Uncertainty about borders puts travel companies off balance

As countries around the world begin easing their Covid-19 shutdowns, the big question on the minds of consumers and travel companies is how and when countries will reopen their borders.

In recent weeks, answers have begun to emerge as to the how, which will likely include everything from mandatory health checks to masks and hypervigilant cleaning protocols.

Countries have set benchmarks for phased societal reopenings, and groups including the World Travel and Tourism Council, the European Travel Commission and the U.S. Travel Association have begun compiling post-pandemic guidelines and best practices for the industry. But noticeably absent are any realistic answers as to when these might be implemented.

“We’re going to listen to the experts,” said U.S. Travel president Roger Dow during a call last week announcing voluntary industry guidelines. “When the experts say it’s safe, when the numbers are right, we will travel.”

The many unknowns have left travel companies issuing a string of seemingly random and constantly changing forecasts about when they might resume operations.

“The bottom line is we just don’t know,” said Nigel Hack, who owns the luxury travel planning company Madrid & Beyond, which specializes in Spain and Portugal. 

Portugal is one of the least-impacted countries and is widely expected to be among the first to reopen. But Hack said that “there is so much conjecture and speculation. I think ultimately we all have to wait for governments to make those decisions, and we have to abide by those decisions.”

Globally, experts agree domestic travel is expected to resume first, followed by regional travel, then more widespread international trips. 

In the U.S., hotels in national parks and domestic river cruise operators are set to reopen in June. Some cruise lines have also set June sailing dates.

For the most part, however, the majority of international operators have pushed back their start dates to July. But some are reexamining the reality of that.

On May 6, AmaWaterways said it was pushing its European river cruise season start to Aug. 1, and other companies said they, too, were reevaluating.

Intrepid Travel last week suspended all of its departures until the end of September, perhaps the strongest sign of travel companies’ uncertainty that border reopenings will be widespread in time for summer.

“The truth is that no one knows,” said James Thornton, CEO of the Intrepid Group. “Even if you’ve got connections with governments and you’re getting the best advice, the reality is that no one is really sure.”

With the summer travel season fast approaching, the lack of uniform policies across Europe’s borders makes it especially hard for tour operators and cruise lines to make anything other than guesses about when they might resume operations.

“Our biggest concern right now is the lack of coordination,” said Eduardo Santander, executive director and CEO of the European Travel Commission, which has called for strong public-private collaboration and a coordinated, regional response rather than country-by-country approaches.

The uncertainty is what prompted AmaWaterways to again delay its start. Avalon Waterways, part of the Globus family of brands, said it was also reevaluating dates.

“European river cruise operators are hoping to start as early as late June, but the question will be if North Americans will be able to travel to Europe, and 95% of our guests are from the USA or Canada,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways.

“The start of the season will also depend on each country,” he said. “Portugal and the Douro might open earlier than Spain, but many of our Douro cruises have pre- or post-cruise extensions into Spain.”

Ocean cruise lines also face the border-to-border uncertainties, in Europe and around the globe.

“If you can’t cross borders, it’s hard to run a cruise,” said Mark Conroy, Silversea Cruises managing director of the Americas. 

The challenge is not just knowing when destinations will reopen their borders but when customers will be able to travel without restrictions, such as quarantines on arrival and return.

At Intrepid, Thornton said some of their most popular trips are to places such as Vietnam, which has managed to stem the spread of the virus. But most of its trips are made up of groups of travelers from different countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., which are two of the hardest-hit countries in the world, and Australia and New Zealand, which have seen some of the lowest rates of spread. That means clients’ ability to travel will vary.

“For us to make those trips be able to work and work properly, you need unrestricted movement, and I just don’t see that happening until at least later this year,” Thornton said.

In the meantime, he said, Intrepid is focused on developing shorter local products in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. to give its core customers options when domestic travel resumes.

News editor Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.

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Golf resorts optimistic about quick return to greens

The Mauna Lani resort on the Island of Hawaii had been
reopened less than three months after a $200 million renovation when the
Covid-19 outbreak forced the shutdown of its hotel and amenities, including its
two 18-hole, oceanside golf courses. 

“We were off to an amazing start,” said Chris White, the
resort’s executive director of marketing and brand experience. 

Now, like other destination golf resorts in the U.S. and
around the world, Mauna Lani can do little but wait for the crisis to pass.

“Golf is the natural social distancing sport,” White said. “We’re
pretty optimistic that we’re going to be able to get people back on the course.”

The Covid-19 crisis arrived just as many courses were
preparing to launch their 2020 seasons. Now, the combination of stay-at-home
orders, travel restrictions and individual concerns about personal health have
all but killed at least the first half of the summer season. 

But for all the losses that will surely afflict the
destination golf industry, the nature of the game itself — noncontact, individual and played on broad,
outdoor landscapes — is giving many industry participants reason
for cautious optimism. 

“Golf is an activity that is played outside,” said Joe
Cerino, owner of the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sophisticated Golfer, a tour
operator that sells upscale golf vacations with a focus on the Caribbean,
Europe and Florida. “You don’t have to be close to anybody unless you want to
be. But you still have to get on a plane and stay in a hotel.”

Reinforcing golf’s natural advantages during this strangest
of times are the raw numbers. While most other recreational activities have
come to a near halt in the U.S., 48% of U.S. golf courses remained open for
play as of April 12, according to the National Golf Foundation. 

