Where can we travel now? You might be surprised

Officials with Abercrombie & Kent say now is a unique opportunity to view Africa's wildlife without encountering other vehicles and tourists.
Officials with Abercrombie & Kent say now is a unique opportunity to view Africa's wildlife without encountering other vehicles and tourists. Photo Credit: Stevie Mann via A&K

Machu Picchu has reopened to tourists. Abercrombie & Kent is running safaris, sailing the Nile and leading tours to the Great Pyramids. Small ships are again sailing the Galapagos. And Costa Rica has thrown open its borders to all travelers, without restriction.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues another surge across the U.S. and Europe, a growing number of destinations nonetheless have their arms wide open to international travelers. 

In most cases, the destinations that are hoping to see an early return of tourism are warm-weather escapes offering outdoor activities. Most, but not all, require inbound travelers to provide, at a minimum, proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within several days prior to arrival. Some also require insurance to cover medical and quarantine costs should a traveler fall ill while visiting.

And while the restrictions, insurance and testing requirements can be extensive, costly and fast-changing, tour operators said they are starting to see a return -- albeit small -- in demand beyond Mexico and the Caribbean for international travel this winter.

"After a quiet few months, we finally have clients traveling again, and bookings are starting to return for the last quarter of this year and into early next year," said Scott Simpson, co-founder and general manager of the Exeter Safari Co. "I really feel like we are starting to turn the corner regarding travel to Africa, and hopefully this momentum just continues to build."

Even as Covid cases surge, tour operators say that testing turnaround times are seldom a barrier.

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Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), which has been running domestic trips since June, said it's now operating again in Egypt and other areas in Africa, Dubai, Ecuador, the Maldives, French Polynesia, Croatia and Turkey. A&K said it's also planning to open Mexico, Costa Rica and Uganda very soon, and it is evaluating Morocco and Brazil.

Although most companies have put even domestic travel on pause, Collette is one of the few major tour operators that has been running guided domestic tours since the summer. It, too, hopes to resume international travel soon, with Costa Rica most likely to be the first country offered.

A&K said Egypt and other African destinations are favorites for those venturing out first.

At the end of last month, A&K's Sanctuary brand was one of the first to resume Nile river cruise sailings. Rami Girgis, an Egyptologist and the company's director of private jet and special interest travel, said the cruises "offer a truly unique opportunity as guests will be able to sail the Nile and have the river and most sites almost entirely to themselves." Normally, he said, several hundred passenger vessels are operating at once.

In the Galapagos, Metropolitan Touring was among the first to resume sailing. The islands, off the coast of Ecuador and renowned for their unique biodiversity, were largely spared from the ravages of the virus when the country's largest mainland cities, Quito and Guayaquil, were hit hard during the early stages of the pandemic.

Metropolitan Touring was among the first companies to resume cruising in the Galapagos.
Metropolitan Touring was among the first companies to resume cruising in the Galapagos. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Touring

Because of the country's year-round tropical climate, said Klaus Fielsch, product manager for Metropolitan Touring, the country expects to be spared during the recent surge. (Europe and the U.S. blame the current surge, in part, on the return of colder weather pushing people back inside.)

The country also has very tight protocols in place. For instance, he said, he could be fined for driving in his car without a mask, even if alone.

Ecuador also has pretravel testing requirements for visitors that include a second test for the Galapagos if travelers stay more than four days on the mainland before flying to the islands. The second test can be done at hotels, with results returned quickly.

Other Latin American countries are also gradually reopening. On Nov. 1, Peru reopened Machu Picchu, although capacity is capped at 25%. Tickets have sold out quickly.

Cartagena, Colombia.
Cartagena, Colombia.

It previously required that inbound travelers provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test within 92 hours of arrival.

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In South America, Ana Maria Varela of Explora said the expedition specialist expects to reopen its hotels in Chile, Argentina and Peru in December and January.

Colombia, too, has reopened, and international flights are resuming.

"Clients are definitely eager to travel again," said Joe Sandillo, founder of Almaz Journeys. "We're seeing people wanting to spend less time in cities like Bogota and more in remote locations like the Coffee Triangle and Barichara. Or, at least, day trips out into the countryside from cities."

Costa Rica's about-face

In an unusual twist, Costa Rica, which closed its borders quickly after the pandemic was declared and then opened slowly to Americans only from states with low infection rates who presented a negative Covid-19 test, dropped even its testing requirements when it reopened to international travel on Nov. 1.

The country does require travelers to carry insurance, which can be purchased upon arrival, that will cover up to $50,000 in medical expenses and at least $2,000 in lodging should there be need to quarantine.

"Things are slowly revamping," said Mauricio Castro Lines, director general of TAM Travel. "The USA has always been our main source of inbound travelers. All airlines are back and increasing their frequencies on a weekly basis, so this is good news."

Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said the operator has seen a rise in bookings to Costa Rica since the changes.

"We have revised our Costa Rica Guided Vacations, with guaranteed departures year-round, to be more private, for two people or small families, for social distancing purposes," he said. "All include a local, licensed guide for the trip."

Richards said Pleasant is currently working with its insurance partner to meet the local requirements. Aruba and Turks and Caicos also have insurance mandates, he noted.


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