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Monday, September 28, 2020

Where Will We Be Able To Travel Abroad Again?


Roland fantasizes about when we can get on the road again. The other day he asked me where I want to go most. He's all in on either Thailand and Indonesia or Sri Lanka and India. I'm thinking of France or Italy or Spain and Morocco. These are all places we've been to before and numerous times. The next day another friend of mine asked me the same question, but when I started answering, he said "no, those countries are closed to Americans." THat's when I figured out he meant NOW, not in a few years, after the pandemic when it's safe again. He wants to fly to someplace exotic and exciting now. He's cracking up.

A day or two later the Washington Post published a story that was so popular that they re--published it a few days later, When Will Americans Be Able To Travel To Europe Again?. Author Natalie Comptom asked 4 travel insiders. We'll get to it in a second, but I just want to point out that Americans aren't just barred from all but 6 European countries-- North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Belarus and Turkey-- but that Europe is going through a big second wave and it is completely unsafe to travel there. These were the new cases reported Sunday and ---> Monday in a dozen European countries [Basketcase Sweden has basically stopped reporting]:
France- +11,123 ---> +4,070
Russia- +7,867 ---> +8,135
U.K.- +5,693 ---> +4,044
Spain- +5,321 ---> +2,425
Ukraine- +3,130 ---> +2,671
Netherlands- +2,995 ---> +2,914
Belgium- +1,827 ---> +1,376
Italy- +1,766 ---> +1,494
Romania- +1,438 ---> +1,271
Poland- +1,350 ---> +1,306
Germany- +1,313 ---> +2,279
Czechia- +1,303 ---> +716
None of them are doing as badly as the U.S., but none of those numbers look remotely inviting to me. I have a feeling we'll be postponing until either Christmas 2021 or summer 2022. Now, back to Natalie Comptom. She wrote that "The closure of European borders to American tourists in March, with no clear off-ramp, has been one painful blow of the pandemic. Six months later, Americans are starting to travel again, but international destinations are still limited." She agrees with my assessment that "there doesn’t seem to be a clear end in sight to the travel ban." She spoke with her 4 experts
Rick Steves, America’s Godfather of European travel, sounds sullen on a phone call to discuss the pandemic and its impact on travel.

“It’s whack-a-mole until we get a grip on the virus,” Steves says, explaining that when one pocket of the United States starts to reduce its cases of the coronavirus, others lighten restrictions and see new surges of cases. “I’m really disappointed that people are so impatient and they don’t realize that you can’t just jump back to normalcy when things start to look good.”

Earlier this year, Steves’s company was scheduled to take tens of thousands of Americans to Europe on guided tours; those trips were of course canceled and refunded, and now he’s started a waitlist-- already 10,000 families deep-- for potential 2021 tours.

...Steves says he’s hopeful for Americans to be able to return to Europe in 2021, although he’s more concerned that the businesses that make European travel so special won’t survive the economic fallout from tourism remaining on hold, not to mention the economic crisis would-be American travelers are facing at home.

“We have more immediate needs right now, and that’s dealing with the reality of the economic division in our own society here,” Steves says. “When the easy money from the government runs out and this pandemic stretches on because of our inability to get a grip on it, I think are our concerns are not going to be, ‘Can I get a flight to London?’”

Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, an association that represents the European Union’s national tourism organizations, says he had been hopeful for a summer tourism bounce-back.

“Obviously that didn’t crystallize in the end, because of the beginning of the second wave of outbreaks in different countries and regions,” Santander says from his home in Brussels. “For the first half of 2020, [European tourism was] down 66 percent, but now we are down in some places even by 90, 93 percent. So things are not looking very good at the moment.”

Santander says he understands why Americans feel confusion and frustration about not being able to travel to Europe, or know when it may be possible. In the beginning of the summer, the ETC tried to convince E.U. member states and members of the Schengen zone to agree on a consistent protocol for resuming tourism. With every country carrying out different covid-19 strategies, Santander says the consequence has been an even more fragmented map of Europe.

While domestic tourism in Europe has resumed, Santander says American travelers have been absolutely missed. However, they will likely not be allowed back to Europe before Christmas due to the status of the pandemic.

“We are actually advocating that governments, the U.S. administration and also the European Union, work together,” Santander says. “Because if we come [up] with standardized protocols for testing and tracing, not only in Europe but also worldwide-- or if you want it just between the U.S. and the European Union if that makes it easier-- I think traveling is not at risk at all.”

Santander says he doesn’t discourage Americans to plan or book trips to Europe for 2021, as long as the reservations are adjustable or refundable: “People should not stop dreaming about traveling.”

Access Italy is a luxury travel company that primarily guides American customers, including former president Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, on private tours. With the company’s main season running from March to November, its CEO (and son of its founder), Simone Amorico, says they knew early on that 2020 would be a wash.

The company has been taking this time for research and development. Amorico says his team has been exploring Italy and developing ways for clients to have safer experiences, like finding private villas and yachts to book.

Amorico doesn’t expect Americans to be able to return in 2020. “I just hope it will be before spring of 2021, which I believe most certain it will happen,” he says, adding that he thinks by March or April there will be tools (like faster coronavirus testing) in place to facilitate safer travel between the United States and Italy.

Meanwhile, Amorico says requests for 2021 bookings are already trickling in despite the unpredictable situation.

“Our suggestion is not to confirm anything yet, but once the border opens, to try and book as fast as possible, because there’s going to be a huge demand for next year,” he says. “Americans just can’t wait to come back to Europe, especially Italy, especially after they’ve been told that they cannot come next year.”

In the years leading up to the pandemic, American tourism in Finland was on the rise. Sanna Kyyrä, chief specialist of tourism policy for Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, says Americans were among Finland’s biggest spenders, making the United States a significant part of Finland’s tourism income.

As far as when Americans will be able to get back to the land of happiness, saunas, karaoke and Northern Lights, “unfortunately, it looks very difficult at the moment,” Kyyrä says.

Kyyrä says Finland has been following and taking part in E.U. discussions regarding which countries will be included on the “green list” for travel, and hoping it will be possible to make a long-term plan by spring to help American travelers and Finnish tourism businesses prepare for a reopening.
So what about Asia? Well... Turkey again. And a few countries admit Americans with certain restrictions-- like Cambodia. That's a cool place but not only do you have to get tested, you also have to leave a $2,000 COVID-deposit. Dubai requires a test as well and proof of valid international health insurance. And South Korea will let you in-- after a 2 week quarantine (same as England, by the way). Armenia is also open to Americans, but requires a test at the airport or a two week quarantine-- same for Bangladesh.

So I was surprised over the weekend when I read about an American being arrested in Thailand. Turns out he was at an island resort on Koh Chang, complained about the hotel on several online travel sites and was arrested and thrown in jail for two days after the resort complained to the local police. He wasn't a tourist though; he's an American teacher living there. He had to post a $3,200 bail. And he faces a 2 year prison term if found guilty of defamation.

“The Sea View Resort owner filed a complaint that the defendant had posted unfair reviews on his hotel on the TripAdvisor website,” Pol Col Thanapon Taemsara of the Koh Chang police told AFP.

He said Mr Barnes was accused of causing “damage to the reputation of the hotel”, and of quarrelling with staff over not paying a corkage fee for alcohol he had brought to the hotel.

