As travel begins to slowly reopen in the age of Covid-19, much of the industry has been focused on private trips and hotel stays and experiences that promote isolation over mingling.

But for those who can’t afford that level of luxury or who prefer the social interaction and variety of group travel, companies and tour operator associations are adopting comprehensive and innovative protocols to reassure travelers and help make the case that, when done right, group travel can actually be safer than traditional FIT.

The Travel Corporation, for instance, this month told members of its advisory council that in addition to previously announced health and safety protocols that include the usual social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures, it will be adding “wellbeing directors” to all of its Luxury Gold, Insight Vacations and Trafalgar trips to ensure guests, staff and suppliers are following guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Meantime, given the unique challenges presented by adventure travel, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) last week released guidelines for hiking, biking and rafting trips, with more to come.

The new protocols underscore not only the complexity tour operators face as they move groups from city to city and hotel to hotel, but also the safety they can provide, said Luxury Gold CEO Ulla Hefel Bohler.

“When you just book everything on your own, you don’t know what you’re in for,” she said. “You have no idea whether that hotel that you’ve chosen takes hygiene seriously. And then you’ve got to choose a restaurant for dinner.”

Group travel done right, she said, actually provides travelers with their own bubble, where guests can relax and let their guides do the worrying.

“I honestly believe that trusted advisors, trusted brands ... can have an advantage in this new world because it’s just so complicated out there,” Hefel Bohler said.

Terry Dale, head of the USTOA, called the Travel Corporation’s addition of wellbeing directors “brilliant.” 

“It’s one more layer of assurance for their customers,” he said, agreeing that the pandemic offers the sector an opportunity to distinguish itself.

“We have always said, even before Covid-19, when you travel with a tour operator, you’ve got this built-in safety network,” Dale said. “Whether it’s [complications from] a geopolitical event or Mother Nature flexing her muscle, when you travel as a group, you’ve got somebody looking out for you, somebody who is going to vet everything you do.”

To help tour operators across the globe prepare for post-pandemic travel, the USTOA, the Canadian Association of Tour Operators and the European Tourism Association have also developed joint Covid-19 health and sanitizing guidelines, along with a TourCare seal of approval their members can use to show they are compliant.

TourCare guidelines are based on recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Public Health Agency of Canada and local governmental health authorities. 

As is the case with guidelines being developed across the travel industry, TourCare protocols call for staff training on sanitization, social distancing and the use of masks and hand sanitizer by staff and guests. TourCare also calls on members to oversee the health and safety practices of hotels, restaurants and other suppliers to ensure they are in compliance with the guidelines and all local health rules.

In the adventure travel sector, meanwhile, the ATTA partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to develop both general guidelines and more in-depth, comprehensive protocols for various adventure activities.

Among other things, they include detailed recommendations on when to wear masks and when to increase social distancing beyond the general 6-feet rule. That includes increased social distancing for cyclists following each other, because of the potential for airborne spread beyond 6 feet in the downdraft.

For hikes, they include cautions about interacting with nongroup members on trails. On rafting trips, the ATTA recommends masks be worn on the water because guests are so close to each other. 

In addition to its guidelines for biking, trekking and rafting trips, the ATTA said protocols for seven other adventure sectors will be complete by the end of July.

The guidelines were developed in collaboration with member companies, and like the USTOA’s, they build upon standards and resources from the CDC, the WHO and governments, the ATTA said.

“We have been listening to our community through think tanks and surveys, and consistently, one of the most resounding needs was a global consensus on health and safety guidelines for adventure activities,” said Shannon Stowell, the ATTA’s CEO. “With the support of leading businesses and organizations in our community, we were able to make it happen.”

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