Last updated on Feb. 8, 2021.
2020 was disastrous for the dive industry, and now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, we’re all eager and probably excited at the idea of life going back to normal — personal and business lives! But how normal will 2021 be? Where does the scuba diving industry currently stand at the beginning of 2021? What should we expect and plan for in 2021 and 2022?
We will look at dive travel, scuba diving certification courses, and dive gear sales.
Because the scuba diving industry's success is highly dependent on international travel to sunny destinations with Nemo and colorful reefs, let’s start with dive travel.
Scuba Diving Travel in 2021–2022
Right off the bat, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, traveling was one of the most badly hurt industries. For instance, in early April 2020, airlines and the TSA reported a 96% drop in air travel in the USA. That’s pretty much the same as saying that travel came to a full stop!
All through 2020, countries around the world played a yo-yo game of closing then partly reopening their borders just to re-close them soon after. It is hard to plan a dive trip when you are unsure if you can actually get into the destination country or what the consequences will be when coming back home.
We are now in early 2021, and COVID-19 vaccines are available. Great! So… Travel should be slowly going back to normal, right? Well… Unfortunately, it is not. In fact, in numerous countries, travel restrictions are getting worse.
Let’s have a quick look around.
One month into 2021, the sea is not calm! France announced new COVID-19 border restrictions. And directly related to dive travel, here’s a serious one: At the end of January, Canada suspended flights to the Caribbean and Mexico, a measure that is expected to last until at least April 30. That’s where Canadians go scuba diving! In another great dive destination, there was still no timeline for reopening the Cayman Islands borders as of February 1st.
Traveling is not improving. Not yet!
“The world is more locked down today than at any point in the past 12 months.” ~Axios, February 5, 2021.
On top of flat-out travel restrictions and closed borders, there’s the issue of ‘how’ we can travel. Check this Washington Post article: Hawaii wants tourists. Tourists want Hawaii. But the rules are complicated. Would you be willing to bear the cost of a mandatory hotel quarantine upon returning home? That’s what Canadians are now facing if they dare to step foot outside Canada: Canada Launches $2000 Mandatory Hotel Quarantine For All Arrivals. That’s a significant increase in the price of a dive trip!
All of that to say that first, restrictions to travel remain firmly in place, and second, even when we can travel, the logistics and cost of it may be a significant headache — both for ourselves and our wallet. Ask the American teen jailed in the Cayman Islands for breaking Covid protocols! That was also in 2021.
Otherwise, being vaccinated doesn’t mean that you are willing to start traveling. There may be a time buffer between these 2 activities. A survey by the USA Travel Association (USTA) says 54% of Americans would feel comfortable traveling abroad six months after vaccines become available.
So… Don’t expect dive travel to grow significantly in the first quarter of 2021.
When can we expect dive travel to start ramping up again?
People are tired of being confined at home. That’s for sure! So… Once travel reopens, we could expect a lot of eager travelers. But let’s not bank on it just yet.
The post-coronavirus economy will have an impact on discretionary spending and leisure travel. The economy has been hit hard and continues to suffer. A lot of people have lost their jobs. Many people have used their cash reserves.
A July 2020 forecast on international tourism by Oxford Economics predicted that “tourism won’t reach 2019 levels again until 2024”. In November 2020, the USA Travel Association (USTA) forecasted a “37.5% increase in travel spending in 2021, followed by a 14.2% increase in 2022. But it won’t be until a predicted 7.4% increase in 2023 that the travel industry can consider itself recovered”.
In the case of the dive industry in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter months are the main ones for dive travel. As we are in February 2021 and travel restrictions remain in effect all around the world, we can put an X on the 2020–2021 dive travel season.
In November 2020, dive operators in the Cayman Islands reported 5% of the business they normally get at that time of the year. That’s telling.
Therefore, in all reality, we won’t see any significant increase in dive travel until the 2021–2022 Winter dive travel season. For instance, Thailand, a trendy dive destination, is trying to revive its tourism-reliant economy by planning for… October 2021.
Even then, based on travel experts, we should plan for travel to be at a level lower than before the pandemic. We should budget accordingly.
Another significant impact on dive resorts is the closure of numerous local dive shops. We estimate that at least 20% of North American dive shops will have permanently closed their door by the end of the pandemic. Local dive stores constitute a ‘feeder network’ for dive resort destinations.
Dive resorts may need to find new ways of reaching scuba divers, directly.
At the destination-side of dive travel, numerous dive resorts and other tourism infrastructure will be out of business. For instance, at least 931 registered companies in the Thailand tourism sector closed in 2020. In the Summer of 2020, we were seeing reports of dive business permanently closed in Cozumel. And the list goes on, unfortunately.
These closures at both the origin and the destination of dive travel will create negative pressure on scuba diving certifications and dive equipment sales.
Dive Gear & Scuba Diving Certifications 2021–2022
You can see the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sales of scuba diving equipment and the number of open water certifications in the following two analysis:
- Scubapro’s Sales of Scuba Diving Equipment During the First 9 Months of 2020: Worldwide sales of scuba gear, at wholesale, during the coronavirus pandemic.
- 2020 Scuba Diving Certifications in the USA Including Recently Released 4th Quarter: Open water dive certifications during a year of COVID-19 pandemic.
When comparing the two, it appears that dive gear sales are outperforming the market in comparison to the number of open water scuba diving certifications.
This difference may be due to many reasons outlined in the original article on this topic. Notably, retail sales of dive gear appear to have dropped more than they did at wholesale, meaning that inventory of scuba gear has been building up inside local dive shops.
The important thing to note is that we should not automatically assume that dive gear sales will drop or increase at the same rate as entry-level scuba certifications. All through 2020, we witnessed an increased ratio of advanced scuba certifications to entry-level ones. This appears to be tied to an increased interest by people to find outdoor activities near their home. In that context, taking additional scuba diving courses and participating in local diving outings make sense for current scuba divers.
So what can we expect for 2021 and 2022?
Although local diving activities helped the dive industry during the summer of 2020, it is unlikely to have a significant impact during the winter months. We can expect the first quarter of 2021 to be rough for the dive industry since these are the months during which courses and gear sales are tightly tied to dive travel. Ice diving is not quite mainstream!
Once spring 2021 shows up, we may see numbers better than those of the summer of 2020. The key to success will be our ability at promoting interesting diving activities and scuba diving courses that can be done and taught locally. This applies to dive certifications and scuba gear sales in origin markets where the Summer months are appropriate for local diving.
We can expect these trends to be similar in all ‘origin markets’ like the USA, Canada, and the European Union.
The curve is the other way around in dive destinations where scuba divers travel during the winter months. Unfortunately, DEMA only surveys the number of certifications within the USA. It would be quite useful for the entire dive industry if DEMA could start behaving more like an international organization as it claims to be.
Once we hit fall and winter 2021–2022, it is safe to expect dive numbers in line with the travel industry.
We regularly release analysis of scuba diving certifications, dive gear sales, and other dive industry market data. Subscribe to Scubanomics to be kept in the loop.
The Dive Industry is Not Your Dive Business
Overall numbers for the scuba diving industry may not be a proper indicator for your own dive business. Each dive business will have financial results influenced by its location and the strategic marketing choices it makes.
For instance, right in the middle of the pandemic, during the 3rd quarter of 2020, entry-level scuba diving certifications were down 75% in New Mexico while they were up 27% in Hawaii and 10% in Florida.
Dive travel will take a few years to get back to its 2019 pre-pandemic level. It is safe to plan a budget using rounded USTA’s forecast numbers:
- A growth of 40% in dive travel spending in 2021 over 2020
- A 15% increase in 2022
- A volume similar to 2019 in 2023
Scuba diving certifications should produce growth slightly better than the above dive travel forecast if the dive industry successfully promotes and sells scuba diving courses beyond entry-level.
Dive gear sales should perform a bit better than certifications if dive professionals are successful at engaging divers in local dive outings. Typically, local divers purchase more dive gear than tropical-only scuba divers.
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