Travel insiders are out to prove that you can — and should — be going on vacation right now. “There’s an opportunity right now that hasn’t existed in a generation,” says one expert.

By Paul Brady
October 13, 2020
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Ashton Palmer

Like many people, Craig Beal has had a bad year. He and his wife, Kay, operate a travel agency that specializes in safaris, largely in East Africa, a place that just about nobody is going because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Kay and I have put our heart and soul into Travel Beyond for 15 years and we have had some of our darkest days since March,” he said in a recent note to clients. But when Kenya announced this summer that it would reopen its borders — along with a number of other East African destinations — he realized that while the pandemic may not be over, his lockdown was about to be.

So Beal did what he does best: He planned an epic safari for himself and his friend Chris Liebenberg, another safari expert who runs Piper & Heath in San Diego. (Both are experts recognized on T+L’s A-List of top travel advisors.) The pair planned to visit Kenya and Tanzania to determine whether or not clients could follow in their footsteps — and whether or not the travel industry was ready for a rebound, after months of near-total lockdown.

“We just figured we'd take the risk,” Beal says. Ever-changing testing requirements and restrictions did scramble some of their plans — Liebenberg had to skip Kenya when the country barred California residents the day before his departure from the U.S. — but both had what they describe as incredible adventures (and a series of negative COVID-19 tests) along the way.

Courtesy of Craig Beal

“You're getting massive slices of wilderness pretty much to yourself for the moment,” Beal says, describing an unprecedented moment in time where lodges and camps that typically sell out as much as two years in advance are wide open to visitors. But, he cautions, “you do have to have a spirit of adventure. You can't be a nervous traveler. You can't be a Type A, every detail has got to be right kind of person, because things will change.”

A Unique Moment in Travel

Over the past several weeks, Travel + Leisure has spoken with numerous travel insiders who say that going on a vacation right now is not only possible but essential to both local communities and the global travel industry. These well-traveled experts, many of whom were making their first forays back into the world after months of lockdown, framed their trips as both essential and existential: “People are frustrated; they want to travel,” Liebenberg says. “They've just been waiting for someone else to say, ‘It's fine. You can go. It's OK,’ so that they don't get hammered in their friend group.” Advisors, it seems, are ready to fill that role.

Many of these travel experts say it’s important to have first-hand knowledge of new protocols and procedures to better advise their clients, who are making travel plans and considering vacations this winter. “The primal desire is certainly there,” says Mark Lakin, the founder of The Legacy Untold, in an e-mail sent from Singita Grumeti, a camp near Serengeti National Park. “The first thing clients need to see is people like their travel designers on the road and able to speak from experience about what it’s like to travel right now.”

Chris Liebenberg

That’s one reason that Kemi Wells, the director of business development at North South Travel and member of T+L’s Travel Advisory Board, has been exploring destinations near her home city of Vancouver. “ I just got back from the Fairmont Empress in Victoria,” she says. “The Fairmont hotels all across Canada are doing an exemplary job with consistent COVID-19 protocols. Four Seasons Whistler has been doing a great job, too.” Next up? A harvest-time visit to wineries in the Okanagan Valley, to check on tasting-room protocols.

Understanding the Risks

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to advise Americans against travel: “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the agency’s website read on Oct. 12. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” The CDC maintains a list of destinations it considers high risk for the spread of COVID-19; in early October, 198 countries and territories were on it.

Still, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says passenger numbers at airport checkpoints have been steadily rising over the past few months. More than 900,000 fliers were screened on Oct. 4, the agency reported. That’s less than half the number screened the same day last year but more than 10 times the numbers seen in April 2020.

Travel agent Jonathan Alder was one of the many who didn’t stay home this summer and fall. “It’s kind of like, I drive my car, but I put my seatbelt on before I drive,” he says. “We take risks every day, but we try to take responsible risks.”

The L.A.-based advisor, who’s affiliated with TravelStore, has already visited Kenya, the Maldives, Mexico, and Turkey this year. He recently set out on another trip to Ecuador (including the Galápagos Islands), and plans to hit Egypt and Uzbekistan this fall.

Chris Liebenberg

“We are traveling the world now, so you can too,” he says with enthusiasm. “It's the best travel experience I've ever had in my life. In Turkey, in places that normally have 6,000 cruise passengers a day, there were 50 people. At the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, there were about 30 people. That was it, compared to the normal of thousands.”

