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A Local Lens on Returning to International Travel

Ready, Set, Travel … Again

Like many industries, it’s no secret the global travel and tourism industry has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. The United Nations World Tourism Organization(Se abre en una ventana nueva) (UNWTO) reports that globally, compared to 2019, international tourist arrivals were down 73 percent in 2020 and down 72 percent in 2021.

Furthermore, the UNWTO says that in 2020, compared to the previous year, the pandemic yielded 1 billion fewer international tourist arrivals; a loss of $1.3 trillion USD in total export revenues from international tourism; and more than 100 million direct tourism jobs at risk. Needless to say, travel restrictions and varying requirements to travel have impacted businesses, both big and small, around the world that have a base in international travel and tourism.

Throughout the past 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to travel internationally and experience diverse parts of the world. My travels have introduced me to people, places and cultures in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. And while I cherish so many aspects of travel, it's often the relationships with people that mean the most—and have the power to stay. During the past nearly two years, in conversations with friends who work in travel and tourism around the world, I have seen how the industry has taken a mighty big hit due to the pandemic. I became increasingly aware of how local communities that, in many ways, depend on international travel and tourism were and are impacted. I also saw, and was inspired by, what they did to pivot and find or create other opportunities—and have often felt that this industry stands so much to gain on the “other side” of all of this. As we journey further into 2022 and make plans to travel internationally again, I spoke with a few friends, and others, who work in travel and tourism on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica, to understand and share what the past two years have been like for them and their communities and what a return to international travel and tourism might look like for them, their businesses, their communities and all of us in 2022—and beyond.

Jackie Nourse, of Traveling Jackie(Se abre en una ventana nueva) and JUMP Adventures(Se abre en una ventana nueva), has been working in travel and tourism for the past 19 years. She started as a travel blogger and then launched JUMP Podcast(Se abre en una ventana nueva), one of the longest-running travel podcasts, in 2014. Two years later, she started leading group trips and, to date, has designed and hosted trips in Patagonia, Ecuador, Jordan and Croatia. “Travel is not just my livelihood; it is my lifeblood,” Jackie says. “It’s what I’ve built my entire adult life on. That’s why Covid sucked in all the ways. When you build your entire career around something that you’re passionate about and then that rug just gets pulled out from under you, everything crashes, not just the business.” When travel stopped in March 2020, people were not only canceling trips and not booking future trips, but also, they weren’t even researching trips. “Everyone who was in my position with an online travel presence experienced a 90 percent full stop [in online traffic] overnight,” Jackie says. In Australia, Adam Vandermeer has been working in travel and tourism since 2013. Stating it simply, he says, “Without travelers, we don’t have an industry.” Adam, who has done everything from surf coaching, to bus driving, to global sales management and more, notes that Australia’s international and domestic travel and tourism were impacted by the pandemic, as the country’s states were largely closed off to one another. “We had some government support to help,” he says. “But when that ended, it really affected the companies that are mostly geared toward international customers. They were and are still very much nonexistent.” Sushila Acharya is a trekking guide based in Pokhara, Nepal. She has 12 years of experience in not only leading tourists on treks but also planning and guiding them on a number of outdoor activities, including birdwatching, paragliding and rafting. “Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the tourism sector,” she says. “Life has become difficult due to the lack of work for a period of two years, and people working in the tourism sector have not received any assistance from the community or the Nepalese government.” Though the details of the impact and challenges of the pandemic are often unique to each individual, business and country, everyone I spoke to echoed Jackie, Adam and Sushila’s remarks in one way or another. Most said international tourism was one of the industries most heavily impacted by the pandemic and the national or regional protocols that accompanied it. From that impact, each individual and community responded in different ways—thinking and acting creatively and innovatively to move forward, however possible, in adverse conditions.

