New Normal: Tropical vacations are safe and enjoyable but not an escape from the pandemic
Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana underwent a renovation in 2020, and now features a new lazy river oasis. (Michael Pihach/PAXnews.com)
TORONTO -- After the relentless hardships of 2020, it’s likely more Canadians than ever before are dreaming of the white sand and hot sun of a winter getaway.
But if you think you can leave it all behind in a tropical destination and travel like it’s 2019, unpack your bags, say travel experts.
With the country under a travel advisory, most Canadians are staying put this year, but those who have jetted off say vacationing during a pandemic is safe and enjoyable, but not at all the time to forget or escape the global health crisis.
“A lot has changed about travel, but a lot hasn’t changed, too. The resort experience feels very much the same,” said travel editor Michael Pihach who spent 24 days in the Dominican Republic in November.
Expect that hand sanitizer, masks, and physical distancing will follow you wherever you go and be sure to pack patience and kindness for people and countries that have been devastated by the tourism catastrophe that was COVID-19.
At least for now, the pandemic is shifting the travel priorities of Canadians, he says.
“For a lot of us, it’s about getting away from the cold and getting a cheap deal. Now it’s about safety. The resorts that are doing the best are the luxury brands that are charging the highest daily rates because that’s where people feel most safe.”
HAND SANITIZER: THE NEW WELCOME COCKTAIL
“I will say that sanitizer is the new welcome cocktail,” says Pihach, who visited eight resorts in Punta Cana.
“Every resort you arrive at, every new room you enter, you get squirts of sanitizer in your hands. Staff are waiting at every entrance. They take it very seriously.”
And that’s just the beginning.
Resort staff will disinfect your luggage. Documents, pens and other touched items at the front desk are sanitized in a UV-light machine and travellers are also frequently checked for their temperature as they move around the resort, either through handheld non-touch thermometer sensors or a thermal camera above doors.
Pihach says the disinfection of tables, counters, luggage carts and other touched surfaces is continuous and visible.
Pihach, who flew 62 times in 2019, says he felt entirely safe during his first trip since the pandemic grounded leisure travel in March. As managing editor with Pax Global Media Inc., a national trade publication for travel agents and tour operators, Pihach was among a group of journalists invited to visit a series of all-inclusive resorts that are reopening as the Dominican Republic tries to rebuild its devastated tourism sector.
He was originally supposed to stay at one resort in Punta Cana for three days, but that stretched into 24 days and eight properties. He documented his experiences in a series of articles.
When you arrive at your room, says Pihach, there is a seal taped over the door to show it hasn’t been entered since it was disinfected. Room cleaners are armed with sanitizing spray tanks on their backs that reminded Pihach of the film “Ghostbusters.” Rooms are stripped of touchpoints, including maps, books, brochures or flowers.
Staff – who are always in masks – are separated from guests by barriers. At one resort Pihach visited, masked staff wore buttons that display a picture of their face, alongside a description of their mood.
Physical menus are no more in restaurants, he says. Instead, diners scan QR codes with their phones to call up menus. Travellers can also use their phones to connect with a virtual concierge to find and book restaurants, excursions, spa treatments and appointments with physical trainers.
“If you still want a physical menu or to interact with a human, you can do so still, but those that don’t have an option.”
THE NEW BUFFET
The biggest question he gets asked is about the resort buffets. Rest assured, he says, they have survived COVID-19.
“Not one resort got rid of the buffet.”
Instead food stations are surrounded by plastic or glass barriers and food is plated by employees.
“You can still have as much as you want and I didn’t notice any backlog at all. I kind of prefer it that way, actually.”
Tables are widely spaced out and some resorts have only opened outdoor restaurants for service. In some cases, restaurants are open on alternating days. There were a number of restaurants that delivered cutlery to the table sealed in plastic.
Room service often meant food delivered in takeout packaging and left outside the door.
“Resort staff are not allowed to enter your room unless it’s to clean or sanitize.”
Most of the resorts he visited are operating at 20 to 30 per cent capacity, but are a little busier on the weekend, when locals are able to visit. The country caps capacity at 60 per cent. Pihach says he found very few Canadians on his travels (though about 900,000 Canucks visit the Dominican Republic in normal years) and says most guests were from the U.S.
“People are worried about crowding, but there is no reason to fear that you will feel crowded. I was actually the only person in an entire tower at one resort. Physical distancing is really easy right now.”
