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What kind of reception can American travelers expect post-covid?

Tourists should expect to be greeted with a mix of relief and trepidation when international travel resumes.
Tourists should expect to be greeted with a mix of relief and trepidation when international travel resumes. (iStock)
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If you’re planning to travel abroad this year, prepare for a few surprises. Some customs have changed, and you’ll need to mind your manners more than ever.

“The hugs and warm handshakes are something of the past,” predicts John Niser, director of the International School of Hospitality, Sports and Tourism Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “It will be looked upon as invasive and inconsiderate to go back to old habits, regardless of vaccines or testing. You can expect to continue to wear masks, and social distancing will become more of a norm.”

American visitors should expect a range of receptions when they travel abroad, from a cool welcome to an enthusiastic, if somewhat distant, greeting. A lot of the responses will depend on you and whether you respect a country’s fast-changing practices.

How will people treat American visitors? That’s a theoretical question in many popular destinations. Italy, France and Poland have locked down recently amid surging covid-19 cases, dashing hopes of a summer vacation in Europe. Generally, experts say people will welcome Americans again once the travel bans lift. But they’ll also be wary of tourists in general, even when there’s a testing or vaccine requirement.

In Italy, for example, residents view the return of American tourists with a combination of anticipation and concern, according to Valerie Fortney Schneider, a correspondent for the retirement magazine International Living. “Right now, everyone we know is watching the situation playing out and wondering how the U.S. ended up like this, why the U.S. isn’t doing much to even try to control the virus,” she says. But no one knows how that collective sense of unease will play out when American visitors return, she says.

In Costa Rica, on the other hand, Americans can expect to be treated like royalty, says Richard Bexon, chief operating officer of the Namu Travel Group, which specializes in Central American travel.

“Central American tourism has been starved, and hotels are only at about 20 percent occupancy, so Americans are like golden unicorns to tourism at the moment,” Bexon says. “They’re getting the best deals and service they have ever received.” Americans are the highest-spending visitors and account for about 40 percent of tourists, he notes. And people are going out of their way to make sure they feel welcome.

Not all countries are as happy to see foreigners. On a recent visit to the Philippines, Robert Johnson felt a noticeable change in attitudes. “I had traveled to the Philippines before and felt a warm and hospitable ambiance,” says Johnson, who runs a woodworking website in Windsor, Conn. “But it is very different now because people are somehow distant from you, especially if you are a foreigner. I had to wear masks everywhere — even when other people weren’t.”

How should visitors behave once they’re abroad? Carefully, experts say.

Bonnie Tsai, founder of the etiquette consulting firm Beyond Etiquette, says visitors should bear in mind that while such practices as mask-wearing may be up for debate in the United States, there’s less of a discussion overseas.

“When you’re visiting another country, it’s about respecting and adapting to local culture and norms — especially when these health and safety guidelines are issued by the local government,” she says. “It’s important to follow these protocols when you’re in a foreign country as a form of respect for the place you’re visiting. If you feel that you can’t adhere to local health and safety codes, reconsider your trip.”

But Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert who hosts a podcast called “Were You Raised By Wolves?” says this is also one of those rare times when etiquette has to take a back seat to safety. So even if everyone around you removes a mask, you should probably continue to wear yours.

“No one should ever put themselves or others in harm’s way just for the sake of being polite,” he says. “So, if wearing a mask helps keep you and those around you safer, then you should certainly do that.” Leighton says it’s fine to engage in a cordial discussion about safety protocols, but he says the focus should be on learning from the other person rather than delivering a lecture on your views about covid-19.

So what do you need to know before you travel abroad?

Now more than ever, research is your best friend. John Gobbels, the chief operating officer for the Medjet air medical transport program, says attitudes about covid-19 vary within any given country, just as they do in the United States. But it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

“Educate yourself as to local ordinances and dispositions,” he advises. “Listen before speaking. Different countries took different attitudes and initiated different protocols and enforcements. But polarization of personal experiences, and opinions, often exists even within the same country, much like our own.”

So where do you find out about a country’s covid-19 policies? The State Department travel website is a reliable resource, as are advisories issued by the Canadian, Australian and U.K. governments. Travel insiders also spend time reading local media sources before their trips. And a qualified travel adviser can always help.

It also helps to have all of your information in one place. That includes any coronavirus vaccine records and coronavirus test results. Pro tip: Find a passport case and slide your Yellow Card (a record of your vaccines) and test results into the case for easy access. Dan Richards, CEO of travel security and crisis response provider Global Rescue, says he thinks that kind of information will soon be stored electronically. But for now, it’s entirely paper-based.

Richards recommends packing one thing above all others: “An abundance of courtesy and respect for the protocols established in the destination you’re visiting.” That’s always good advice.

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