According to the TripAdvisor review that Mr Barnes posted in July, he encountered “unfriendly staff” who “act like they don’t want anyone here.”

Tom Storup, the rooms division manager at the resort, replied to Mr Barnes in a post dated July 20. He said that guests bringing their own liquor “goes against our rules, as it does in any hotel or resort I have worked or visited around the globe.” He said Mr Barnes used “abusive language” toward a staff member who explained the 500-baht corkage charge to him.

The resort’s food and beverage manager intervened “for the safety and comfort of our staff and guests who were having a peaceful dinner”, Mr Storup wrote. “It was then when another guest at your table took over the conversation with our F&B manager and he apologised profusely and shook hands after a short chat.

“The F&B manager then decided that, in order to avoid further disturbance, to allow you to have that liquor without charging you for the corkage fee.”

The Sea View Resort told AFP on Saturday that legal action was only taken because Mr Barnes had written multiple reviews on different sites over the past few weeks.

At least one was posted in June on TripAdvisor accusing the hotel of “modern day slavery”-- which the site removed after a week for violating its guidelines.

“We chose to file a complaint to serve as a deterrent, as we understood he may continue to write negative reviews week after week for the foreseeable future,” the hotel said, adding that staff had made “multiple attempts” to contact Mr Barnes but they were ignored, leading the business to resort to a legal complaint.

Mr Barnes did not immediately respond to requests from AFP for comment.

“We agree that the defamation law may be viewed as excessive for this situation,” the resort said in its statement, but it said the guest had included “fabricated stories” in reviews posted on both TripAdvisor and Google.

“The guest refused to respond to our attempts at communication and instead continued to persistently post negative and untrue reviews of our business. We simply want to ensure that these untrue reviews are stopped, and we had no way of negotiating the matter with the guest until after our filing the complaint with the authorities.”

...Sea View, a 156-room resort on Kai Bae Beach was founded in 1989 and is ranked 10th out of 85 properties on Koh Chang that have been reviewed on TripAdvisor. It has received 1,922 reviews, with 1,090 of them rating the resort excellent, 580 very good, 170 average, 48 poor and 32 terrible.

Defamation laws in Thailand have long been seen as problematic, as they are frequently used by businesses and influential figures to intimidate critics.

The maximum sentence under the law is two years in prison, along with a 200,000-baht fine.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Safe Places To Visit... In Mexico

Over the weekend, citing the gargantuan COVID pandemic in Arizona, Sonora Gov. Claudia Pavlovich closed the state's border with Arizona, cutting Arizona holiday-makers off from Mexican beach towns like Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Kino Bay, Los Algodones Beach and San Carlos (and Nacapule Canyon). The U.S. had already done the same thing fir northbound traveller in March.

There are over 9,000 confirmed COVID cases in Sonora and hospitals in Nogales and Guaymas are at full capacity. Arizona is due to pass the 100,000 Covid cases mark on Monday. 3,536 new cases were reported on Sunday.

Meanwhile Puerto Vallarta reopened to visitors last week and visitors began arriving over the weekend. The city's tourism bureau boasts of "health and safety protocols to meet the realities of a world of Covid-19.
Local officials put the entire city of Puerto Vallarta under quarantine starting in early March. It has since undergone a multi-phase reopening process led by local officials following state, federal and international protocols. The process ultimately contributed to the State of Jalisco obtaining the “Safe Travels” stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) last week.

The measures implemented in Puerto Vallarta began at Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport-- the destination’s main “filter”-- which, thanks to its own internal protocols to prevent Covid-19, received the WTTC “Safe Travels” stamp. Social distancing is being practiced by airport workers, and thermal video cameras are being used as people enter the immigration zone, where electronic documentation is currently taking place. Disinfectant mats are used at all airport entrances and exits.

The health and safety of locals and visitors are of the utmost importance across Puerto Vallarta. In addition to the preventive and precautionary measures at the airport, the city is requiring extensive and continuous sanitization in hotels, public transportation, and public spaces. Restaurants must maintain physical distance between tables and patrons, and establishments must place disinfectant mats at entrances. Local officials are also distributing antibacterial gel and conducting temperature checks.

More than 45 hotels have reopened to visitors, with a maximum 30% occupancy, and are offering modified access to on-site restaurants, pools and beaches. A second group of hotels will open before, or during July, for the summer, and the remainder will open in the last trimester of the year, facing the winter high season.

Puerto Vallarta’s iconic Malecon waterfront promenade is not yet fully open to the public, only access points to restaurants and shops. Bars remain closed until the destination exits its current phase of the reopening process.

Connectivity has improved in a notable way since last week. Mexican airlines are offering continuous flights to main domestic destinations, including Mexico City (CDMX), Guadalajara, Tijuana, Aguascalientes, and Monterrey. Internationally, four airlines are connecting U.S. cities with Puerto Vallarta. Alaska Airlines has daily flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco. American Airlines offers a daily connection to Dallas and Los Angeles.  United Airlines maintains a daily flight to Houston. Delta Air Lines will restart daily services to Los Angeles from July 2nd.

Other U.S. airlines are waiting for growth in demand, while Canadian carriers await Canadian government approvals.

Given the dynamic nature of the situation, new measures are expected from Mexico’s federal and state governments, aimed at continuing to advance the reopening of activities in a gradual and safe manner.
Puerto Vallarta isn't my kind of destination-- too glitzy. San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato is though and they also obtained the WTTC "Safe Travels" stamp last week. I haven't been there in 2 decades but I hope I get to visit again.

The whole state of Guanajuato was given the World Travel & Tourism Council's stamp of approval recognizing the implementation of COVID-era global standardized health and hygiene protocols.
The international stamp augments San Miguel de Allende’s own municipal “Health First” certification. The city launched “Health First,” which is granted after local health and safety officials evaluate each location and certify compliance with sanitary protocols for reopening, on May 25. Restaurants, hotels, golf courses, activity centers and cultural spaces, among others, must apply for the certificate online. In addition to the onsite inspection, businesses must complete paperwork providing detailed information on sanitation practices and undergo staff training sessions. Certification is "free but mandatory," according to San Miguel de Allende Mayor Luis Alberto Villarreal García.

 “San Miguel de Allende’s infrastructure has been working proactively to ensure the wellness of our residents and future visitors and making many sacrifices to contain this pandemic and working with health officials to ensure that all international requirements are met,” said Mayor Villarreal García. “Obtaining the WTTC’s ‘Safe Travels’ stamp endorses this work and reaffirms that San Miguel de Allende is properly ready in terms of sanitation.”

San Miguel de Allende entered its Phase 0 of its Covid-19 Reactivation plan-- activation of the local economy for the residents-- starting June 1. During the initial phase of the plan, the city saw most of the business infrastructure that affects residents reopen, including restaurants, markets, public transportation, offices and more. At this point, hotels, bars, cantinas, clubs, public or hotel pools will not yet reopen. All residents are asked to wear masks, practice social distancing and apply extensive hygiene practices. Businesses will be required to implement international-grade sanitation protocols, including shoe-cleaning, a decrease in interior foot traffic, set-up of dispensers of antibacterial sanitizer containing 70% alcohol, provision of face masks for people without them and hourly disinfecting of public spaces.  At no point can any groups gather inside or outside public spaces.

