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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.