After coronavirus: When is it safe to travel again?
© by Christopher Elliott
High on Adventure, May 2020

After coronavirus: When is it safe to travel again?

Here's a $570 billion question: When is it safe to travel again?

When the experts say so, that's when. But figuring out who those experts are during the coronavirus crisis may be as difficult as finding a vaccine.

When is it safe to book a trip again?

Here are three things that must happen for travelers to return:

1. The State Department must lift its Level 4 travel advisory. On March 19, the government issued a warning to avoid all international travel because of the pandemic. It will have to rescind the warning for travelers to feel comfortable booking any kind of trip again.

2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has to give the "all clear." CDC normally doesn't issue advisories or restrictions for travel within the United States. But it did for coronavirus. Once that advisory gets lifted, travelers can resume planning their summer vacations.

3. The World Health Organization (WHO) needs to give a thumbs-up to travel. The meaning of WHO's highly technical warnings are clear: Stay home. Monitor its website for a change. When you see WHO's easing up, it may be time to plan your next trip.

It's not enough for just one of these entities to rescind its warnings. To be safe, wait for all three to do it.

If you're a nervous traveler, look for the Canadian government and British government to chime in, too. If everyone is in agreement, you can probably start to feel comfortable about traveling again.

By the way, that half-trillion dollars I mentioned at the top of the story is the amount of tourism money at risk in North America this year after the coronavirus outbreak, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), a trade organization. All told, nearly 7 million tourism jobs are on the line.

"The travel and tourism sector faces an economic meltdown," warned Gloria Guevara, WTTC's president.

And that's because your next vacation is history -- at least, for now.

Other signs that it's safe to travel

Schools and businesses reopen. When classes resume and you can sit down in restaurants again, things are returning to normal and then it may be safe to travel. China has already done that and at the time of this writing, Italy was scheduled to reopen its institutions in early April. "Once all these things are in place, life should resume normally and travel will be safe again," says Chantelle Kern, CEO of The Italian On Tour, a boutique Canadian tour operator.

Your travel agent will book the trip. Travel advisors will do almost anything for you, but more than anything they want you to come home alive. "The health and safety of our clients is our biggest concern," says Betsy Ballco, founder of Euro Travel Coach. She's obsessing over a coronavirus outbreak map from Johns Hopkins University. And so far, she's not ready to start booking again. "It will be quite some time before it is safe for people to travel again," she says.

When you can buy travel insurance. Many travel insurance companies stopped selling policies after the outbreak. Some added new restrictions, especially on "cancel for any reason" policies. "That's the canary in the coal mine," says Phil Sylvester, a spokesman for World Nomads, a travel insurance company. When travel insurance providers resume allowing the purchase of policies, it means it's safe to travel.

When will all of that happen? At least three months, according to the predictive models developed by the travel risk assessment team of G1G.com, an insurance technology company based in San Jose. "We're telling our customers to avoid non-essential travel for the time being," says spokeswoman Rachel Coen.

Stan Sandberg, the co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, says insurance purchases can also be a reliable bellwether. "We are seeing travel insurance purchases primarily for travel after August 1, and many travel insurance policies for travel in 2021," he says.

But when is it safe for you to travel?

Travelers have their personal lists, too. Lee Richardson had planned to drive from Indianapolis to Tarpon Springs, Fla., on Easter. Her kids forbade her.  

"I believe it's payback for all the times I told them 'no'," says Richardson, a retired educator who lives in Indianapolis.

So what would make her go? Permission from her kids and a good word from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, she says.  

A lot of travelers will have their own litmus test for traveling again. "I expect there will be a delay between the removal of regulatory restrictions and broad-based comfort with travel," says Chris Anderson, a professor at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. He thinks most travelers will be looking for reassurances that the travel industry has its act together when it comes to hygiene.

If none of that brings travelers back, then one thing will: a good deal. That's right, nothing gets travelers back like a cheap fare or hotel rate. It won't make much of a dent in the half-trillion-dollar loss. But travel companies can always raise prices later. And you know they will.

SIDEBAR: These are not signs that it's safe to travel again

Reopening tourist attractions. "That has more to do with economics and profit anxiety rather than safety," says Courtney Kansler, a senior health intelligence analyst at WorldAware. While these events may be greeted with fanfare, it doesn't mean there's no risk of infection.

No more coronavirus cases. Even if a particular destination country is reporting no additional cases, travelers are still transiting through airports with thousands of other cspeople. You still could get infected.

When politicians say so. Instead, heed the words of health officials. "They are the experts," says Alison Hickey, president of Kensington Tours. "When they feel the time is right, they will lift the restrictions on international travel."

Christopher Elliott's latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.
© 2020 Christopher Elliott.

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