Among them are the large majority of courses in the
Southeastern states other than Florida. Fifteen states, mostly in the Northeast
and Midwest, had mandated course closures. But elsewhere, play continues,
generally with safety measures in place, such as the removal of sand trap rakes
and not allowing players to touch flagsticks. Some courses have gone to walking
only. Those that haven’t are generally allowing only one person per cart. 

Some resort golf courses are among those that remain open.
For example, the nine courses at the famed Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina
are open for play, though lodging operations are shuttered. 

At the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo., the
358-room hotel and one of its two golf courses are open. 

COO Jim Cleary said occupancy at the hotel has been running
at 20 rooms or less, with most of the customers in the area on medical
business. But the lodge’s Cove golf course has been getting 40 to 80 players
per day, which is about a quarter of the business the resort would expect for
its golf operation at this time of year. 

“Golf has become a much bigger and more prominent draw for
the business we have right now,” Cleary said. 

Of course, that’s not to suggest that the destination golf
industry isn’t in a deep pause right now. The damage is likely to be especially
acute in destinations that receive a heavy load of spring and summer
international visitors, such as Scotland, Ireland and Portugal. Golf tour
operators whose business relies on international bookings will also suffer

In an attempt to help industry players manage the crisis,
the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, which has members in 101
countries, recently released eight pages of recommendations related to the
handling of cancellations, trip postponements and new bookings. One
recommendation: that golf courses and tour operators agree that trips can be
postponed for up to 18 months. The association also recommended that booked
prices for 2020 be honored for 2021, as long as the trip is rebooked for the
same season. 

Cerino said that he was able to rebook most of his March and
April clients for the fall. If life begins to open up by June, he said, he
expects he and most of his colleagues will get through the crisis. But a major
concern will be both the availability of air travel and the willingness of
clients to get on a plane. 

Indeed, said Stuart Lindsay, owner of the Milwaukee-based
golf industry research company Edgehill Golf Advisors, golf resorts near major
drive markets will be the best positioned to rebound from the Covid-19 pause.
That means resort areas such as Kohler, Wis., which is 150 miles from Chicago
and features prestigious Whistling Straits as well as three other acclaimed
resort courses, could fare well. 

Conversely, said Lindsay, regaining business is likely to be
more challenging for a place such as Bandon Dunes, which is a bucket list
destination for U.S. golfers but is located along the remote southern Oregon

Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperSports, which counts the five
Bandon courses among the more than 130 courses it manages nationwide, said he
does expect early marketing efforts after the reopening to focus on the drive
market. But Skinner also said he expects demand to be high through the fall,
enough so that no discounting will be necessary.

He added that the nature of the Covid-19 crisis has the potential to boost the popularity of
the sport.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for golf to be one of
the first businesses to be opened up,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some
people who haven’t played for a while, and they’ll fall in love with it.”

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What to Know About Travel to Hawaii in the Time of COVID-19

While the rapidly-changing social climate surrounding the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has piqued uncertainty among travelers, who are wondering whether they ought to cancel their spring and summer vacation trips, there are still plenty of places where Americans tourists can venture confidently.

Among them is the much-loved domestic tourism destination of Hawaii.

The latest news from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, dated March 11, 2020, states that there are only two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Hawaii, both of which involved prior out-of-state travel.

The first was presented on March 6 and had been a passenger aboard the Grand Princess cruise from February 11-21 to Mexico. The individual is being isolated at home in Honolulu and monitored daily by the Hawaii State Department of Health (HDOH).

The second case, presented on March 8, is an elderly patient who had visited Washington State and remains in isolation care in an Oahu hospital.

The HDOH is coordinating with federal officials to identify and contact anyone who may have had close contact with the individual while in transit. In both instances, there has been no evidence of community spread of the disease.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is working closely with HDOH, state and county government officials, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor the situation.

Cognizant of the islands’ long-held status as a major destination for mainland U.S. tourists and anticipating an influx of travelers headed for Hawaii as an alternative to their previously-planned vacation spots, the state is preparing itself and taking firm preventive action to address COVID-19.

On March 5, Governor David Ige issued an emergency proclamation authorizing the expenditure of state funds, enabling Hawaii to, “work quickly and efficiently to prevent, contain and mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, and to provide disaster relief if necessary.”

Also hoping to get ahead of the problem, the HDOH announced on March 10 that it has also launched a system of surveillance screenings for early detection of any new cases of COVID-19 that may arise, aimed at identifying the source of the infection and preventing it from spreading to the community.

Modeled on the existing framework of the Flu Surveillance Program, The State Laboratories Division will randomly select 200 flu-negative samples for testing each week, to be provided by participating local healthcare providers.

Enhanced passenger screenings are also being conducted at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) by federal authorities (U.S. Customs and Border Protections and the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine) to identify individuals coming from affected countries who could require quarantine or public health supervision.

Equipped with a CDC Quarantine Station, HNL is one of eleven airports in the country that can accept U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and their immediate families returning from affected international areas.

Everywhere in my office in Hawaii and DC.

KITV Island News reported that coronavirus-related tensions have done nothing to dull the friendly enthusiasm of the Hawaiian people, with locals even inventing new ways to express the spirit of “Aloha.”

The traditional hug, kiss on the cheek or handshake doesn’t exactly fit with health experts’ advice to practice ‘social distancing,’ so the new etiquette for island greetings ranges from sharing an elbow-bump to what’s being called the “Wuhan shake”—attempting a high-five with your feet—or just offering a shaka sign instead of a handshake.

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