Access to San Miguel de Allende has been closed since March to non-residents, with city police monitoring all entry points (Querétaro, Celaya-Comonfort, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and Dr. Mora). Those permitted to enter must not show symptoms of Covid-19 and must be essential to the needs of the recovery phase the city is currently in.

Mayor Villarreal García announced that hotels may start accepting bookings for July 15 arrivals as of this week, in the hope that the city may start reopening in the upcoming month.

“We take our place in the world seriously, as you do when you are with us,” said Mayor Luis Alberto Villarreal García. “With these efforts we confirm San Miguel de Allende as a leading destination.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Travel Is Going To Change So Much Because Of This Pandemic

I got some bullshit e-mail bordering on the criminal from American Airlines this morning. "Caring for you is our priority-- that's why we’re introducing new steps to give you even more peace of mind when you fly." They only have one priority: profit and they could care less if you die, as long as it isn't on one of their over-stuffed planes. Their message wants suckers willing to fly to know that they have "cleaning procedures on the ground and on board [and] "innovation opportunities for the future," but decidedly not than they plan to end social distancing onboard and stuff their passengers in like sardines agin, which will absolutely make people sick, some of whom will die.

"In a first for any airline," they boasted as though it were meaningful, "we’re seeking GBAC STARTM Accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council for all of our aircraft and lounges. This accreditation demonstrates we have the proper cleaning and disinfection practices, procedures and systems in place to respond to biological threats like COVID-19. Beginning June 30, we’ll ask all travelers during the check-in process to certify they have been free of COVID-19 symptoms for the past 14 days. This is in addition to requiring all travelers on board to wear a face covering." Certify? Pinky-swear?

Yesterday, writing for the Washington Post, Hannah Sampson reported that "After capping the number of people on flights since April, American Airlines announced Friday that its planes will likely be full in a few days." No wonder the E.U. has decided to ban Americans from coming back to Europe! That should hurt the airlines which-- let's face it-- deserve to be hurt.

American sent customers the bullshit above. But in their press release to the media, they admitted exactly what they're up to: "As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1. American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost." I was glad read that other customers were as angry as I was (even though I have no plans to fly until it's safe to-- which it is not at this point, unless you don't find getting sick.)
“I find it absolutely appalling you chose to sell the middle row seats as Covid numbers continue to spike,” one Twitter user wrote in a message directed to the airline. “I am loyal to AA but clearly you are not concerned with the safety of the public. Looks like I will fly delta since they removed the middle row. EXPECTED BETTER!”

Earlier this week, the union that represents American’s pilots pushed a plan that would have the government buy enough seats on each flights so no one would have to sit next to a stranger.

“Passengers would be encouraged to fly more thanks to uniform social distancing, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights, and the government would ensure preservation of critical transportation infrastructure and related jobs,” the Allied Pilots Association proposed.

United said in mid-May that it would “avoid where possible seating customers next to each other” but could make no guarantees. Instead, the airline said at the time that it would “do our best” to contact travelers on flights that were expected to be close to full in case they wanted to rebook on another flight.

United spokesman Charles Hobart said in an email that the policy would stay in place through July 31, but he confirmed that the carrier does not block middle or adjacent seats.

Delta is still blocking middle seats and has committed to capping seating at 50 or 60 percent, depending on the part of the plane-- at least through Sept. 30. Southwest Airlines is blocking about a third of the seats on its planes from being booked, which it says allows for middle seats to stay open. That cap is also in place until at least Sept. 30.

JetBlue said it would continue blocking all middle seats on larger planes and aisle seats on smaller aircraft through at least July 31.

“You’re going to definitely have to sit next to a stranger again, I’m afraid, on a plane,” JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes said during a Washington Post Live discussion in late May. “Because [of] the economics of our industry, most airlines have a break-even load factor of 75 to 80 percent, so clearly capping flights at 55 to 60 percent, which is what we’re doing right now … is not sustainable.”

Government mandates the percentage of restaurant seats that can be filled; why not airplanes? Last week, Sampson did another Post piece, 11 Ways The Pandemic Will Change Travel. Some of it doesn't sound so bad-- at least not to me:
Expect fewer crowds and experiences at tourist magnets

Theme parks, museums and iconic landmarks are known for drawing a crowd. But as they reopen and look to the future, those crowds are expected to be much smaller-- and more controlled.

In revealing plans to welcome visitors back this month and next, operators of some of the world’s largest theme parks painted a picture of what they expect a coronavirus-era “normal” to look like inside their gates. The scene: mandatory temperature checks; visitors and crew in masks; rides, lines and seats spaced to allow for social distancing; and characters that interact from afar, if at all.

“In preparing to reopen during this unusual time, we have to manage our theme parks in a very different way from what we’ve known before,” the Walt Disney Co. said in a statement announcing plans for a phased reopening of its Florida parks starting July 11.

At its Disney Springs shopping complex in central Florida, which started to reopen in May, Star Wars Stormtroopers keep watch from a balcony and issue warnings to visitors about wearing masks and staying distanced.

SeaWorld Orlando said it would modify some animal interactions, one of the park’s signature offerings. Universal Orlando Resort announced it would move to virtual lines for some attractions. Disney is doing away with fireworks shows and parades for now. And Six Flags said all parks would move to an online reservation system to manage how many people could attend and assign guests staggered arrival times.

Museums, too, are trying to envision a future where visitors will feel safe. The Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo in Washington, which drew more than 22 million visits last year, have not announced reopening dates, but plans call for only a few to open at first.

Capacity will be limited, and there may be more staff on hand to keep people appropriately distanced from each other. Face masks for everyone and cleaning throughout the day are also expected.

In Paris, the Louvre-- which has long struggled with overcrowding-- will require all visitors to book a time slot once the museum opens on July 6...

Airlines will have to balance safety and profits

Unlike many travel companies, airlines have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, although at drastically reduced numbers. Practices they have adopted over the past few months are likely to shape the future of flying, though some are certainly short-term fixes.

Blocking off some seats on planes or limiting the number of tickets sold, for example, is unlikely to be the status quo as more people start to fly. Such measures aren’t even guaranteed today across the board.

“You’re going to definitely have to sit next to a stranger again, I’m afraid, on a plane,” JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes said during a Washington Post Live discussion last month. “Because [of] the economics of our industry, most airlines have a break-even load factor of 75 to 80 percent, so clearly capping flights at 55 to 60 percent, which is what we’re doing right now through July 6, is not sustainable.”

He said he believes airlines will need to make it easier in the future for travelers to change their flights-- a decision that, before the pandemic, came with hefty fees at most carriers.

“Because it’s not ever really going to be acceptable, I don’t think, for someone who is unwell to feel that they’re being made to fly,” he said.

Airlines are already requiring passengers and employees to wear masks, cutting food and beverage service during flights, and increasing how often they clean. Some have started asking travelers to fill out health questionnaires and checking passengers’ temperatures, but there is a broader push to have federal authorities take over those checks.

...Airports are also making changes, and the pandemic could force an overhaul of the way passengers move through the facilities, said Ty Osbaugh, the aviation leader at architecture firm Gensler.

He said he would not be surprised to see significantly more biometric screening and touchless elements within the next six to eight months. He envisioned a system that could scan his face, direct him to a TSA lane and use biometrics to let him buy anything in the airport without taking his wallet out.

