How bad is the fear of travel right now? So bad that even people in the travel industry are staying home.
Annie Gofus, a Washington, D.C., travel agent who founded the site Wunderbird, isn’t going anywhere. She’s worried not just for her own safety, but also for that of her customers.
“I’m afraid of a client falling ill while traveling, or spreading coronavirus while on vacation,” she says. “As eager as I am to start planning travel again, I don’t think I’ll be totally confident until we have a safe vaccine for COVID-19.”
If you’re afraid to travel this summer, you’re in good company.
Lum Kamishi is afraid to travel, too. He says the pandemic threatens to create a rift between visitors and suspicious residents. “I’m afraid I’ll be seen as an alien – an outsider by the locals,” said Kamishi, who is based in Kosovo and works for a travel news site that specializes in visa information.
Carlos Chilin, the general manager of AirportParkingReservations.com,doesn’t expect consumer confidence to rebound until next year. But there could be some hope for 2020, he said, “if travel operators listen and take action to satisfy travelers about their No. 1 concern, health and safety.”
First, a reality check. The virus continues to spread, and many states still have restrictions in place.
“It is reasonable to want to avoid a threat to your safety,” said Robert Quigley, a physician and regional medical director for the Americas at International SOS, a travel security firm. “While many areas are starting to reopen, COVID-19 is still a large health threat to the world. But there are still ways to travel and enjoy a summer vacation.”
Juan Fernandez, the operating partner at Virtuoso-affiliated Elli Travel in Larchmont, New York, said travel has always come with risks. “The difference this time around,” he said, “is the fear of the unknown.”
The travel industry hopes that reassuring travelers will push them to return sooner. For example, VisitPortugal in April unveiled an initiative called Clean & Safe. It’s a government certification to distinguish tourist activities that are compliant with hygiene and cleaning requirements for the prevention and control of COVID-19 and other possible infections.
In May, the vacation rental company Vrbo introduced a new program to both help customers filter for close-to-home properties and allay anxiety about the cleanliness of its rental homes. Its guidelines advise owners to disinfect high-touch surfaces, build in times between bookings for thorough cleaning, and stock hand soap and hand sanitizers for guests.
Jeff Hurst, Vrbo’s chief executive, says his company took the steps “to help guests feel safe when they’re ready to travel again.”
D. Alexander, a high-end vacation rental management company, is marketing its luxury homes by highlighting features such as remoteness and isolation.
“Safe travel today boils down to a handful of basic questions,” said Alex Allison, the company’s managing partner. “How many people would I come in contact with? Do I know what safety and hygiene practices are in place? Can I be certain they’re being followed?”
The safety comes at a price. A month on Florida’s Emerald Coast will set you back $18,000. A 30-day isolation in the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, costs $19,000. Maybe not in everyone’s budget, but they have the right idea: Get away to somewhere safe.
Those who opt for less solitary options will have their fellow travelers to consider. “How do we protect ourselves from others?” asked Robert Yeager, a retired military contractor from Tucson who enjoys cruises. “What about passengers who fail to use the hand sanitizers prominently located just outside of eating areas? And those that handle food and serving utensils recklessly? How about the people who don’t wash their hands after using the bathrooms?”
Concerns like Yeager’s are among the reasons experts recommend local getaways that limit exposure to those outside your household. Road trips to state and national parks are summer favorites for travelers who want to avoid exposure to COVID-19. Summer travelers are avoiding planes, cruises and any activity where people are in proximity.
Even in the best of times, travel anxiety can be difficult to manage.
“Overcoming the fear of travel requires tolerating the fear,” said Anna Diamantis, a psychotherapist based in Stamford, Connecticut, who specializes in anxiety and grief counseling. “You ultimately need to face your fear head-on and stay in the feared situation until the anxiety comes down on its own. Continuing the avoidance – or partial avoidance – will only continue or amplify the fear.”
And the sooner, the better. Travel-related phobias are notoriously challenging to treat because most people travel only occasionally, said Jessica Borelli, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine.
“Anything we do infrequently is a prime target for anxiety buildup,” she said. “If we want to gain control over that anxiety, we have to do it more. The answer is always doing something more frequently, not less frequently if you want to feel less anxious about it.”
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.