The travel industry is once again reeling under the impact of the third wave of rampant COVID-19 infections (in my view of it, Alpha, Delta, and Omicron but some experts would say there have been more “waves” based on surging cases and new variants at various times and places).
What matters most right now, though, is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued two new important advisories: (1) don’t cruise, even if fully vaccinated, and (2) don’t travel to Canada which is now Level 4 (highest risk). More such advice can be expected until, hopefully, the current surge of infections abates as it did in South Africa.
There is, however, no assurance of such an abatement. Frustrations are high everywhere. There is no rhyme or reason to where the virus is rampaging. The Level 4 list includes such disparate places as the entire European Union (except Romania which is at Level 3) and Russia, South Africa, and Switzerland. Level 3 includes Israel, Mexico, South Korea, and Thailand. New Zealand is at Level 2 while India and Japan are in Level 1.
Tomorrow those lists could change again. They likely will continue to change and, as a fiduciary in relation to your customers, you have the responsibility to inform them of important facts about their trip. Some travelers will behave as if they already know everything about COVID or they simply don’t want to hear it. You should tell them anyway.
Within the United States, some state leaderships are behaving as if COVID-19 were a mirage, even as their case counts soar and hospitals reach capacity. The good news, in a perverse sense, is that COVID-attributed deaths are occurring almost entirely among the unvaccinated. Yet vaccination rates remain well below levels necessary to halt the spread of the Omicron variant.
In these circumstances, and regardless of what anyone thinks of government policy or communications at any level, we can now be reasonably certain that COVID-19 is not going to be vanquished (that is, reduced to an endemic status like the annual flu) any time soon.
What does this mean for the practical responsibilities of travel advisors to disclose to your clients? In that respect, at least, not much has changed, but the conversations likely are going to become more difficult, especially now that cruise lines are indicating that the volume of cancellations is going to slow the delivery of refunds.
All agency staff should prepare not only to disclose the known facts about cruise cancellations and air travel uncertainties but to try to instill a sense of calm in travelers. Panic and anger will help no one and, based on experience, it will not change the timelines of refunds any more than it will change the course of COVID infections.
Given the extreme contagion of the Omicron variant, for the protection of everyone, every agency/advisor should consult legal counsel about a properly worded waiver to be signed by any client wanting to travel to a Level 3 or 4 destinations. You should also provide written notice of the present state of COVID community spread in the destination. Try to get an acknowledgment that the client received and understood the notice and waiver. A signature is best but if that is too unwieldy, make a record of when the notice was sent. Using email to provide the notice creates its own record. That is fine if you keep it!
All clients should also be advised to buy travel insurance at the highest level they can afford. Advisors can help travelers ask the right questions regarding, for example, coverage in the event of flight cancellations/delays and each airline’s or cruise line’s policy regarding masking. Remind travelers to have plentiful supplies of masks they are comfortable using.
Considering the current state of the pandemic, especially for travel to High or Very High-risk destinations (Levels 4 and 3), it would be wise to at least promote in the mind of the traveler what options may exist in the event they are infected while traveling. The rules regarding testing and quarantine are complicated and vary from place to place. While no travel advisor wants to frighten a customer into not traveling at all, it is wise to at least suggest that consideration be given to the possibility of being required to quarantine. And every traveler to a Level 4 or 3 country, at least, should check the application of their health insurance to illness on the road.
These are significant burdens on what once was a positive travel advisory role, but it is the reality that advisors must face in the current situation. Rather than having to react to a change in circumstances, every advisor should alert travelers as suggested here and provide notice and waiver documents to every traveler. You should also stay in regular touch with reliable sources of information that could affect your travelers on the road, especially the possibility of lockdowns or closed borders.
I find that writing things down helps me complete the tasks for a given day. Consider creating a checklist for every traveler. The list should include actions taken, notices given, dates, and so on. Such lists can help maintain the constant vigilance needed to be sure all your travelers are as aware and protected as is possible under current conditions.