Requiem for Travel

Last Jan. 14, my husband, Phil, and I set out on the first of several international trips we’d planned for 2020. We would spend a week in Tokyo, two weeks cruising in Asia and another week in rural Japan. A month later we’d head to Kenya for a safari. After that, we’d visit grandchildren on opposite coasts, as well as the ones two hours from our home in Florida.

Yet to be finalized were a summer visit with Australian friends and an Atlantic crossing from Barcelona to Fort Lauderdale. Thanks to my collection of credit card points, we would be able to fly for free.

“Why travel so much?” a friend asked.

“Because we still can,” I replied. Many of our contemporaries have chronic medical conditions and mobility difficulties that prevent travel. Other friends have died. We’ve vowed to keep chugging as long as possible.

Last January it never entered my mind that the freedom to travel would be curtailed by a pandemic, let alone one where we would be among the first to be affected. But as passengers on Diamond Princess, the cruise ship with the first major outbreak outside China of the novel coronavirus now known as COVID-19, we became canaries in the coal mine.

The morning of Feb. 5, the speaker in our cabin chimed, heralding an announcement. “Good morning,” the captain began. “The Japanese Ministry of Health has notified us that 10 people have tested positive for the coronavirus.”

The ship was approaching the Yokohama pier, and we hastened to our balcony. In a scene out of an apocalyptic movie, ambulances and fire trucks were screaming down the road to the terminal. Military vehicles were lined up in rows. Everyone was wearing hazmat suits in red, white, blue and yellow. Workers were clumsily putting up blue plastic tarps to shield the gangways, at the bottom of which were ambulances positioned to take — what? People who were ill? People who had died? What was going on?

An ambulance arrives to remove passengers with COVID-19 from the Diamond Princess. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

From that moment on, travel as the world knew it ended. We survived a two-week shipboard quarantine and a federal one on U.S. soil, but more than 700 of our shipmates were sickened and 14 died. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, a week after we arrived home. Most tourism — especially cruising — became either dangerous or illegal.

Crew members serve meals to quarantined passengers on the Diamond Princess. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

So many people’s plans were shattered. Refunds were available in some cases, but even those with travel insurance found that pandemics were excluded and they lost thousands of dollars. Every sector of the industry was instantly affected, from cruise companies to airlines to tour guides, travel agents, hotels, restaurants, trip packagers, chefs, taxis, car rentals, shops and countless others who service our global peregrinations. Even worse, travelers and crews were marooned in foreign cities and unable to return home for months. Despite safety measures imposed for any reopenings, it was impossible to contain the virus or compel people to follow public health guidelines.

In a triumph of human effort, vaccines were developed and tested faster than ever, and sometime this year it may be possible to travel safely. Will we dare to take another cruise, sign up for another safari or tour Australia? Probably, after we’ve been vaccinated, but never again with the carefree mindset of the “before times.” We’ve always been fastidious about sanitizing and hand hygiene, but from now on we’ll be even more aggressive, and we won’t leave home without masks and gloves. Our decisions about where to go and how to travel will take these factors into consideration:

Health and safety recommendations of the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides up-to-date information about destination safety in terms of civil unrest, natural disaster or health warnings. Information about the destination can help with plans, and real-time alerts can advise about safety while you are there.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice on vaccinations, medications and places to avoid.

Vaccine passports, though controversial, should be required for airline and cruise travel. There is no inherent “right” to travel. Proof of inoculation was once required by many countries and probably will be adopted again. Remember, no vaccination offers 100% protection, but with the majority covered, herd immunity should protect almost everyone.

The availability of therapeutic medications that either cure COVID-19 (none exists yet) or make the course of treatment shorter (as Tamiflu does for influenza).

Travel insurance that covers COVID-19 as well as emerging infections and will transport you home under quarantine conditions if you are sick or provide safe evacuation if you are in danger from an outbreak.

Full refunds available from travel companies in case of infectious outbreaks. When cruisers learned about the outbreak on the Diamond Princess, many tried to cancel their reservations, but when they heard they would lose their money, they chose to go — which for some proved a fatal mistake.

We are hopeful because, as St. Augustine wrote, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.”


State Department Smart Traveler Enrollment Program:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: