As the world moves unsteadily toward eliminating the threat of COVID-19, navigating the world can seem like moving across a map on which all the countries are different colors. The pandemic has been global, but the response to it is highly fragmented. There is no standard international code for how to create a safe environment while COVID continues to be present. Every country is going about it in its own way.
That’s great for the spirit of independence, but it creates a whole lot of annoying complications for travelers who, a couple of years ago, used to cross many international borders with ease. For Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures, an operator of tour programs on several continents, it has become like an endless series of changing conditions at every destination. “Being a tour operator in COVID times is like a carnival game of Whack-A- Mole,” he told me last week. “This is what we do all day, every day.”
COVID has greatly increased the daily demands on any tour operator. And it has accentuated the need of travelers for the kind of strategic, logistical work that is a tour operator’s stock in trade. It takes full-time monitoring of situations to stay on top of all the changes day to day.
“There is no world governing body,” Austin said. “Every country is dealing with it differently. There is no pattern. It literally takes due diligence and a deep dive into real specifics of what it takes to get there and what it takes to get home. It’s changing every day. Places are opening up and then closing again. It gets a little bit crazy.”
Projections about re-openings are made, and then later revised or dates pushed back. It’s a constantly shifting scenario. Everything must be dealt with on a “today” basis. “I’m taking them all on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Just the other day, Turkey was scheduled to open up. But they’re not going to open up. Now they just shut the borders down again.”
Though things are smoothing out gradually, the field is still riddled with setbacks and snares. “It is getting more predictable as time goes by,” he said, “as more vaccines roll out, and as more countries and destinations realize how badly they need tourism.”
For those who want to travel, but continue to be safe, Austin said, there are places that are open and provide a reasonably safe environment for vaccinated travelers.
“I just got back from Baja,” he said. “Baja is wide open. They are managing it incredibly well. It is open for business; it’s been open for business; and they’ve got it well under control.
“If you listened to the State Department, you wouldn’t go in a million years,” he said. “But I was impressed with their protocol. You have to get tested to return to the states, but it was super easy. The medical technician came to our hotel on the last day, did the nasal swab, then sent us an email with a QR code. Then whenever anybody asks you, you present that. We were asked three times to show it. It was just a flash of the phone screen.”
Being a tour operation, the company was able to minimize the hassles. “We had all that pre-planned for us, because that’s what we do. I think now it’s showing the value of a tour operator, because we know where we can go. We’re not going to book you to Turkey if we can’t get you there.”
Other countries that are on top of managing safety protocols, are Galapagos and Costa Rica.
“Those countries have been managing it well,” he said, “They’ve been at it for long enough now that they can measure the trends. They can even forecast. They are here to stay.”
As countries struggle to open in time to get some mileage out of the summer high travel season, it sets up a new field of competition among countries for the tourism dollar. For example, now that the EU and the UK are divorced, they are in competition as to which can open first to nab the first wave of pent-up demand. Announcements of projected dates of opening made now while travelers are making plans for the summer may be over-optimistic.
“It’s confusing,” said Austin. “There are so many different resources. When the EU announced they were opening Europe, that was a little premature. They were forecasting hope, I think.”
A Maze of Different Factors
Someone planning a trip now must consider a range of factors in a constantly changing field of possibilities. “There are all these different factors,” said Austin. “One of them is, ‘What is that country allowing? Can you get in with a vaccination? Can you get in with a negative test?’
“Then there’s what are we allowing? When we went to Mexico last week, we had to be tested before we came home. Then, are you flying? What is your connection city? You can go to Croatia through Amsterdam. All these variables you have to weigh.”
The risks and hassles posed by COVID enhance the value of the service provided by a tour operator. “What all this is doing—and this is a self-serving plug for me and my associates—what we are really seeing is the value of a tour operator, because they know how to navigate through this kind of thing. We know how to get you there and get you home safely, and make sure you have a good time while you’re there.”
Even though traveling domestically does not require crossing any international borders, some of the same kinds of problems confront domestic travelers. “The national parks have their own lists of changes every day,” said Austin. “This trail is open, this hotel is open, this trail is closed, this is the protocol. Because we are there every day, we are working with it every day. We know the inside scoop.
“We are navigating a heck of a lot better than if you just showed up and thought you were going do Antelope Canyon, and then realized when you got there that Antelope Canyon is closed.”
For Austin Adventures business is good.
“Domestically we’re busting at the seams,” he said. “We booked our hotels two years ago. The national parks are going to be at record capacity this year. For us, in a normal year, that’s 65-70 percent of what we do. We’re excited about it.”
The company’s international travel is just starting to pick up. “Already this week, we sold some Costa Rica, Galapagos, Iceland and had our first trip booked to Tanzania. So, we’re starting to see a glimmer of hope and traffic for the long-haul stuff. We’re seeing interest in Kenya, Australia… Things are starting to open up, more bucket-list, long haul stuff.”
Domestic travel sites may be crowded this summer, but international sites are likely to be wide open. “I am still convinced that now is a great time to travel,” said Austin, “because of fewer people traveling. When we were in Mexico last week, going through customs was easier, getting into restaurants was easier because, regardless of where you go internationally, there are definitely fewer travelers. Domestic is going to be a tough year but, internationally, now is a great time to go to some of these destinations because the masses are just not going.”
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.