the narrative and agenda around environmental awareness. With so much collective momentum around it, people are increasingly able to see how their actions can genuinely contribute to the cause.

As well as shining a spotlight on the environment, the pandemic has also highlighted a disparity between the have and have nots. At home we have seen local communities coming together and supporting each other in more ways than one such as helping the vulnerable in society and supporting local businesses. All over the world, many livelihoods that depend on tourism have been decimated by the closure of borders and are desperate for the world to reopen and get their local economies moving again.

In the case of Gap Year travel this means a seismic shift towards responsible travel practices.

More so than ever before, choosing travel programs that have robust environmental policies and which support local businesses will become commonplace.

Travel and Wellbeing…

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is the importance of looking after ourselves better. Travel has long been associated with relaxation and escaping from the stresses of everyday life. This concept has never been more meaningful, only now people will actively be seeking out experiences that boost mental health and physical wellbeing with tangible results. Think active, off the beaten track experiences and you’ll get the picture!

One of the many benefits of taking a Gap Year is that it is a chance to step off the treadmill of formal education for a year and embark on a journey of exploration and self-discovery. The additional stress of the pandemic on students has been immense and the need to focus on wellness, fitness and health has never been greater to help prepare them for higher education and work.

The result of this trend is that Gap Year students will be looking for travel experiences that have outdoor education and physical and mental health enhancement built in. Adventures that take people to exotic locations such as rainforests and mountains where they can get far away from normal life will become even more popular, and for very good reason!

Local Travel and Virtual Gap Years…

With the world shut down, our lives were transformed overnight as we adjusted to a new way of working and socialising online. Whilst this transformation was perhaps already happening, the pandemic sped this process up and it is truly amazing how quickly society was able to adjust and move forward. The rise of online activity also led people to seek a balance and find some form of escapism, and with restrictions on movement this was often found in outdoor settings closer to home, places on people’s doorsteps often overlooked in the past became places of refuge and solace.

Whilst online learning and local travel have admirably filled the void left by restrictions on movement, they cannot replace the value gained from face-to-face teaching, social interactions and experiencing new countries and cultures. There will however be a place for them in a post Covid Gap Year experience as part of a blended approach.

Gap Year companies are already looking at ways to incorporate online training into their programs to enhance the experience. Examples of this range from virtual city tours and online briefing sessions through to online theory training for diving and leadership courses, all of which will better prepare students for their program enabling them to make the most of their experience when they arrive. With people choosing to travel less and travel better, there will also be more time for Gap Year students to explore the incredible National Parks, woodlands and coastlines on their doorstep, and again many companies are adjusting their offerings to include some unique UK based adventures.

Where to from here?

To sum up, the world has changed and the Gap Year experience will adjust as it has done so many times before to ensure it meets the needs of the Gap Year student. As priorities change and people look for more holistic experiences to complement their studies and prepare them for higher education and work, more and more will look to a Gap Year as a way to achieve this. Those of us that work within the Gap Year industry will continue to learn and adapt to provide students with the range of experience they seek and continue to help them on their path to becoming global citizens.