“If I could go from curb to gate without physically touching anything, it kind of solves some of the pandemic issues,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people who would prefer to do that.”

Wary travelers will stay closer to home

Before Americans start hopping on long flights or jetting around the world, experts believe they will first start venturing out closer to home.

Travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth said that based on travel insurance policies purchased through its site between April 1 and May 10 for travel this summer, domestic trips account for 48 percent of planned summer travel, an increase from 15 percent last year. And booking site Travelocity noted that most hotel bookings are within 100 miles of where travelers live.

“Our research actually says that leisure travel is going to be among the first to come back,” said Roger Dow, the chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association, in a media call last month. “It’ll be drive and shorter flights regionally.”

To create consistency across travel companies in the United States, the association released a set of guidelines last month that called for revamping public spaces to allow for physical distancing, installing barriers, moving toward touchless technology and stepping up sanitation.

But travelers within the United States should not expect consistency in the near term when trying to visit other states. Some places, including Hawaii and Maine, are either requiring most visitors to quarantine for two weeks after arriving or to show proof of a negative covid-19 test. And local rules about what can and can’t be open, and how many people can gather, could vary from city to city.

“Part of re-opening and recovery means that destinations, attractions, hotels, airlines, etc. will need to demonstrate to potential visitors that they are doing everything they can to minimize the risk as they travel to and once they are in the destination by following best practices,” Amir Eylon, the chief executive of tourism-focused consultancy Longwoods International, said in an email. “They will also need to demonstrate to the local residents, who may be wary, that they are asking visitors to ‘play by the rules.’”

Fewer travelers could mean more expensive travel abroad

While it can feel like airlines charge passengers for everything from choosing a seat to checking a bag, in reality, deregulation lowered the cost per mile for flying, making international travel more accessible than ever before.

But some worry that the impact of the pandemic on airlines may translate to less travelers flying abroad, and, as a result, will make other parts of international travel more expensive.

“If the airlines can only put half as many people on the plane, it’s going to cost a whole double,” says Rick Steves, the Washington-state-based European travel expert known for his guidebook series, public television and radio shows, and travel company that takes more than 30,000 people to Europe in a typical year. “I can afford it, but many travelers cannot. Then travel becomes an activity just for wealthy people.”

The issue is not only limited to airlines. Steves fears that by not being able to “pack the house,” establishments that make travel special such as mom-and-pop restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues will have to raise their prices to make up for the limited headcount.

Many cities around the world depend on international tourism and have felt the hit during the pandemic. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the decline in international tourism for the rest of 2020 could translate to $910 billion to $1.2 trillion in lost revenue for the industry.

...The not-so-socially distant elements of international travel that we love so much seem impossible to fully embrace while covid-19 remains without a vaccine. Will we get over virus fears and return to travel joys, such as eating street food in Bangkok, dancing in crowded Tel Aviv nightclubs or staying in a South African hostel with bunk beds?

Steves is confident those beloved aspects of going abroad will make a return after the pandemic subsides.

“You go to an Irish pub to sit next to a stranger and drink beer. You go to France to have your cheeks kissed,” he said. “I think that’s going to come back, but it’s gonna be a while.”

Buffets out, temperature checks in when ships return to sea

Two big questions have been swirling around the cruise industry since operators halted sailings in mid-March: When will ships take passengers back to sea? And what will cruising look like in the future?

While the world’s largest companies have not shared comprehensive details yet on what cruisers should expect, some things are clear: Cruise ships will not return to the sea all at once. When they do, they probably will not be as packed as they were in pre-coronavirus days. Temperature screenings, while incapable of catching asymptomatic travelers, will probably become the norm. The old-fashioned, dish-it-yourself buffet is expected to become a relic. Construction of new ships will almost certainly be delayed, and itineraries could be tweaked for a while.

...The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said cruise line plans must include temperature checks, medical screenings, testing for the coronavirus and social distancing protocols.

...Still unclear: How many people will be eager to set sail again, given the global toll of the virus and the high-profile outbreaks on ships. But cruise executives say they are optimistic based on bookings for 2021.

“I think in the early going, we have plenty of people who love cruising who will be able to fill the ships that will be available at the time,” Carnival Corp. chief executive Arnold Donald said in April.

Relocation will increase demand for home rentals

During the pandemic, many companies and their workforces learned productivity was possible outside of the office. Now that working remotely has entered the mainstream, we may see a new trend of people taking longer trips that combine work and pleasure.

"A lot of people have gotten comfortable that they don’t have to squeeze a nine-day vacation into six. They can take the extra days and maybe work a couple half-days remotely,” said vacation-rental company Vrbo president Jeff Hurst. "I do think we’re going to start to see people be more creative on how they think about working from any house, as opposed to just their own house, or any destination as opposed [to] from just their office.”

It’s a trend Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky believes was already in motion.

“I had assumed over the course of 20 years that a generation of people would not be tethered to their city ... that people will realize over the course of working more remote, they could kind of live anywhere,” Chesky said. “I never thought that decades would happen in two months.”

In April, Airbnb added a new feature on its homepage advertising “monthly stays” to accommodate the growing interest of long-term travel. At the peak of the pandemic shutdowns, about 40 percent of Airbnb’s bookings were long-term.

That number has dropped since; however, Chesky predicts travelers’ interest in long-term stays will continue to grow with time. “I couldn’t overstate this enough; I think this is a very big, profound shift," he said.

The long-term travel trend will be more beneficial for home rentals than hotels, as they offer travelers a more comfortable stay at a more affordable price. An Airbnb with a kitchen and a garage is more approachable for day-to-day living than a 400-room hotel where a traveler is bound to room service and outside restaurants.

Another major change in the vacation rental market since the pandemic began has been an overhaul of cleaning protocols. Once upon a time, the cleanliness star rating on an Airbnb review was just another detail travelers checked before booking a vacation rental. Then coronavirus redefined the importance of cleanliness.

Companies such as Airbnb and Vrbo created new cleaning procedures for hosts to follow in the pandemic. These enhanced sanitation steps were designed to not only keep travelers safe, but also to reassure them that it’s okay to travel again. And unlike emergency cancellation policies put into place during the pandemic, some experts believe this new emphasis on sanitation will extend into the future.

“COVID-19 has heightened consumer awareness around cleanliness, which is why we released our cleanliness guidelines to educate vacation homeowners, property managers and travelers about how vacation rentals should be cleaned and disinfected,” Hurst said. “As long as travelers are finding the information provided by our partners helpful, there’s no reason for it to go away.”

Interest in private travel is here to stay

The pandemic has created a greater demand for experiences away from crowds. Until a coronavirus vaccine is found, that preference for private travel will probably continue.

According to a U.S. Travel Association survey conducted in May, people feel more comfortable traveling in personal vehicles and staying in vacation rentals than they do taking flights, taking cruises and staying in hotels. Interest in RVs has skyrocketed.

Dow, of the U.S. Travel Association, predicts the pandemic will renew interest in the Great American Road Trip, with a particular focus on the outdoors, where travelers are less likely to face crowds.

“I think you’re going to see that Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota, the more rural places, get a huge spike in travel,” Dow said.

Small restaurants and bars may be decimated for good

...Many independently owned restaurants and bars, hallmarks of having a local experience while traveling, will not be able to restart at all. Investment bank UBS predicted in April that up to one in five restaurants in the United States may close permanently.