Just like at home, physical distancing reminders are stuck on floors and elevators, but masks are not required. Resorts are “politely requesting” that guests wear masks in common areas and for the most part, Pihach says, travellers were complying. Guests seemed to be sticking to their own bubbles, too.
Some resorts are using rapid testing for guests and staff and also offering that as an add-on to a wedding package.
“So along with a dove release and fireworks, you can have a lab come to the resort and test your guests so that they can gather together.”
Other add-ons include personal protective equipment and customized masks for brides and grooms.
A couple of resorts are aiming to cater to remote workers and learners, offering long-term stays at reduced rates (starting at US$129 per person) and perks, including laundry service, spa treatments and personal training sessions.
THE FLYING EXPERIENCE
Travellers need to prepare to have much fewer flight options. Where Toronto’s airport would normally have dozens of flights to sun destinations seven days a week, now there may be just a direct option one day a week.
Pihach says he felt entirely safe while flying and while in airports and that fellow travellers were respectful of the rules.
“But if you’re uncomfortable about being on a plane or not comfortable about wearing a mask for a long period, travel is not for you right now. Travel is a personal choice and there is nothing wrong with waiting.”
Travellers must check the entry requirements of the country they are visiting. Some require proof of a negative COVID-19 test within a certain number of days or hours of departure. Some also require a quarantine period. Be aware that some jurisdictions have curfews and limits on gatherings.
Dominican Republic removed its test requirement, but does a random rapid test of between three and 10 per cent of each arriving plane’s passengers. All passengers must fill out a health form and clear a thermal scanner.
‘DO NOT BE A COVIDIOT’
Vacationers have to understand that normal activities, such as shopping, sightseeing and excursions may not be available at their destination, says CTV travel expert Loren Christie.
“It’s not going to be the same, but if you go in understanding that, this is a time to support the travel industry.”
Travellers should also be aware that some sun destinations are taking a whole-country approach to imposing protocols, while others are letting the resort brands take the lead. He says travellers should contact properties directly to ask questions about protocols.
For Jonny Bierman, a Vancouver resident spending two months in Costa Rica, research is critical. This isn’t the time to snatch a great deal or pack up on a whim, he says. If a resort doesn’t trumpet its COVID-19 safety measures on its website, move on to another.
“It is not unsafe to travel, but it requires a lot of planning, flexibility and forethought,” he said in a poolside video interview with CTVNews.ca from a rented home in Dominical, a beach town on the Pacific coast.
“Do not come into this as if everything will be just as it was before. Now more than ever, it’s important to tip big wherever you can. Take into consideration that people may not have been working for six months and they don’t have the social programs that we have in Canada.”
Bierman, who shared his advice and process in an Instagram post, wrote: “Do not be a covidiot, just because you're travelling doesn't mean it no longer exists. Especially in a country like this where so much respect and understanding is going into guidelines and procedures by locals, the least you can do is your part as well.”
Costa Rica is strict about travel insurance, requiring coverage for two weeks of quarantine in a hotel. Bierman and his partner bought private travel insurance for CAD$300 and quarantine insurance through the Costa Rican government for CAD$255, which made the arrival process at the airport a “breeze,” he said.
BE AWARE OF RISKS
But Christie says travelling does come with risks.
For one, going abroad during the federal government’s non-essential travel advisory means that Ottawa will offer no help should a citizen be stranded abroad.
World situations are fluid and unpredictable, especially as a second wave of the virus grips many parts of the world.
“If you’re down in Barbados where there is a low count of COVID, but it explodes, West Jet could cancel flights. In theory, they would try to get everyone home, but that might not be possible.”
Countries could also close their borders to Canadian travellers, which could leave citizens stuck for a way home.
Christie’s top piece of advice is to respect and comply with all local public health guidance before, during and after your trip.
He adds that respect should be extended to travellers themselves.
“We don’t know why people are travelling. Some people live in apartments and have no access to the outdoors. They may be isolated and alone. Some snowbirds don’t have a winter option in Canada because they have a cottage that isn’t winterized,” said Christie in an interview with CTVNews.ca from Toronto.
“For some people it’s about mental or physical health. We shouldn’t just assume that people are being irresponsible because they are travelling.”
All that being said, Christie hasn’t travelled since the pandemic began and he expects to stay within Canada next year, too.
