As the United States responds to a global pandemic and grapples with racial inequality, the travel industry can be a force for positive change. That was one key message that emerged from a June 12 webinar on the future of travel.
UnCruise Adventures CEO Dan Blanchard moderated the discussion, which included voices from Alaska tourism, the adventure travel industry and travel journalism.
Blanchard likened doing business in the current landscape to searching for solid ground in a patch of quicksand. In the adventure travel category, however, he sees a first step toward stability.
"I can look back to 9/11, I can look back to 2007-08 financial crisis," he said. "A return to business for the travel industry often involves the adventure side first."
"Adventure travel lends itself to opening up more quickly because adventurous travelers are, by definition, more adventurous," agreed Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. "People who travel for a passion -- whether you're an active birder, expedition cruiser, hiker or climber -- that is what defines you, and so you cannot wait to get back out there."
Panelists said that individuals who choose to travel during the Covid-19 pandemic must exercise personal responsibility. That might mean self-quarantining in advance of a trip or outlining extra safety measures at each stage of the journey.
At the same time, travelers should question the health and safety protocols implemented by lodging properties, restaurants, tour operators and others.
Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) president and CEO Sarah Leonard encouraged travelers to ask about mitigation plans, staff testing and the people who live in communities that tours might visit.
"More than ever, this has become a partnership between the business and the traveler," she said. "There's a balance between wanting to open up and have business and support livelihoods, but also prioritizing people's health -- especially in rural areas with smaller populations or a not-so-solid health infrastructure [where the virus] could really be devastating to the community."
"Travel is not a right. It is a privilege. We are privileged when we get to go and be somewhere," Stowell said.
Blanchard's business is one of many that are clarifying safety measures, testing requirements, stepped-up sanitation procedures and potential outbreak response plans in advance of reopening. UnCruise Adventures will resume its roundtrip Glacier Bay National Park Adventure itinerary from Juneau on Aug. 1.
The company has been working with local municipalities and state officials to create its reopening plans and update safety protocols. Guests traveling with UnCruise Adventures must complete pre-travel health questionnaires and confirm a negative Covid-19 swab test to board, for example.
The small-group options and open-air excursions that appeal to many active travelers may make it easier for guests to socially distance themselves. By making mindful choices about where and how they travel, guests can also find opportunities to support local businesses and cultural institutions that are struggling after virus-related cancellations.
In light of recent nationwide protests and conversations about racial injustice, panelists also noted a renewed commitment to supporting diverse cultures and communities.
"I believe that travel can actually be one of the areas, because travel has been so inclusive, where we can lead this charge as an industry," Blanchard said. "And when I say that, I mean real change that lasts."
"As travel businesses, we shouldn't be afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations. This is the time to talk with our friends and partners and all people involved in the travel industry," said the ATIA's Leonard. "To not have those conversations is unacceptable."
She pointed to other challenging moments in history and the positive impact that turmoil can generate.
"Whether it's Black Lives Matter or the pandemic, coming out of a crisis can be a real opportunity for systemic change," Leonard said. "To be part of that in some way is really powerful."