These small businesses are fighting herculean battles to stay in business during the pandemic. When owners aren’t scrambling to keep up with new government requirements or pivoting business models (like turning into grocery stores or coming up with new takeout concepts), they’re figuring out how to pay employees and mounting bills.

“I think the really fine dining restaurants will remain as is, the sort of middle ground of restaurants will shrink, and the fast-casual places like Shake Shack will stay afloat,” said Kat Odell, a food and travel writer and author who eats at about 400 to 500 restaurants per year.

...How tourism rebounds will also play a role in restaurants’ recovery, particularly in cities such as New York and Los Angeles that rely on patronage from travelers as well as locals. Will the independent restaurant landscape remain vibrant, or become dominated by the chains that could afford to weather this storm?...

Cleaning and contact-free technology will be top priorities

Hotels are elevating a couple of key amenities these days: cleanliness and health-consciousness. That means the things that might have mattered before-- restaurants, pools, gyms, bars, make-your-own-waffle stations-- are taking a back seat.

At the same time, experts say hotels have a difficult balancing act to pull off: While prioritizing health and safety, they still need to make visitors feel comfortable and at home.

“The challenge will be how do we make sure we’re not conveying reminders of the virus,” said Kate Walsh, the dean of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.”We want to convey that this is a sanitized and healthy place, but we don’t want it to feel so clinical like you’re entering a hospital.”

Guests should expect to see more frequent cleaning, transparent shields, abundant hand sanitizers, reminders about distancing and lobbies reconfigured to create more space. They should also expect to interact with fewer workers as hotels encourage people to check in online and use their phones as room keys.

“The use of technology to reduce direct contact with guests, lobby population and front desk queue is encouraged, where feasible,” guidelines from the American Hotel & Lodging Association state. “In addition, contactless payment processes are encouraged, and when not available, employees should minimize contact as much as possible.”

The association also recommends that housekeepers should not enter rooms during a stay unless they are asked to do so or get approval from guests. All that separation could make it difficult for hotels to deliver the welcoming atmosphere they promise.

“We’re distancing the staff from the guest, and the heart of hospitality is conveying warmth and being taken care of,” Walsh said. “How do you do that in a distanced way?”

She said she expects to see hotels adapt to the times by using outdoor space more creatively, removing loose items such as menus, minibar goods and pens from rooms, and either making workout equipment available in guest rooms or letting guests reserve private gym time. Room service will be of the knock-and-drop variety, while restaurants-- which will need to abide by local and state capacity guidelines-- are expected to offer more grab-and-go options.

Frank Lavey, the senior vice president of global operations for Hyatt, said in an email that the company is listening to guests and loyalty members to get a sense of what matters most to them when they return.

“Health and safety is a top priority, but there is also the need for connection, culture and new experiences,” he said. “As the world begins to reopen, we are readying ourselves to help people do what they’re longing to do-- get back on the road to explore new places, feel the excitement of reconnecting with those they miss, destress and re-energize-- once again experience the joy of travel, and do so safely.”

Programs will introduce new, temporary perks

When the pandemic struck, frequent travelers wondered what would happen to their loyalty program standings. The complicated system of miles, rewards programs, points and statuses relies on people traveling and spending money using travel credit cards. But with most people not traveling, does the system crumble?

According to loyalty program experts, that answer is no.

“Loyalty programs are huge cost centers for airlines and hotels,” said Brian Kelly, the founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, a site that offers advice on those types of perks.

Airlines and hotels generate billions of dollars in revenue from selling miles and points to credit card companies. Some worry that because the status of travel is in limbo, travel perks won’t be as powerful of an incentive for consumers to join and use branded travel credit cards. But that shouldn’t be a major issue.

“They’re trying to figure out ways to still get people to care about the miles, especially if they’re not flying,” said René de Lambert, founder of the travel blog, RenesPoints.

Kelly and Lambert say travel brands are sustaining consumer interest by offering new incentives, like having everyday spending count toward lifetime elite statuses, allowing travel loyalty points be redeemed for non-travel purchases and increasing the number of award seats on flights.

According to American Express data reported by Wirecutter, 134 percent more American Express Membership Rewards were redeemed for non-travel purposes from mid-March to mid-April compared to that time frame in 2019.

These changes may not hold over after the pandemic, Kelly said, so they are going to benefit people who make the most of them in the near future.

“You better believe there will be people buying cheap flights to get a status that they never would have been able to achieve otherwise,” he said. “There will be people making out like bandits.”

Large gatherings will creep back with caution-- if at all

Traveling for the express purpose of interacting with other people-- dozens, hundreds or even thousands-- is especially fraught now. It’s still not clear what conferences, trade shows, political and fan conventions, concerts and festivals will look like in the coming months and years, if they happen at all.

High-profile events such as SXSW, the Cannes Film Festival and the 2020 Summer Olympics have all been canceled or postponed. Most Republican National Convention festivities were moved from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Fla., after North Carolina officials called for a downsized event with safety precautions. The Democratic National Convention appears to be moving toward a scaled-back or virtual event.

Julius Solaris, the editor of EventMB, which focuses on business meetings and events, said the first of such gatherings will probably be geared toward local audiences in large cities, rather than events that draw national and international crowds.

Those early meetings, he said, should be shorter-- a single day rather than several, with sessions that last no longer than 30 minutes. Solaris said attendance will need to be slashed so there’s enough room to keep people distanced in meeting rooms. All of those conditions could make traditional events too costly to put on at all.

“It’s just not going to be profitable for some events,” he said. “They’re not going to break even.”

Solaris said he anticipates seeing some hybrids, which may include some people together in person while others participate virtually.

Festivals and outdoor events still face huge challenges as many states have limits on how many people can gather, as well as rules about social distancing. Events such as city art festivals, parades and community runs would be too difficult or pointless to operate under such rules.

“We aren’t a model that you can change up,” said Steve Schmader, the president and chief executive of the International Festivals & Events Association. “The model of getting people together in your community is the model.”

He wondered how it would be possible to do temperature checks along a parade route, or make sure that everyone watching stayed six feet apart.

“We don’t have the answers to that,” Schmader said. “We’re all going through a master’s class we didn’t ask to sign up for.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Is Air Travel Back? Not For Me

I've only been to the Bahamas once; I didn't like it. The trip was to visit the legendary, now shuttered, Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where one of our bands, the Ocean Blue, was recording Beneath the Rhythm and Sound late in the summer of 1993. It was a difficult time for the band, who came from a very conservative religious fundamentalist background and had been coming to grips with the fact that one of its key members had decided to eschew the closet and embrace his homosexuality. He had written the band's only real hit and was the member most liked by the media. But the other band members-- who had once all given each other copies of the newly released Rush Limbaugh book as Christmas presents-- couldn't come to terms with one of them being gay. They told him he had to stop talking with the media and representing the band. And then they told him that Beneath the Rhythm and Sound would be the last time they would be working together, after having been friends since childhood.

I was unaware of that when I got to Nassau for the album playback. Afterwards the studio managers had a barbeque at the pool as a kind of celebration. Suddenly their 5 year old son was nowhere to be seen. Then he was seen-- at the bottom of the pool. Steve, the Ocean Blue member being thrown out of the band, had been a lifeguard. He dove in, rescued the kid and resuscitated him... tears of joy everywhere. One of the other band members came over to me. He seemed confused. "How," he asked me, seriously, referring to Steve, "could he be doing Satan's work and God's work at the same time?"