Marina Mantolan, a digital nomad, photographer and writer from Spain, co-founded My Serendipity Retreats(Se abre en una ventana nueva) with Ylva Linn Hatlebrekke from Norway and Deborah Jessen from Germany in 2019. In January 2020, the trio hosted their first women’s yoga and surf retreat in Sri Lanka. Then, following March 2020, they had to cancel everything. Today, in addition to other jobs, Marina and Deborah run My Serendipity—and have gradually started to host retreats again. “In 2021, we wanted to play it safe, so we organized fewer retreats and hosted them at the start of the low season [in the locations where we were],” Marina says. “We wanted to avoid crowds—not only because of Covid, but also because we wanted to give a better experience.” Last year, My Serendipity focused primarily on offering retreats in Spain and mostly to Spanish women. This meant they only had to focus on the rules and regulations (with regard to Covid-19) within one country. “The reception of the retreats was surprisingly positive,” Marina says. “Soon after announcing them, they had sold out. Paradoxically, Covid hurt us a lot, as it was the year we started our business, but on the other hand, it strengthened the need or desire for our business. The wellness industry—mixed with yoga, surfing and nature—became stronger during quarantine. People are now looking for an experience beyond just a holiday or vacation.” In Chile, Javier Reyes has been a mountain guide for eight years, primarily in Torres del Paine National Park and southern Chilean Patagonia. He provides people with experiences in nature, mostly in the mountains, in the form of guided day trips or multi-day expeditions. Of the pandemic’s impact, he says, “Without a doubt, in the smaller communities, we’ve had to reinvent how the future of tourism will be in our country and how we will work.” After initially staying in southern Patagonia, Javier returned home to the Valparaíso Region in central Chile toward the end of 2020. Back home, at the foot of the Andes Mountains, he and Eduardo Weber, a friend and fellow guide, co-founded Big Andes Experience(Se abre en una ventana nueva), a tourism agency with a focus on outdoor adventures and environmental education. “Despite everything, I think the past two years have been an opportunity for us to be more flexible, adapt to change, get out of our comfort zones and create something new,” Javier says. “For us, it was a good opportunity to come back to the place where we grew up, create an agency and generate an opportunity for people here to adventure in the Andes, enjoy the fresh air and learn about these places in our backyard and, at the same time, the environmental problems our country is facing.”

In the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania, Leone Mallya and Karen Zoe Kelley, of Simba Zoe Safaris(Se abre en una ventana nueva), also started a new business during the pandemic. Simba Zoe Pub, a restaurant and bar, is centered on serving the local community. Eventually, as international tourism returns to Tanzania, Leone and Karen feel the pub can also provide foreigners with a local experience. Two years ago, Leone and Karen officially started Simba Zoe Safaris, an agency that offers guided trips to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro; safaris in the safari parks; and trips to Zanzibar. Leone grew up in the Kilimanjaro Region and has worked in the local travel and tourism industry as a porter, guide and operator for roughly eight years. Karen, who is from California, now calls Tanzania home and has been working in the industry for seven years. “The past two years have been very challenging,” Leone says. “Since the start of the pandemic, we haven’t had any jobs for hiking or safaris. Some people have gone back to their villages and are staying with their parents. Some decided to work in agriculture.” When Leone and Karen were faced with how they would get through the pandemic, they thought about the industries that are always needed as well as what was lacking in their local neighborhood. From there, they decided to open Simba Zoe Pub, which has employed five people, including some of their crew members from Simba Zoe Safaris. The pub also gave people, who were feeling isolated through the pandemic, a place to gather and be with other people. “The mountain crew is a family. We work for various companies, but there’s a core of us that are really close,” Karen says. “It gave an opportunity in the form of a location where people could come and just be together.”

Back home in Bozeman, Montana, Jackie focused on her podcast(Se abre en una ventana nueva) and the content she could deliver virtually, including a virtual retreat that she hosted twice via Zoom. “That’s what I could do,” she says. “The doors were closed everywhere else.” Then, in October 2021, with responsibility and respect, she hosted her first group trips since November 2019 in Croatia. “It was really refreshing just to be out again and to experience the people in the small villages who were so ready for us to be there,” Jackie says. “And traveling without issues [with regard to Covid-19] was also super encouraging.” Throughout the past two years, Jackie also kept in close contact with the operators she works with in the destinations where she hosts trips. Throughout, she saw how they were turning their focus toward sustainability and local travel. “They really kind of catapulted their sustainability efforts,” she says. “Some companies got certified as B Corps during this time. They did some internal sustainability-focused things and geared their products toward local travel. They saw an uptick in local tourism, which then instilled this national pride where people became interested in sustainable travel in their own backyard.” Adam witnessed one shift in Australia’s international travel and tourism industry that supported people working in agriculture locally. “The surf camp I used to work for converted all of the backpacker accommodations into farm worker accommodations,” he says. “It’s quite a good fit really, in that they’ve got consistent people there and it’s keeping the lights on until things can resume to normal.” Today, Adam is working on Joystic, a mobile travel app “making hosts better helpers in-trip.” The app is set to launch during the first half of 2022. “Previously, I’ve worked in guided travel and local tours or activities,” he says. “Now, I’ve moved more into the travel technology space. We’re giving hosts the ability to serve in-trip experiences in a way that does good for travelers, local suppliers and communities alike.”

