Uncertainty about borders puts travel companies off balance

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Portugal's Douro River Valley might open to river cruises sooner than harder-hit destinations.
Portugal's Douro River Valley might open to river cruises sooner than harder-hit destinations.

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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