The was both the Ocean Blue's last album for Sire Records and my last visit to the Bahamas, forever tainted in my mind by the whole drama. And I'm not a big fan of beach resort places. There have been 103 COVID cases and 11 deaths, just 262 cases per million people, extremely low. The least impacted U.S. states have far more cases per million:
Alaska- 904 per million
Montana- 570 per million
Hawaii- 514 per million
In fact, the Bahamas are doing so well that they're reopening for business July1. The government will allow commercial airlines, hotels and vacation rentals as well as taxis and buses. But... pre-travel requirements include:
COVID-19 RT-PCR negative test result no older than 10 days, ready to be handed to Customs & Immigration officials upon arrival.
Customs & Immigration forms that must be filled out and printed prior to arrival.
A Travel Health Card that must be filled out prior to travel.
There are lots of safety requirements for tourists-- temperature screenings at places such as airports; beach chairs spaced 6 feet apart; and no more buffets at resorts. Incoming travelers are will be advised to adhere to social distancing guidelines and to routinely bring face masks just as they would bring their swimsuits and sunscreen."

According the USA Today, "Bahamians derive the bulk of their income from tourism. Fishing, diving and soaking up the sun reportedly generates $5.7 billion for the economy. In 2018, over 590,000 boaters visited the Bahamas. About 3.2 million tourists were from the U.S., contributing an estimated $1.3 billion to the economy.

The Prime Minister announced the opening will be reversed if cases spike: "It will be adjusted if we see a deterioration of the COVID-19 infection trends or if we’ve determined that the protocols and procedures are not in place sufficiently to warrant this opening."

Badge of Honor by Nancy Ohanian

The airlines were so desperate for customers that they refused to ban traveller who wouldn't wear masks, endangering the other passengers and the staff. This afternoon, the Washington Post reported this might change. "Airlines for America, a trade organization, said a group of major American airlines will begin 'vigorously' enforcing face-covering policies after reports of travelers not being held to the safety standard. Last month, several airlines acknowledged that they had told crew members to avoid escalating any confrontations in the air over mask violations and described various levels of enforcement. Delta, Southwest, United Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others will 'clearly articulate' their face-covering policy to passengers and may require customers to acknowledge the policy at check-in, the association announced Monday on behalf of the member companies. If passengers don’t comply, carriers can implement their own consequences, which could include suspension of flying privileges. 'U.S. airlines are very serious about requiring face coverings on their flights,' Nicholas E. Calio, the group’s president and chief executive, wrote in the statement. That's completely and demonstrably untrue and anyone who catches COVID on a plane would have to be crazy not to sue the airline. Also noteworthy: "The use of face masks at airports has been sporadic, according to reports from across the country."

Anyone thinking about boarding a plane for Tulsa this week to attend the COVID-spreading Trump rally there? I'd advise against it; just drink the bleach. Alan Grayson watches air travel carefully and has been telling me there are just 20% of flights taking off these days compared to last year. Last week he sent me this e-mail: "Down 81% yesterday from a year ago."

He started on March 22 but I couldn't figure out how to take a photo of his chart that was that long. The low point was on my sister's birthday, April 16: 95,085 flights vs. 2,616,158 flights the year before (approximately 3.6%). It's been slowly ticking up since.

Yesterday, Josh Barro, writing for New York Magazine, noted that Air Travel Is Rebounding Strongly-- But Likely To Remain Well Below Pre-COVID Levels. "Air travel," he wrote, "is coming back." Really? I don't recall a summer I haven't been abroad since... 1968. I'm a frequent flyer and I can't imagine getting on a plane, as much as I might want to be in Bali or the Dordogne region of France, where we were planning to spend June.

Barro wrote that last Thursday the TSA "screened 502,000 passengers, the first time travelers throughout have exceeded half a million since March 21. By ordinary measures, this is dismal volume-- on a typical spring day last year, between 2 million and 2.5 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints-- but it’s way up from the depths of April, when there were several days with fewer than 100,000 travelers, volumes not typically seen since the 1950s.
Airlines have been responding to this trend by beefing up their schedules, especially for domestic travel. American Airlines announced earlier this month that its domestic schedule for July will offer 45 percent less capacity than last July’s-- for comparison, May’s domestic schedule entailed an 80 percent year-over-year reduction. Rising passenger volumes also mean airlines have been losing less money every day than they expected to lose as of April, one of the factors recently pushing up airline stock prices (though they are down Monday morning).

As with so much of the economy, a key question for the airline industry is how long this better-than-expected trend will continue. A fraction of customers are demonstrating their eagerness to resume travel as soon as it is feasible. Forty-four percent of respondents to an ABC–Ipsos poll conducted this week said they were willing to fly at this time-- up from 29 percent in May, but still seriously depressed. And travel volumes are not just a question of willingness, but also of interest. Certain activities that motivate air travel-- conventions, weddings, festivals, nightlife, sporting events, even business meetings-- are unlikely to return in force until there is a widely distributed vaccine or a highly effective therapeutic treatment. And while consumers have been surprisingly eager to spend in certain areas, consumers whose own jobs and businesses are slow to return to normal may be disinclined to spend on leisure travel. Businesses dealing with lost revenues have found cessation of business travel to be one important area of cost reduction and may themselves be slow to resume it.

For this reason, airlines have been signaling to their workers that some fraction of the current service reductions are likely to be persistent-- and will require a permanent shrinking of aircraft fleets and of staffing. CARES Act financial subsidies generally require airlines to maintain staffing levels through September 30, but airlines have been warning of potential layoffs after that and have been offering voluntary buyouts and early retirement packages to workers. One common feature of these offers has been letting workers retain free-flying benefits for extended periods after leaving their jobs-- a benefit that may be more valuable in upcoming years if planes have more unsold seats available for nonrevenue travel.

Airlines are doing their part to lure customers back. American says this will be the “summer of deals,” and there are a lot of low airfares out there. But I can’t stop thinking about something the economist Jason Furman pointed out to me last month about airfares in the time of the coronavirus and “hedonic adjustments.” Hedonic adjustment is the process of accounting for changes in product and service quality when calculating inflation. If the new iPhone has a better battery life than the old iPhone, then part of the phone-price increase should be attributed to improved quality, not inflation. So how should we think about the changing quality of air travel-- if there are no restaurants open in New York, no Broadway shows, nobody willing to take an in-person business meeting with you, doesn’t that all reduce the product quality of a plane ticket to New York? Add the increased difficulty of getting a decent cocktail at the airport and the risk of contracting a deadly disease, and it’s easy to see why it’s so hard to sell airline tickets right now. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a deal. And some of those factors reducing the quality of air travel are likely to persist for a year or longer.