It’s not that he’s nervous, it’s that he knows he can’t travel as he wants to right now.
“Vacation for me is about going to local markets and people watching and walking through neighbourhoods and experiencing local life. That is hard to do right now… If I wanted to just lie on a beach, I would feel differently.”
KEEP YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU
Bierman, a sustainable travel writer, photographer and filmmaker, arrived in Costa Rica with his partner Ben on Nov. 4. They plan to return to Canada Jan. 4 and in the meantime, both are working remotely.
They are spending six weeks in an Airbnb and the remaining time visiting an eco-lodge and a resort. Deals are to be had, says Bierman.
The Airbnb normally rents for CAD$5,000 a month, but the couple was able to negotiate a $2,000-a-month fee.
Bierman says he’s been impressed with the safety protocols in place, including during his flight and during a stay at a luxury sustainable hotel. He thinks new regimens will make travel safer going forward.
“We really have not felt unsafe at all here. It’s masks, hand sanitizer and physical distancing.”
But Bierman and his partner Ben are doing less moving around the country and not seeking to meet locals as they normally would.
“We have definitely stayed in our little bubble. We are not looking to meet people right now. You still need to have your wits about you.”
Bierman says he’s hopeful that the pandemic ushers in deeper and more authentic travel experiences where travellers are focused on making a positive impact on local economies during what will be a long recovery.
“I think people will put more value on staying longer and in fewer places and really slowing down. There is always so much to do wherever you are, but you miss out on so much when you’re continually moving around.”
Snowbird Bob Slack had to buy snow tires, winter boots and a shovel because this will be the first time in 23 years that he and his wife have spent the winter in Canada.
The couple, both retired elementary school educators who live in Athens, Ont., usually leave at the beginning of November for their home in the aptly named Winterhaven, Fla. and return in mid-April.
But he and his wife didn’t once consider travelling to their southern home this year.
“What with the border being closed and the way COVID is going in Florida, we have no desire to head south,” Slack, 78, said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
A friend even offered to supply a car if the Slacks flew down, but stories of some of the residents of their community of about 1,500 people landing in the hospital after contracting the virus was enough to convince them to tough it out at home.
About 80 Canadians live in the Slacks’ community and as far as he knows, none of them have gone south.
A recent survey conducted by the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA) found that 79 per cent of Canadians (and 90 per cent of baby boomers) said they would not travel to the U.S. this winter, even if their travel health insurance policy provided coverage for COVID-19.
A couple of Slack’s friends have travelled to Florida. One already wants to come home because of the high caseloads, says Slack, and the other vows not to go anywhere because they feel locals are not respecting pandemic safety measures.
The Canadian Snowbirds Association estimates that about 70 per cent of its 115,000 members will stay home this year, says executive director Michael MacKenzie.
Virtually all of its members spend the winter – anything from a month to six months – in the United States, he says. About 60 per cent are in Florida, and 30 per cent in Arizona. There are also pockets of Canadians in California and the southern tip of Texas.
Those jurisdictions have seen much higher COVID-19 case rates throughout the pandemic. As of Dec. 16, Florida’s case rate was 5,325 per 100,000 people, while Arizona’s was at 5,830 per 100,000.
That compares to 1,023 per 100,000 in Ontario, 2,024 per 100,000 in Quebec and 1,971 per 100,000 in Alberta.
“There has been a lot of COVID in places people typically go, so that’s keeping a lot of people at home. But there is a perception that things are getting worse in Canada,” MacKenzie said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
If Canadian caseloads keep climbing, the decision whether to stay or go becomes a “numbers game,” especially for seniors who live in condos or apartments and would find it difficult to get outside and stay mobile. There are also a significant number of snowbirds who are full-time RVers and typically drive south for the winter.
“I think that if people are sensing things are bad everywhere and they are going to be cooped up no matter where they are, they would rather be warm. So we could see more people testing the waters and in January we may see more people have a hard look at the numbers.”
Slack won’t be among them. He’s prepared to hunker down at his eastern Ontario home, expecting to go out only for necessities and to not see family or friends until the spring. He’ll spend the winter puttering in his garage, taking on woodworking projects, getting out for walks and reading.
“I feel lucky to live where I do. This will be a different kind of winter, but I’m sitting here looking out my window at the swans and the ducks on the lake that are getting ready to fly south. At least they get to go.”