In January 2022, everyone I chatted with was optimistic, to varying degrees, about the return of international travel and tourism to their countries and communities this year. “I think people are adapting to the rules and getting used to the way things are,” Marina says. “And with many airlines and hotels offering flexible cancellation policies, I think people feel safer booking travel.” This year, My Serendipity Retreats plans to offer yoga and surf retreats for women in Spain, Portugal and Sri Lanka. Leone and Karen have plans to continue running Simba Zoe Pub and hope to, once again, welcome travelers to Tanzania via Simba Zoe Safaris. “There’s a lot of positive energy going on in town,” Karen says. “However, the numbers aren’t even close [to what they were before the pandemic]. I think there’s also a point where there’s only hope. If you don’t have a hopeful feeling, then what do you have? So even a little bit of movement is giving people a lot of excitement.” Following the pandemic, especially as people reconsider and prioritize their bucket list adventures, Karen thinks we’ll see a “pretty major surge” in tourism globally. “But it’s not going to happen overnight,” she says. “I believe it’s going to be a slow and steady increase.” Similarly, Adam feels that welcoming international travelers back to Oceania will be gradual. “I’m more optimistic for Australia in the short term,” he says. “It’s a big country, but it’s a small community within the industry. Everyone really likes to look out for each other. If we can all work together, then I think we’ll be better off.” Sushila is optimistic that the situation will normalize this year and that work will restart in Nepal’s tourism sector. In 2022, through JUMP Adventures, Jackie will host trips in Patagonia and is looking to add Italy (a trip that was canceled in 2020) and “epic destinations in North America” to her offerings as well. “I for sure think that international travel is going to be coming back—and fast,” Jackie says. “I’m paying attention to the pulse in places, and no matter what I think, the pulse is going up, so I will jump on that bandwagon. I’m very optimistic. I know that better days are here. I have experienced that in my own life and business. Better days are here, and they’re also ahead.” In Chile, Javier carries the same energy. “I think I’m optimistic, maybe too much,” he says. “I think there are also many people who are considering changing their lifestyle to something more sustainable. So yes, I think tourism will return, but I also think it will be different from how it was before.”

Boarding a plane, or any mode of transit, and traveling to a new destination, international or domestic, opens you up to a world of possibilities. It opens you up to being transformed by the world—and also carries the possibility that you, however intentionally or unintentionally, might transform the world. Wherever you travel, I encourage you to leave no trace, only a positive impression, and support local people and businesses whenever possible. Jackie shared a powerful statistic(Se abre en una ventana nueva) with me from the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA): In “mass tourism,” studies show that approximately 14 percent of the revenue remains in the local country, whereas in “adventure tourism,” roughly 65 percent of the revenue stays in the local country. “When you’re looking at tourists coming from cruises, all-inclusive resorts or international chains, a lot of that is big international business,” says ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell. “Studies have shown that up to 85 percent, sometimes 90 percent, [of money] leaves the destination entirely … The locals lose, and there’s very little left for the environment.” So as you consider, plan and pursue international travel in 2022 and beyond, how can you do so in a meaningful way on a local level? Marina says, “I think it’s very important to be informed on where you’re going and the rules of that country because it changes a lot depending on the country. It’s important to respect the local rules—and the local people who live there—in the place where you’re choosing to travel.” “One way to have a positive impact on local communities is to travel with guides who have local knowledge, eat at local restaurants, shop at local markets, support products that are sourced locally and consider visiting places that aren’t highly visited,” Javier says. Jackie echoes this sentiment, saying, “Probably the easiest way to do it [travel in a meaningful way on a local level] is to avoid ‘chain’ anything. We know what a chain hotel looks like. We know what a chain restaurant looks like. We even know what chain destinations—places that are on the beaten path that we can avoid—look like. The key is to spend your dollars locally. If you know who the person is who is running the company, I think that’s a good way to figure that out.” Javier also notes that the value of traveling with a guide is sometimes underestimated. Experienced local guides often have a relationship with their communities and can take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise go or have access to and introduce you to those places as well as their people and culture. With regard to connecting with operators who are local to your travel destination, Javier recommends asking people you know who’ve traveled to that place already for recommendations and connections. “Chances are they can put you in touch with local people who can help you have, or live, the experience that you’re really seeking,” he says. “Because on the flip side, there’s always the opportunity to travel with a ‘mega’ operator and have an ‘all-inclusive’ experience that doesn’t really connect you with the local community.” Adam says, “I think more and more people realize that every dollar they spend is a vote, and if it’s easy to do so, I think people will choose to support a local alternative.” Looking to travel internationally in 2022? Now more than ever, traveling responsibly and respectfully starts with properly researching and planning your trip before you leave home. Then, once you’re out in the world, keep your plans on hand but also be prepared and willing to adapt and go with the flow. That’s usually where the adventure begins and the magic unfolds. “I just want to encourage people to travel again,” Jackie says. “It’s so worth it. The whole travel experience is begging to be re-experienced right now. Worldwide. It’s worth it.”

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Author’s note: While I provided links for each of the people who contributed to this story and their businesses throughout this article, I also want to provide them one more time all in one place. I encourage you to consider what you’re looking for in your travel experience; do your own research based on your values, needs and desires; and select an operator accordingly. As you do so, these businesses (shared in alphabetical order) might be a good place to start.