The CARES Act was designed to prevent the airlines from shrinking in an undesirable way-- from running out of money this spring or summer, laying off staff and shedding planes for which demand would return by this fall. And as we see, some of that demand is returning pretty robustly. But part of what we are seeing is a longer-run drop in demand that will require a materially smaller airline sector for a period of several years as the economy recovers. Over the rest of the year we will get a better sense of how large a part that is that won’t return soon.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Cross-Country Car Road Trip During The Coronavirus Calamity-- A Guest Post By Jeff Rasley

No one was standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ except statues

It's been almost a decade since the last time noted travel author Jeff Rasley did a couple of guest posts for us on Nepal, where he organizes Himalayan treks. No more travel to Nepal during the pandemic, but Jeff just took a very different kind of trip-- a road trip through the American pandemic. I think you'll find this as fascinating as I did. Be sure to visit Jeff's web site. He took all the pictures... but one. You can probably guess which one I inserted. Here's the guest post:

When my wife Alicia and I began our annual road trip from Indianapolis to Los Angeles on March 12, the coronavirus pandemic was still considered a “China problem.”

There were cases in Washington State, but it seemed likely the virus would be contained within the Seattle area.

A few days before packing the car to head west, I hiked the Starkey Park Trail along Eagle Creek in Zionsville, Indiana, with my hiking group. No one wore masks or washed their hands before we set out. “Social distancing” was not yet in the national vocabulary.

China began reporting deaths in January due to an epidemic in Wuhan. But news of a new virus on the other side of the Pacific Ocean seemed no more relevant than routine reports of epidemics, pestilence, and wars in other parts of the world.

We would drive nowhere near to Washington State on our planned route and Seattle is over 1,100 miles from L.A.

Surely Not Here!

Surely the virus would be contained by quarantining anyone coming to the States from China. Nevertheless, added two surgical masks, a large container of disinfectant wipes, and bottles of hand-sanitizer to our baggage.

Our first destination was Kansas City. News reports on the radio about the spread of the coronavirus were a little worrisome as we drove across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. But traffic on I-70 was normal.

No one seemed to be particularly concerned about the coronavirus at the gas and food stops we made along I-70. There was an outdoor concert in the Power and Light District that night we planned to attend. When we arrived, we discovered it was canceled.

But the restaurants in downtown KC were open and no particular precautions were being taken by servers or patrons.

We stopped in Manhattan, Kansas, the next day for a walking tour of Kansas State University. The University opened in 1863. The 19th Century castle-like limestone buildings in the center of the campus gave Alicia and me an eerie feeling. Not because of the architecture, but because we were the only people walking around the campus. All the buildings were locked up. It was spring break, but campuses don’t become ghost towns during a normal break in the academic calendar.

Heading West

As we drove west, the scenery changed from the flat and rolling farmlands of the Midwest to the Flint Hills of Kansas and then the high plains of eastern Colorado. When the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado came into view it looked like we were driving into another world. We were disappointed to find the 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway closed.

Santa’s North Pole near the entrance to the highway was also closed, so we couldn’t ride the highest (elevation 7,500 feet) Ferris Wheel in the world. No signs explained the closures.

But in Colorado Springs, Downtown and Old Town were happening places. Lots of people were walking the streets, shopping, hanging out in coffee houses, and dining out. The University of Colorado campus at Colorado Springs overlooks the Garden of the Gods Park. Its architecture is uniform, modern, and attractive.

Temporarily Closed

Notices around the campus stated that classes were temporarily canceled to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, but many students were walking around and hanging out on campus. The dining center, Café 65, was open to the public and serving food cafeteria-style. A poster at the entrance urged diners to wash their hands to reduce the risk of infection.

That warning prompted Alicia and I to begin washing our hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer every time we touched anything outside of our car. And we repeatedly washed every surface of the car that we touched with disinfectant wipes.

Cottonwood Hot Springs

We spent the night at Cottonwood Hot Springs and Spa outside of Buena Vista, Colorado. The Spa had several overnight guests and even more visitors with day-passes to soak in the hot springs. Fear of the virus floated away while I gazed up at a starlit sky suspended in a 110-degree spring-fed pool. Yet, for the first time on the trip, I felt reluctant to be physically close to a stranger. I remained on the other side of the pool while sharing tales of trekking and climbing in Nepal with a shaggy-bearded old hippie.

After a morning soak in the hot springs, we drove by Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado at 14,439 feet. It is one of a cluster of fourteeners around Leadville, the highest city in Colorado at 10,142 feet. Leadville is historically important to the labor movement, because of the violent miners’ strike in 1896-97.

Gun battles killed strikers and strike-breakers. The strike ended when the National Guard was called out and union leaders were arrested. It’s now a funky tourist-town. Radio news reported an outbreak of the virus in Colorado, but stores and restaurants were open for business in Leadville.

Alarming Reports on the Radio

News channels on our car’s radio broadcast increasingly alarming reports about the virus spreading to New York and other states outside of the Northwest. Still, Alicia and I felt safe from exposure driving through White River National Forest and Glenwood Springs in our Nissan Altima.

We pulled off the road for several scenic views of pristine trout streams with white-capped peaks in the distance. We made a picnic lunch on the bank of the Colorado River. Late in the afternoon, we hiked the Serpent’s Trail in Colorado National Monument.

We drove toward a pastel sky of orange, then red and violet as the sun sank behind distant hills on the way to Moab, Utah.

Social Distancing at the Diner

Cars and pedestrians were out on Main Street when we arrived that evening. We walked around town for a while and settled on the Moab Diner for a late dinner.

For the first time on the trip, we experienced something truly out of the ordinary at a restaurant. A handwritten poster requested patrons not to sit next to a table occupied by other diners. We complied.

Other than that slight inconvenience, in four days of travel we encountered no problems booking motels, fueling the car, purchasing any needed items, and dining in restaurants. That changed on March 16.

Arches National Park in Utah

Utah’s Arches

We spent the morning driving and hiking around the other-worldly Arches National Park. The Park was crowded with vehicles, hikers, and bike riders. There were no warnings at the park entrance about maintaining a distance from other hikers. But, after listening to hourly reports about the spread of the virus, we instinctively stepped away from other people on the trails.

I climbed a few boulders on one of the trails and then wondered whether other hands could leave the virus on rocks I touched. I carefully washed my hands before returning to the car and then cleaned the door handles, steering wheel, and controls with a disinfectant wipe. I also began to be very careful not to touch my face, wipe my eyes or nose, unless I first washed my hands.

We drove back into Moab for a late lunch. That’s when the relative normalcy of our journey ended. Every restaurant in Moab had closed to inside dining while we were exploring the wonderland of Arches. For the first time, we were forced to order takeout. Customers were still allowed to enter and order inside restaurants, but you were not allowed to eat inside.

On to LA or Back to Indy?

Alicia and I debated whether we should proceed on to LA or return to Indiana. We were asymptomatic and there were no reported cases in Indy when we left home. So, we felt confident we were not infected. We could not just end the journey, because we were 1,500 miles from home. We decided to drive on, but to be even more vigilant in taking precautions to protect ourselves and others as best we could.

We spent that night in a cabin at the Whispering Springs Motel in Hanksville, Utah (population 219). Stan’s Burger Shack was open and serving food without any restrictions. Alicia and I chose a table distant from the hand full of other diners. Before we tucked into our order of burgers, fries, and shakes, we wiped the bag, wrapping, and paper cups with disinfectant.

Butch Cassidy’s Hideout

We learned that Hanksville’s claim to fame is that Butch Cassidy used it as one of his hideouts. Driving along US-89 later that day, we serendipitously noticed a historical marker for Butch Cassidy’s Childhood Home. It is a very modest one-room log cabin just off the highway near Circleville, Utah.

