By: Curtis Fox
VP OF INTERNATIONAL OPERATIONS
5 minute read
I landed in Bangkok, Thailand On Friday, January 24th of this year. A few days before I departed a colleague had pulled me aside to ask if I thought it was safe to travel to Asia. “Why, because of this Corona thing?” I said. “I’ve traveled throughout Asia during SARS and Swine Flu. This kind of thing happens, as long as you’re careful there’s really nothing to be concerned about.” By the time I arrived in Bangkok at least one positive case had already been reported in Thailand. On Saturday February 1st I opened the complimentary Bangkok English newspaper which accompanied my daily hotel breakfast. Another five cases been reported. There was talk of cancelling the following week’s meetings. “You know some big hotel groups are already prohibiting their management staff from travel” another colleague told me. No matter. I went on to Delhi for a few days before flying with the rest of our regional staff for a week of insightful “building, bonding and business” at a gorgeous seaside hotel just outside of the historic fort in Galle, Sri Lanka. I stayed behind several days after our meetings to inspect hotels, but mostly to bask in the beautiful warmth and scenery of tropical Sri Lanka – a gift for a New Englander in February. Our regional manager from Beijing unexpectedly stayed behind with me. She couldn’t get home. Every flight to mainland China had at that point been cancelled. No hope of even getting through to her booking agent.
Several weeks later, back in wintery New England, an email came in at 11am from the same Chinese territory manager. Odd time of the night for her to be messaging I thought. I responded by Slack and quickly found out that she wasn’t in Beijing, but in New Jersey. She was back in the same place she’d spent Chinese New Year with her extended family. The same place she’d flown from directly on her way to our meetings in Galle. She’d been unable to reach her home for more than seven weeks. As I computed the very real impact this was having on someone I closely knew, that’s when it hit me. In the third week of February, that’s when I realized what we were in for.
We all know what has happened since. As of last Friday, Dec. 4th 10.6 million unemployed Americans, 4.9 million higher than February – 3.4 million of which have been lost in the leisure and hospitality industry. Soon to be 300,000 COVID-19-related deaths across the United States, 1.5 million globally. Nearly 70 million positive cases worldwide. The devastation over the last 10 months is immeasurable. Yet somehow, for the first time since this all began, I see windows of optimism. First one, then two, now three vaccines on the horizon. Inoculations already dispersed throughout the UK. A hospital worker friend of mine was told this week to stand by for his phase one vaccine delivery. In November, a positive uptick in the leisure market – arts, entertainment, and recreation added 43,000 jobs.
And finally, for the first time since this all began, I’m optimistic about the future of international travel. I’ve had a front row seat. I’ve been in constant communication with our partners in Costa Rica as they’ve navigated reopening – at first permitting residents from a handful of States to now successfully allowing entry to all Americans with a negative COVID test. Last week visitor capacity at Machu Picchu was raised to 1,116 visitors per day, or about 50% of its regular capacity. We’ve received word that the Inca Trail will reopen come January. Our partners in South Africa have shared updates throughout their gradual reopening in October to what last month became full access to all international travelers arriving with a negative test. And today, though not yet fully convenient, Americans can enter Thailand as part of a 60-days long term stay visa program. Not quite open, but a start.
At Austin Adventures we’ve begun to see the shift as well. The phones are beginning to ring again. This week alone we’ve taken bookings for our Founders Safari to Kenya and Tanzania, Iceland: Best of the Southern Coast and Best of Baja. After months of conversations resulting in “I’ll wait and see”, the discourse is slowly shifting towards “let’s go for it”! I’m starting to hear the optimism in the voices of our customers and also in our family conversations at the dinner table. The other night my wife and I finally allowed ourselves to re-open our favorite discussion – “where should we travel next”, a topic we haven’t broached since we cancelled our July trip to the Azores. What was supposed to be our 15-month old son’s first foray into the international world. The same one where we paid to rush process a still empty baby passport.
The dualities are of course constant – vaccine hopefulness at the outset of such a grim period of rising cases. For my family, instead of celebrating the holidays in our typical globetrotting fashion in places like Peru, Myanmar, or Hong Kong, we’re instead settling into a nice virtual visit with Walk With Me Tours to Israel. Things are still different, and they’ll continue to be for a while. I’m not foolish, I know we’re a long way from the finish line, however, I’m starting to believe again that it’s ok to dream, to look forward to the future, and as one associate who recently returned from Zimbabwe so perfectly put it, to allow yourself to revel in the moment. Even though we’ll be exploring the world on Zoom this holiday season, I know it’s just an appetizer of the journeys soon to come. I’ve rebooked our tickets to the Azores – I’m once again optimistic about the future of international travel.