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Better Buy a Watch: Your Travel Future Will Be Timed

Travel is still shut down, but the coronavirus has already changed it.

New social distancing measures have forced attractions around the world to look at entrance procedures anew. Before reopening, those attractions must figure out ways to manage crowds better so we can all have our personal space.

Timed tickets are about to be the new normal.

And the dominance of timed tickets won't fade once Covid-19 is solved. That's because even before 2020, the travel industry, searching for solutions to balancing overtourism, was already wishing that advance reservation systems would be more widely embraced by vacationers.

For a while now, the travel industry has been leaning toward timed tickets, which require customers to choose a date or time for advance reservations to big-ticket sites. Some of the world's most overcrowded attractions—Rome's Colosseum, Barcelona's Sagrada Família, Amsterdam's Anne Frank House and Van Gogh Museum, Granada's Alhambra, Peru's Machu Picchu—have already moved toward a timed-ticket paradigm to manage capacity.

Some attractions have been encouraging the use of prepaid tickets by promising quicker entry to tourists who make advance reservations. Other attractions, such as Universal Orlando and the U.S. Disney parks, have encouraged visitors to come during quieter periods by charging slightly lower ticket prices on days that are predicted to have lighter attendance.

Because they thin out crowds and eliminate unexpected attendance surges, timed tickets have helped soften the inconvenience of queues. For the same reason, timed tickets will now help satisfy social distancing precautions.

Aside from capping attendance to grant visitors personal space, there are a lot of reasons travel sellers yearn for widespread prebooking. Knowing in advance how many visitors are coming helps management plan for how much staff will be required, how much food to buy for the concessions, when hiking trails will need maintenance, and when temporary exhibitions will be smashes worth extending.

There's even evidence to suggest that when you don't have to open your wallet at the ticket desk because you prepaid for admission, you're more likely to spend on ancillary purchases such as souvenirs.

Prebooking, which feeds into the larger movement of making destination management more thoughtful, sustainable, and efficient, is considered useful for balancing many operational concerns, and is something for which tourism strategists have been advocating for years.

In the past, back offices lacked the required technology to build ticketing systems, but the proliferation of new apps and services have leveled the playing field. 

Compounding the slow adoption of timed ticketing tech, tourists were less than eager to have to plan every part of their day ahead of time. Big-ticket, can't-miss museums could enforce conformity, but smaller, easy-to-miss attractions found it difficult to convince travelers to remember to include them in their advance plans.

The general public was also resistant to change. Articles in the travel press have often lamented the rise of prebooking, complaining that "overtourism killed the spontaneity in travel." 

In the light of 2020, those objections seem quaint at best and, at worst, pampered.

History, in the form of an unwelcome virus, has intervened at the exact moment smartphone ticketing technology made preplanning much easier. People who refused to make advance plans six months ago are now routinely observing elaborate operational restrictions whenever they go out. Pandemic shopping protocols may prove to be a perfect training for post-pandemic travel, as consumers acclimate to procedures many locals have quietly wanted to implement for a long time.

From fine art museums to Six Flags and Disney parks, attractions around the world now expect all visitors to book their spots for a predetermined time. The American Alliance of Museums and the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, which together represent thousands of institutions, have both issued reopening guidelines that include limiting entries and a strong emphasis on online pre-sales.

Even institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and others that don't charge admission fees are looking at making timed ticketing a standard part of their entry procedures.

As originally intended, the coming embrace of timed ticketing will also have a positive effect on overtourism in general. If tourists can't snag reservations on the day they want, they're less likely to come to town at all. In this way, crowds will be spread more evenly across the calendar, which means that even hotels and airfare could become less volatile in time. 

Soon, every vacation you take will happen on a schedule. We already follow that procedure without objection for restaurants, tours, sports, and shows. Now, as we plan our future travel, we should always check ahead to see if timed tickets will be required. The age of the casual walk-in is on pause—and it may be ending.

For scheduling the rest of our tourism day, the time has come.