World travel: Navigating the new normal

A hand touching the inside window of a plane flying over clouds.

As we ease ourselves back into holidaying, travel writer and member Callum Hale-Thomson explores how to responsibly enjoy global escapes

By Callum Hale-Thomson  Above image by Chloe Fontaine   Friday 24 July, 2020   Long read

It’s been just shy of five months since I last set foot on a plane and, like many around me, I’m spending an increasing portion of each day with my eyes pinned to Skyscanner. I imagine myself swanning freely down sleepy foreign streets again. I immerse myself in memories of being submerged in the crystal-blue waters of a far-flung location. I daydream about, well, doing anything anywhere outside of the four absurdly familiar walls of my east London apartment.

But it’s not all as simple as it once was. There is a new dance involved in the future of travel, and we’re bracing ourselves for this post-COVID-19 choreography: mask, antibacterial wipes and social apprehension at the ready. There will be no last-minute drop to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line or leisurely flights to pastures new. Airline marketing campaigns no longer extol the virtues of vintage Champagne, ample legroom and low fares because we no longer live in that world – for the time being, at least. Instead, big travel businesses brag of enhanced cleaning procedures, limited onboard service and HEPA air filters – the kind capable of eliminating 99% of airborne particles. As they should. Travel is reshaping its new normal.

There’s also the dizzying maze of bureaucracy, luggage restrictions and guarded quarantine orders to consider. Italy, for example, has banned the use of overhead lockers on inbound flights and requires a temperature reading before you can board (these readings are also a current requirement to enter many major restaurants and clubs in the US). Iceland goes one step further, demanding a test be taken upon arrival, with a mandatory 24-hour quarantine to follow while your results are processed.

‘Airline marketing campaigns no longer extol the virtues of vintage Champagne, ample legroom and low fares because we no longer live in that world – for the time being, at least’

A plane flying through the sky with a prominent white slipstream.
Courtesy of Ah Life
Experts warn extra time considerations will need to be factored into travelling from A to B as a result of the increasing restrictions. But additional charges may transcend logistical hold-ups: still planning a trip to Cambodia this summer? Expect to present a US $3,000 deposit once you land, in case you require medical assistance during your stay. Healthcare – once little more than a policy filing exercise – is now king. 

My usual strategy when planning a summer getaway is to keep clear of crowded tourist epicentres and follow the locals. I seek out low-profile rural spots over noisy urban cityscapes, and it’s a formula that has served me well over the years. But is off-the-beaten-track travel still possible in a post-COVID-19 world? What’s more, as countries begin to reopen their borders and lift quarantine restrictions, is it even ethical to travel right now? In nonchalantly crossing towns and countries using compromised public transportation, there’s always the risk of becoming an unwitting asymptomatic carrier.

As a result, the return to travel has been tentative and necessarily tempered by elaborate tourism board campaigns exhorting holidaymakers to postpone their visits. ‘Stay positive. Stay safe. Stay home…Visit Catalonia later’ was practically plastered across the web in an effort to protect tourist hotspots like Barcelona. Even the tourism board for Blackpool was forced to unveil an alter ego: ‘Do Not Visit Blackpool’, they urged. The message was simple but effective. After all, the risk to local communities is real and ongoing. And, although many countries are seeing a flattening of the infection-rate curve, a lack of emergency services in rural areas combined with a burgeoning influx of foreign travellers can easily overwhelm facilities, and continues to pose real risk.
An outside staircase.
A wooden table laid for breakfast.
A person preparing breakfast.
An outdoor swimming pool with loungers around it.
A woman arranging flowers in her hand.
In short, the new normal can be draining. So how can we travel responsibly, safely and enjoyably? Government guidance is, of course, a crucial starting point. But just because a country has opened the borders that doesn’t mean its locals are about to welcome you with open arms. Find a way to test the tenor by contacting an apartment host or hotel concierge in the area you want to visit before booking – they’ll be able to give you an indication of the local mood and advise on the measures being taken to safeguard your stay.

It’s also crucial to understand local requirements around social distancing and the wearing of masks before travelling. And always plan to minimise your time spent in public places – particularly in rural communities. This is your chance to see travel as an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with nature.

As for me, after hours of wanderlust-filled sleuthing and conversing with locals, I’ve decided to take the plunge and safely explore these secluded destinations this summer:

Avola (Sicily, Italy)

Sicily has suffered proportionately fewer cases of COVID-19 than mainland Italy and reopened to international visitors in June, but travellers must download an app to access health services. Head to the southern tip of the island to discover IUTA Glamping & Farm – a collection of five eco lodges in the middle of an ancient olive grove.

Pefki (Crete, Greece)

Greece’s early, strict lockdown kept cases to a minimum, with numbers in Crete remaining lower than the national average. To protect locals, travellers from most international destinations are still required to undergo mandatory testing upon arrival. The Pefki area of Crete is home to unspoilt beaches and stunning hillscapes, including the Pefki Gorge, which boasts 10 self-enclosed cottages constructed from local stone and renovated by an Athenian architect.

Baza (Andalusia, Spain)

Spain lifted its quarantine mid-June, but continues to monitor the temperature of all arriving travellers and masks are mandatory in many regions, including Andalusia. Head 100km north of Granada for Cuevas Al Jatib, a series of cave dwellings dating back to the prehistoric era. Now lovingly restored, these caves face the Sierra de Baza mountain range and offer a scenic starting point for memorable hikes.
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