Will we ever get to travel again?
The short answer: yes. People need to connect with people, and the hankering for adventure, for intrigue, for romance has only been exacerbated by mandatory lockdowns. And, despite warnings to the contrary, some people never stopped traveling in 2020. In 2021 and beyond, however, travel will be much different than what we were used to before the pandemic.
The days of weekend getaways, last-minute jaunts, and general get-up-and-go are long gone. Destinations, airline and cruise companies, restaurants, tour companies, independent tour guides, shops, hotels, and every sector you can think of in the travel industry are still reeling from the pandemic, and most won’t recover quickly, if ever. In fact, the United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated a loss of up to $1.2 trillion in international visitor spending in 2020, with some 120 million tourism jobs at risk. And with countries like Canada and the United Kingdom instituting new travel bans in the face of stronger variants of the virus, the travel landscape will remain a foreign one for most of us well into the next few years.
But fear not: as vaccines are distributed throughout the world, and with enhanced testing and expanded safety protocols, travel will again be accessible and even enjoyable.
Proceeding with Caution
Many destinations have taken the lead in establishing “COVID-conscious zones” with strict protocols and procedures that allow tourism to continue, especially in places where international visitors account for much of the revenue and employment in a given area.
In Mexico, for instance, the Los Cabos Tourism Board worked in conjunction with the Baja California Sur state health department to ensure all service providers were clear on health and safety regulations, and that there was uniformity in enforcement to ensure that hotels, restaurants, and attractions in the beachside destination could remain open for business. Hotel and restaurant capacity has been capped at up to 50%, while COVID-19 testing facilities have been expanded and an English-language hotline has been established for travelers needing assistance, or to take the test required for re-entry into the United States and Canada. The area’s hotels and tour operators have also been generous with change policies and fee waivers, taking a customer-focused approach to the heightened uncertainties of travel during a pandemic.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia is open to tourists from the U.S. but requires a $2,000 deposit upon arrival, which pays for a mandatory COVID-19 test and potential treatment should the test result be positive. In addition to a negative test taken no more than 72 hours prior to landing at the country’s main airport, visitors must pay for another test upon arrival, then quarantine for 14 days at a hotel officially designated by the Cambodian government. However strict these requirements may be, the country is still open for tourism, unlike two-thirds of the world’s nations.
The upside is that restrictions like Cambodia's tend to inspire more intentional, slower-paced travel than what many people were accustomed to prior to the pandemic, in addition to keeping the local population safe and the tourism economy afloat.
Go Before You Go
For those waiting for the green light to travel without tests, masks, and gallons of hand sanitizer, the options for armchair traveling have never been more diverse, particularly as immersive technologies have improved and expanded in the wake of the pandemic. The old standbys of international cuisines, foreign films, jaunty TV shows, and world music are still easily accessible ways of getting into a traveling mood, but new virtual experiences can bring would-be travelers into the action via their personal devices.
Museums around the world—including the Louvre in Paris, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City—have developed virtual tours of their galleries, offering views of permanent collections as well as temporary exhibitions. For virtual outdoor adventures, safari companies such as Tswalu and &Beyond Connections provide interactive and real-time safari experiences from the savannas of Southern and Central Africa. And if the thrill of the big city calls, tour companies such as Arigato Japan can pair viewers with local guides who offer multimedia tours of their happening ‘hoods in the heart of Tokyo.
While the way we travel won’t ever be the same, the human desire to connect with each other and explore our home planet remains.
Editor's note: Ernest is too modest to mention it, but another way you can get your travel on from the safety of your couch is by watching his travel docu-series, which airs on both PBS and Create TV.
Ernest White II is a storyteller, explorer, executive producer, and host of television travel docu-series FLY BROTHER with Ernest White II, currently airing in the United States on Public Television Stations and Create TV nationwide. He is also founder and CEO of Presidio Pictures, a new film, television, and digital media studio centering BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and senior/elder narratives. Ernest’s writing includes fiction, literary essay, and travel narrative, having been featured in Time Out London, USA Today, Getaway, Ebony, The Manifest-Station, Sinking City, Lakeview Journal, Matador Network, National Geographic Traveler’s Brazil and Bradt’s Tajikistan guidebooks, and at TravelChannel.com. He is also senior editor at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, former assistant editor at Time Out São Paulo, and founding editor of digital men’s magazine Abernathy.