Beyond the lack of crowds, Alder praised the coronavirus protocols he saw just about everywhere, including on Lufthansa and Qatar Airways flights, at hotels, at customs and immigration counters, and generally out and about. “Seeing how the rest of the world is acting and reacting to this is night and day versus here,” he says.

Other experts have been similarly impressed with how airlines are handling the pandemic. Tesa Totengco, a member of T+L’s Travel Advisory Board and the owner of Travels with Tesa, says United did an admirable job, particularly on a recent trip from Newark to Houston and onward to Cabo San Lucas. “United mandates masks throughout the entire flight and announced that anyone not adhering [to those rules] would lose future United flight privileges,” she says of the first leg of the trip, which was about half full. “The flight from Houston to Cabo was 100 percent full, and, mid-flight, an announcement was made not to test the staff regarding masks.”

Courtesy of Tesa Totengco

The Picture in Europe

When Geoffrey Weill, a publicist for numerous hotels and destinations, made his first trip out of the United States in late September, it was his first flight across the Atlantic in seven months. “I’m on my way to visit clients in Switzerland and Italy and Germany,” he said in an e-mail. “But let’s admit it. I’m also going because of curiosity.”

His whirlwind through Europe — possible because he holds a European Union passport — included visits to France, Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland with stays at iconic hotels such as the Baur au Lac, Hotel Londra Palace, and Villa d’Este. (“Not clients, by the way,” Weill says.) Masks were de rigueur; hand sanitizer was everywhere. Housekeeping was often optional, to help maintain social distance. “The grandeur remains, the impeccable service remains, and the physical amenities remain,” he says. “The only changes are there because they should be there, and they’re reassuring.”

The story is largely the same in Portugal, says Sheree Mitchell, president and founder of the travel agency Immersa Global. She recently spent two weeks in the country, on a road trip that covered nearly 1,700 miles, with visits to 20 towns and a dozen boutique hotels. (She was able to enter the E.U. because her firm is based in Portugal.) “Everyone was ready for tourists to return,” Mitchell says by e-mail. “All the hotels and restaurants had similar health and sanitation protocols in place, so there was consistency.”

Leandra Benjamin

Her trip intentionally avoided major cities including Lisbon and Porto, in favor of smaller towns and open-air, rural places. “In the coming months, the emphasis will be on finding the perfect small boutique hotel, country house, or villa where multi-gen groups can relax, spend quality time together, maybe explore the region a little, and work,” Mitchell forecasts. “I believe that Americans will be able to spend more time away now due to how popular working remotely has become this year.”

In Search of Adventures

Ashton Palmer,  an expedition ship expert, recently made his way to Ecuador, a hotbed for small-ship cruises in the Galápagos Islands and beyond. “Flying was simple,” he says by e-mail. “I love how clean the airports are — about time — and contactless check-in was a breeze. Heavy duty industrial wipes were handed out on United, making it easy to re-sanitize the seat area, for those that like to know it was done properly.”

Ashton Palmer

“In country, I’ve been very impressed so far,” Palmer writes. “Everyone masked, hand sanitizer everywhere, and little touches here and there, like hotel room keys in sanitized plastic bags, tiny vials of alcohol to clean, and even a 20-second ozone bath, like walking through an air lock. Seems more thorough than at home.”

After spending some time in Quito, Palmer made his way to the highlands north of the capital to Hacienda Zuleta. “The property has 21 rooms however we were the only guests, which not only translated to the most warm and attentive service, but also afforded a luxury private experience for this spectacular property,” Palmer says. “High in the Andes, a world away from the pandemic, [this visit is] a wonderful reminder that travel renews the soul.”

Indeed many experts concurred that the most striking thing about traveling now isn’t all the PPE or the new procedures. Instead, it’s the experience of moving through a world largely devoid of other travelers. In Ecuador, Palmer says, “there are so few visitors that it feels like virtually private travel, a la 1950.” In Venice, Weill, the publicist, felt the same way. “There is a tiny fraction of the usual number of tourists,” he says of his early October visit. “I had expected it to be uncrowded. But not this empty.”

And in the wilds of Tanzania, Liebenberg found something he never would have imagined. “I’ve always wished that I was born 50 years earlier so I could have experienced safari during a quieter, more intimate time,” he says. “There’s an opportunity right now that hasn’t existed in a generation.” In some of the most popular safari areas of Tanzania, he says, in places where typically you’d count more than 300 vehicles packed with visitors, Liebenberg encountered just 15.

It was a “privilege and luxury to be there,” he notes, adding that “this trip ultimately proved that travel right now is not only possible but rewarding.”