With omicron as a ‘golden ticket,’ American travel fears fade

It’s not that Abigail Rogado hadn’t traveled at all since March 2020. But when the founder and chief executive officer of branding consultancy ArtTank had hit the road, she’d done it with trepidation.

“I lost my dad to COVID in the pandemic’s early days,” she says. “It made me more heightened about my precautions. I was really living the hermit life. I didn’t even go outside to take walks for months.”

Even after cases had declined substantially in the fall of 2021, Rogado still wore a mask outdoors in New York City, her hometown. Then omicron happened and everything changed. To this day she has no idea how she came down with COVID-19; she’d canceled all her holiday plans and barely even gone to the grocery store. But now she’s planning trips to Paris, Iceland and Costa Rica within the next 90 days.

Rogado is one of many travelers using a recent recovery from COVID-19 as a “golden ticket” to get moving, as travel advisers are starting to call it. Armed with both positive test results and a doctor’s note affirming they’ve recovered, they’re exempt from testing requirements to reenter the U.S., thereby abating fear of getting stranded, which in many cases is greater than fear of getting sick. And given that the provision lasts 90 days from the positive test date, many are treating it as an all-you-can-vacation pass that’s fast-tracking the travel industry’s healthy bounce.

“Our advisers are so busy fielding calls from clients who are feeling Teflon-coated after coming down with omicron. Some are even planning trips while they’re still in quarantine,” says Misty Belles, vice president of global public relations for Virtuoso, a travel adviser network.

“It has definitely bolstered those who are being cautious and promoted international travel, opening the possibility for long-haul travel for people who had been timid about it,” Belles explains. “For the industry, after having gone through rounds of cancellations and postponements in the thick of the busy holiday season, it’s huge.”

“I think this is the busiest our agency has ever been,” says Laura Worth, a travel consultant with Embark Beyond. “The floodgates have really opened in the last few weeks. Now the requests are just crazy, crazy, crazy coming in.”

Getting sick vs. getting stuck

Let’s not forget that nearly 6 million people around the world have died, and that a certificate of recovery from a doctor does not actually make travelers bulletproof.

Travelers check in at John F. Kennedy International Airport during the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in New York City, on Dec. 26.  | REUTERS
Travelers check in at John F. Kennedy International Airport during the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in New York City, on Dec. 26. | REUTERS

While having had the virus does bolster immunity, studies have shown that it’s possible to get reinfected with the same variant; it’s also difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to know which variant they’ve previously contracted. Someone who had omicron could get sick with an infection of the delta strain, and vice-versa. Or they could catch omicron twice. When traveling, this can make for quick community spread, especially if visiting destinations with lower vaccine availability or uptake.

But two years into the pandemic, American travelers are generally less concerned about getting sick than getting stuck, according to travel agents. The most-cited impediment in booking international trips has been the requirement that one obtain a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours (or at least a day) before the return flight departs for the U.S.

“With so many clients, there is this constant tug of war between feelings of ‘I hope,’ and ‘what if,’” says Worth. “People are still worried about whether things are cancelable, about planning for evacuations. There’s an edge.”

Still, there’s more relief in the conversation, she continues. “It’s the release of the fear of being stuck, more than anything.”

Some clients are surprised to hear, in the face of that liberation, that they can’t carry out their wildest travel fantasies.

“You have to remind people that they can’t just visit their friends in Hong Kong (where the border remains closed to tourists) or pick up and go to Chile (where there are still difficult-to-navigate restrictions),” says Worth. “But you remind them, and then they remember: ‘Oh, right.’ That’s still a thing.”

A different type of trip

With “golden ticket” in hand, these newly energized travelers are going out of the box with vacations far more than their risk-averse peers. Some are planning itineraries to see the Taj Mahal without crowds; others are swapping their easy U.S. Virgin Islands getaways for a quick trip to Cartagena, Colombia, or Buenos Aires. For families with young children, it can mean the freedom to get back on a plane rather than exploring exclusively within a drivable radius.

