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Despite vaccines, many international travelers are postponing vacations — again

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A year ago, as George Griffith watched his plans for a July 2020 African safari fade in the fog of a worldwide pandemic, an extra 12 months didn’t seem long to wait.

When George, a retired attorney, and his wife, Ginny, a retired contracting officer, received their coronavirus vaccinations in recent weeks, their summer 2021 safari departure appeared all that much closer. That was until March 26, when Kenya’s president announced a crackdown that includes restrictions on travel in and out of Nairobi for an undetermined period of time.

Like many Americans, the Griffiths, who are in their mid-70s and from St. Simons Island, Ga., are discovering that the newfound optimism that vaccine progress would speedily reopen the world to air and cruise travel appears to be, well, a little too optimistic. U.S. vaccinations are proceeding apace, but emerging variants, infection numbers and vaccination rates vary by country and region. On March 31, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a third national lockdown.

Griffith, however, is not giving up hope. “I think this trip is still possible for summer,” he said. “And I’m confident that international travel is going to come back for all of us. The question is when.”

Doctors advise against traveling immediately after your vaccination. Here’s why.

The Griffiths are far from alone in playing a waiting game. Online discussions in travel forums on sites such as Rick Steves’, FlyerTalk and Reddit are packed with stories about delayed plans and cautionary tales about the risks of returning to international travel too quickly.

For example, Dennis Irschara, 31, a writer and graphic artist who lives in Italy, warned prospective travelers on Reddit that the vaccination process is moving slowly there. To save on time, money and nerves, he suggested reconsidering “your travel plans to Italy this summer.”

“I think that short-(term) long-distance travel (e.g., a hop over to Thailand for a week) isn’t going to come back anytime soon,” Irschara told me via email.

Two February polls found Americans rather pessimistic about travel in the short term. In a Gallup poll, a majority of American adults of most ages said they expected disruptions to travel, school, work and public events in the country to continue beyond June. The exception was adults age 65 and older; 47 percent expected the disruptions to last that long. When polled by YouGov, 50 percent of respondents said they did not feel confident they could have a normal summer vacation this year, 24 percent said they did, and 25 percent said they didn’t know.

Lura Smith, 73, a retired attorney, and Bill Schubach, 76, a retired physician, of Seattle, who canceled plans for two trips to Italy last year, share other Americans’ continuing concerns around travel. Even though they are vaccinated, they plan to stay close to home this year and hope to visit Italy in 2022.

Similarly, Mary Boggs, 64, a retired IT business analyst, and Rick Boggs, 69, a retired retail manager, of Murrells Inlet, S.C., canceled plans for a trip to Malaysia, Bali and Singapore last year. They are planning an extended road trip to Western states this fall.

“We currently aren’t planning any international trips for fear of everything being canceled,” Mary Boggs said. The couple is hoping to see Egypt and Jordan in fall of 2022.

While the European Union is weighing plans for a vaccine passport to allow movement between countries for E.U. residents, most of Europe remains off-limits for American travelers. The notable exception is Iceland, which announced last month that it would begin allowing vaccinated U.S. visitors March 18.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recently changed its travel guidance. Until April 2, it had discouraged all but essential travel; the new guidance says fully vaccinated individuals can safely travel domestically.

At the same time, the U.S. travel industry is urging the Biden administration to ease restrictions on international travelers visiting the United States, which could open reciprocal arrangements. Amid this uncertainty and rapidly changing requirements, questions abound.

Guidebook author Cameron Hewitt, who has visited Europe extensively as content manager of Rick Steves’ Europe Inc., said the company has canceled all its European tour plans through midsummer and is waiting to see about fall.

“We’re not ruling out fall tours but not counting on them either,” Hewitt said. “We don’t want to have inflated hopes, we don’t want to have false starts, and we don’t want to disappoint people.”

He warned that as European destinations gradually reopen, there’s a danger that the stereotype of the Ugly American will rear its head.

“If someone thinks a vacation in Europe is a vacation from masks and social distancing, then Europe doesn’t want you,” Hewitt said. “When you go, you need to be prepared to be flexible and follow local regulations and remember you’re an invited guest.”

Although national park visitation dropped by 28 percent overall last year largely because of spring park closures, July-to-October visitor numbers set records at parks such as Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains.

The outdoors revival has created a boom in demand for recreational vehicle rentals. Jon Gray, CEO of RVShare, said summer 2020 booking volume had tripled from the previous summer.

GoCamp, a boutique camper-van rental service operating in seven Western states, expects bookings this year to at least triple from 2020.

The reversal from early last year is striking, said Deborah Kane, GoCamp’s CEO and founder. Cancellations started pouring in through spring 2020, but by summer, the company could barely keep up with demand. “I still have whiplash just thinking about last year,” Kane said.

Why 2021 will be the year of the Alaska micro-cruise

On the seas, the CDC is facing industry pressure to modify restrictions in place through Nov. 1. The Cruise Lines International Association is hoping that large ships can return to service by July 1.

The popular Alaska cruise season was canceled in 2020, and sister lines Holland America Line and Princess Cruises and others have eliminated all Alaska departures through late June and any 2021 voyage that includes a Canadian port.

Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, a small-ship cruise line that specializes in Alaska, said smaller lines have a unique opportunity in Alaska this season; the CDC restrictions apply only to vessels with more than 250 passengers.

UnCruise’s planned May 16 departure on the Wilderness Discoverer out of Juneau is expected to be the first fully vaccinated cruise in the United States.

“The likelihood that there will be a major cruise line in Alaska this summer is looking quite glum,” Blanchard said. “The smaller lines, including ours, are going to have Alaska pretty much to ourselves this season.” 

Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

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You’re vaccinated and ready to travel. Here’s your pre-trip checklist.

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