The Visitor Center at Capitol Reef National Park was closed, but a petite ranger with ruddy cheeks and blond hair greeted visitors and handed out brochures about the park.

She cheerfully opined that being outdoors in a national park was one of the best places to be during a pandemic. “Visitors to the park can avoid groups of people and it’s good for your mental health!”

One of the most interesting areas in Capitol Reef National Park is the ghost town of Fruita. It was a Mormon settlement established in 1880. The settlers planted and tended orchards of cherry, peach, and pear trees, which are still tended by rangers.

The settlers hung a box on a huge cottonwood tree on the trail near the entrance to the settlement. The 200-year-old Mail Tree, which served as Fruita’s post office, still stands.

Alicia and I are not gamblers (maybe with life, but not money), so we are not really “Vegas people.” But we thought it would be interesting to see what was happening in Las Vegas in that early stage of the pandemic. The Strip and Downtown were lit up as if nothing had changed. But on March 17, the day before we arrived, all of the casinos closed.

Still, cruisers on The Strip backed up traffic for a mile the night of March 18. Some strip clubs refused to close but adapted their illuminated signs to advertising “hand-sanitizer nude wrestling” and “coronavirus-free stripping and table dances.”

We arrived in Los Angeles on March 19 to spend a few days with son Andrew, daughter-in-law Halima, and puppy Link in their new apartment in Brentwood before we moved into our rental condo for a week in Venice Beach. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an order that night closing most businesses.

No Fatalities Yet in LA

Only a couple of other people were out on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood

It felt like the cascading effect of the virus was chasing us across the country. There were no reported fatalities yet in L.A., but around 100 people had been infected. Plans to make side-trips to visit friends Brooks and Maggie at their vineyard in Santa Barbara and Jeff and Pam in Lake Tahoe were canceled.

Dinners and a beach party with cousins David and Melissa and friends Glen and Jay were canceled. Enjoying L.A. would require more creativity than dining out.

Each of the eleven days we were in L.A., Andrew, Halima, Alicia, and I took long walks. We walked around the campuses of UCLA, USC, and Santa Monica College and the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.

We walked the beach in Venice and Santa Monica, and Andrew and I rode bikes on the 8.5-mile trail from Venice to Manhattan Beach. We hiked the trails and marveled at the 40-foot Paradise Waterfall in Wildwood Park, Ventura County.

Venice Beach is ordinarily a weird and wonderful place to hang out. Homeless dumpster divers mix with TV and movie stars.

Commercials, music videos, and scenes for cinema productions are routinely shot along the boardwalk or on the beach. Gorgeous Instagram models, surfer dudes, and famous athletes pose or amble along the boardwalk from Muscle Beach to Santa Monica Pier.

It has a carnival ambiance with buskers playing guitars, artisans hawking their wares, and hustlers selling CDs. Boomboxes blare and strangers give each other high and low fives as skateboarders and roller-bladers whiz by. But not the week of March 22, 2020.

Surfers and Bikers

A few surfers were in the water every day. A fair number of people walked, biked, or skated on the boardwalk and beach path, but numbers were well down from what I’d experienced in previous visits. The paddle tennis and basketball courts and skatepark were open and in use until March 27, when crime tape was put up to prohibit play.

Open marijuana dispensary on the Venice Beach boardwalk; other shops are closed

The shops along the boardwalk were closed, except for restaurant take-out, a marijuana dispensary, and a vaping store. Some of the street artists, who live in tents on the boardwalk, had no place to go, so they remained, but were not allowed to sell their works. There is a famously significant homeless population in the Venice area.

Many people live in tents or under make-shift shelters in alleys and some sleep wherever. The numbers were down from what I’d seen in the past, but there were still quite a few people living rough.

Muscular joggers, drag queens, and raggedy bums still roamed Venice Beach, but everyone carefully stepped aside rather than acknowledge a fellow human being with a smile, wave, or handout. Fear of infection drove the fun-loving spirit off the boardwalk and beach path.

The Drive Home to Indiana

What we experienced on the 2,200-mile drive back to Indy was similar to the last two days before arriving in LA. Motels and gas stations were open as were restaurants for takeout. We spent a night in Tusayan, the village just outside Grand Canyon National Park, and spent a day hiking the Rim Trail and driving through the park. Alicia and I had one of the most awesome sights on the planet almost to ourselves.

We tried to visit Petrified Forest National Park, but the gate was closed. We stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and made stops in other towns along Rte. 66, like Holbrook, Arizona, and Tucumcari, New Mexico, that look like movie sets from the 1950s. The gate to Cadillac Ranch, just west of Amarillo, Texas was chained, but we could see the line of upended Cadillacs from the highway.

Visiting the Alfred P. Murrah Building Memorial in Oklahoma City is an emotionally-charged experience. On a previous visit, Alicia and I shared the experience with a crowd of people praying, crying, or placing mementos. This time, we shared the space with a security guard and a solitary duck.

The last scenic stop we planned was Garden of the Gods Recreational Area in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Its rock and sandstone formations were created 300 million years ago. It looks more like Utah than the Midwest.

The gate at the park entrance was closed. But a backpacker walked around it, so, while Alicia guarded the car, I jogged the 1.5-mile hilly road to the scenic Observation Trail. Three miles of speed-walking and running felt good after so many hours in the car. The views were well worth the calorie burn.

Indy a Hot Spot

Before we arrived home on April 4th, Indianapolis was designated a “hot spot” for COVID-19 infections. By then, the virus had already killed 125 Hoosiers, and 4,400 had tested positive. Fatalities and cases were increasing, not leveling off. On the road, Alicia and I were rarely in close contact with other people.

After restaurants closed to inside dining, the only time we were in an enclosed space with a bunch of people was during a grocery run to Whole Foods in L.A.

Because we developed strict protocols, we felt safer from infection driving across the country than we did doing “essential” grocery shopping at that Whole Foods store in a “closed city.”

We washed our hands before and after touching anything handled by another person, including takeout orders, motel keys, and gas-pump handles. We wiped with disinfectant every surface we thought another person might have touched, including restaurant and motel door handles, counter-tops, and faucets.

On hikes, we avoided close contact with other hikers. We carried synthetic gloves, scarves, and sterile masks for use as needed. When we were traveling, much of our time was spent sheltered-in-place within our 4-door Altima.

Carriers Everywhere

Back in Indy, we are “hunkered down” by order of the Governor. Yet, potential carriers of the virus shop in grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, liquor stores, cigarette shops, deliver mail and packages and other “essential” businesses.

A contractor and his worker are in our house to replace our kitchen. Construction work is exempt. If we thought there was any chance either of us had been exposed to the virus before we began our journey, we would not have risked exposing others by taking the road trip. That would have been immoral. But back home in Indiana, we feel less safe than on the road.

The sanitation protocols we followed gave us confidence that we could risk completing the great American road trip, despite the cascading effects of the pandemic.

Out the Car Windows

Driving by picturesque farms, winding rivers, and rolling hills, crossing the mighty Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, feeling the desolation of the Flint Hills and the Mojave Desert, passing by sparkling trout streams and through the majestic Rockies, and gazing across the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon-- just looking out of car windows on an American road trip is a fantastic experience.

It was a wonderful antidote to the depressing statistics and personal losses caused by the pandemic.