For John Walsh, the founder of electric vehicle maker Endera Motors, pandemic-era travel has been inescapable. “I travel for work constantly,” he says, speaking from his company’s factory in Ohio. “I’m on a plane every other week and have been for the last two years, mostly flying domestically.”

Knowing he’d developed antibodies amid December’s omicron wave, however, emboldened him to travel differently. “It changed my behavior to an extent. I knew I’d be healthy, and I could live my life and not live in fear, which is where a lot of people are living these days,” he explains.

So Walsh planned a blowout holiday trip to Tulum, Mexico, where on New Year’s Eve he attended a packed music festival at the Papaya Playa Project. “It was no masks, no restrictions on distance, just a bunch of people enjoying New Years with crazy music, and that was the fun of it,” he says. On other nights he went to bars and nightclubs to live it up.

“I’m scaling my company. For the rest of my 90 days, I’m head-down with work,” he says. “That was the perfect timing to go big.”

Visits to farther-flung destinations are also on the uptick as travelers who remain cautious about exposure to crowds now worry less about the quality of local health care.

Red heart shaped balloons are held by a couple in front of the Eiffel Tower, on the day of the annual celebrations of Valentine's Day in Paris, on Monday.  | AFP-JIJI
Red heart shaped balloons are held by a couple in front of the Eiffel Tower, on the day of the annual celebrations of Valentine’s Day in Paris, on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

Among them is retail store owner Harold Dweck, who had high hopes of planning a big family trip for two weeks in January when his kids were off from school — something special enough to make up for multiple years of canceled vacations.

“We were down to two choices,” he says. “It was either Costa Rica or South Africa. But my wife kept worrying, asking: ‘What if we’re in Africa and one of us gets COVID?’ We didn’t know how it would affect us,” he explains. “Trying to get medical attention when you’re somewhere remote on safari? It was concerning.”

The debate stretched from August until mid-December, when Dweck came down with mild symptoms. Within two weeks, nearly his whole household tested positive. “Once we had the letter from our doctor saying we were healthy again, it was much easier to make a decision,” he says. With 10 days to spare, he called his travel agent and booked a trip to stay at Royal Malewane and Singita Lebombo in South Africa’s Kruger National Park area.

“We had the places to ourselves; it felt like the safest place to be,” says Dweck, who adds that the trip “was our most amazing vacation ever.”

“On a sunset drive, we stopped in the middle of the bush. They took out for us a beautiful spread of food and drinks, and I just sat in a chair watching my wife and kids taking pictures and hugging each other,” he recalls. “Nobody was on their cell phones. Nobody was trying to figure out what their friends were doing. They were just enjoying the moment.”

Omicron’s silver lining

A rise in business to hard-hit regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where it’s not typically possible to plan last-minute trips-would be one silver lining of the omicron wave. But the freedom these diagnoses afford travelers may benefit everyone across the industry, consumers included.

“That vacation you took in 2019? It’s going to cost you 30% to 40% more in 2022,” says Virtuoso’s Belles, citing higher airfares and hotel prices. Some of that has to do with demand compression: By and large, travelers have been willing to commit to travel only on short notice, often amid the safety net of lower case volumes. “Now, people are starting to book further out, even into summer,” she says. “For the industry, it’s an exciting development.”

Worth says the business has come as a relief after December brought swells of cancellations, which add to industry-wide losses that have likely exceeded $4 trillion throughout the pandemic. More important, she believes that the omicron wave — and the droves of people who now feel immune after catching it — will be the key to returning normalcy to how we travel. “It’s been interesting to see how governments have changed their policies amid omicron,” she says. “This variant went so far and so fast, it really challenged the idea that pre-arrival testing can prevent spread.”

“It will end up being a great thing for the economy and the industry for countries such as the U.K. to throw out the testing requirements and just say: If you’re vaccinated, come,” she adds. “We have to normalize it somehow. And if omicron does that, well, in a backward sense, it may have been a great gift.”

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