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Leisure Travel to Be Slowest to Return Post COVID-19 

Traveling abroad used to be relatively easy. Pick a country, get your visa if needed, book airline and/or hotel reservations, and you are ready to go. But as countries slowly emerge from the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and reopen for visitors, travel industry experts say leisure travel is going to be the slowest to return, and it’s going to be a different experience — especially with various restrictions still in effect.

Dr. Jan Jones, program coordinator for hospitality and tourism management at the University of New Haven College of Business says it’s going to take time to get used to the new normal.

“I do think people want to travel, and they’re watching very closely the destinations that they want to go back to and keeping an eye on exactly what’s opening up and how it’s opening up. But I think it’s going to be tough in terms of international travel in the beginning,” Jones told VOA.

Two people wait in line at a security checkpoint at a virtually deserted Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, May 22, 2020.

With over five million coronavirus cases and 335,000 deaths worldwide, the U.S. State Department still has a level 4 global health advisory urging Americans “not to travel.” 

A new normal

And even if travel picks up again, it will be a different experience, said Peter Cerda, International Air Transport Association regional vice president for the Americas.

“We’re accustomed to seeing over 200,000 flights go into the air every day in such a safe, efficient manner with various levels of comfort. But that’s going to be different, unfortunately, at least for the near future,” he said. “Measures and different standards will have to be implemented to safeguard the well-being of the travelers and ensure that aviation is not a vector of the pandemic being spread to others.”

Cerda said a combination of efforts to reduce risk of contagion is needed, including temperature screening, physical distancing, the use of face coverings, simplified cabin service and enhanced cleaning procedures. 

“We believe that the multilayered coordinated approach is going to be one that will bring confidence back,” he said. “But it’s also going to put a lot more responsibility on the traveler. He’s going to have to do a lot more legwork before he even gets to the airport. He’s going to have to check for his flight before, he’s going to have to look at printing his boarding card before, his baggage tag, and also making sure that he’s fit to travel. And that will depend on the compliance that the governments around the world will require of the traveler.”

Physical distancing could increase airfares if airlines were restricted to selling fewer tickets in order to keep some seats empty, Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths said recently. “It costs pretty much the same to operate an airplane whether it’s completely full or a third full. And so to provide the same level of revenue to cover the cost of operating, airfares would have to be something like three times what they are today,” Griffiths said, adding that he hoped measures would only be short term.

According to the latest data from 2017, the top 10 destinations for Americans include Mexico, Canada, Britain, Dominican Republic, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Jamaica and China. 

The top 10 travel destinations for Americans, according to the latest data from 2017. (Anthony White/VOA)

Quarantines at arrival

But most of these countries have restrictions now, including prohibiting tourists or requiring quarantines at arrival.

Gloria Guevara, CEO of World Travel Tourism Council, said in the case of the U.K., for example, “currently we have a two-week quarantine, which is unfortunate. And that means that if you arrive, you have to spend 14 days in quarantine, which in our mind doesn’t make any sense and has perhaps been successful at the beginning of the lockdown. But based on the experience and what we have seen in other countries, it seems that it makes more sense to perform testing.”

Jan Jones echoes Guevara, saying that “typically the trips, even for U.S. market, are not as long. Europeans typically will travel for longer periods of time. Americans typically don’t do that. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens. But I think very constraining on the industry itself.”

FILE – A traveler pulls down her protective mask as a TSA agent compares her face to her identification at a security entrance at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash., May 18, 2020.

Quarantines will affect travel, and even more travel agencies, said Kibret Woldearegay, owner of Fana Travel in Virginia. He says sometimes people travel for a week or 10 days, and no one will be willing to go anywhere if they know they will be subjected to a 14-day quarantine.

“Our business is down like 98%, 99%. I would say 100 percent for the past three months. There is just nothing,” he said. “They [people] are not calling. Those who are calling want a refund for their money for a ticket they bought a long time ago.”

Refunding tickets also affects income he and other employees have made on commission months ago.

“We work on commission,” he explained. “Whenever we refund, the airline will ask us to recall the commission or the tickets. So technically we’re losing every single day, and we’re not making any money to cover that cost.”

Lessons learned

It is unclear when global travel will recover from the pandemic that has shattered demand, and it will partially depend on countries lifting their lockdowns. But it’s crucial to do that in a coordinated approach between governments and the private sector, Guevara said. She also said it’s important to learn from past health crises.

“For instance, in the case of Ebola, MERS and SARS outbreaks, there was not a vaccine. And we were able to travel, right?” she said.

How to prepare for trips

For those who plan to travel in the near future, along with State Department and CDC guidelines, an interactive map on the IATA website shows the various rules and restrictions of individual countries.  

Iraq’s New PM Was Once Critical of Country Seen as ‘Iran’s Backyard’

Before he held political office, Iraq’s recently elected Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was a strong critic of his predecessors for turning the country into “Iran’s backyard” in the eyes of other nations.

“A strong, coexisting and cohesive Iraq is the option that will best serve Iraq’s long-term interests,” he wrote in 2013 when Nouri al-Maliki was Iraq’s premier, in an op-ed for Al-Monitor, a U.S.-based website.

“However, this cannot occur until the regional and international parties that consider Iraq nothing more than Iran’s backyard are convinced otherwise by the enactment of more independent policies [by the Iraqi government],” al-Kadhimi added.

Al-Kadhimi’s election this month was welcomed by both the United States and Iran, raising questions about whether the new leader could maintain what appear to be mutually exclusive relations, as the U.S. continues to impose crippling sanctions on Iran.

The U.S. immediately granted another 120-day waiver for Iraq to continue importing gas and electricity from Iran “as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.

FILE – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters in flight en route to Baghdad, Iraq, May 8, 2019.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called al-Kadhimi, promising him U.S. support.

“I pledged to help him deliver on his bold agenda for the sake of the Iraqi people,” Pompeo said in a tweet last week.

Pro-Iran militia

In his first week as prime minister, al-Kadhimi issued a decision to free all the anti-government protesters who had been arrested by the previous administration to the displeasure of the U.S.

He also directly went after a militia group accused of killing protesters and closed the office for Thar Allah, or God’s Revolution, a pro-Iran militant group, in Basra.

“Kadhimi’s priority is much needed damage control caused by Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s tenure,” said Bilal Wahab, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the previous premier. It includes “deeper militia infiltration and activity, Iraq’s regional and international isolation due to Baghdad’s closeness to Tehran, and seeking accountability for the brutal crackdown against the protesters,” he told VOA.

Before assuming office, al-Kadhimi was the director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, an organization that under his stewardship played a critical role in the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq.

“National intelligence, he has reformed it very well,” said Abbas Kadhim, an Iraq expert with the Atlantic Council, adding that al-Kadhimi turned the intelligence service into a more effective and apolitical institution that cooperated with rival countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S., on counterterrorism matters.

FILE – People look at a destroyed houses near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, Oct. 27, 2019, after an operation by the U.S. military that targeted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“He was credited with providing critical information to the U.S. that led to the killing of [IS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi,” he added.

Sectarianism stance

Experts argue that sectarian policies practiced by Iraq’s Shiite leaders following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of the Islamic State terror group.
 
Al-Kadhimi was critical of sidelining Iraqi Sunnis under a policy called “de-baathification,” which sacked public servants who used to have ties to the former Baath Party.
In his past statements before assuming the office of the prime minister, al-Kadhimi said there should not be a sweeping edict applied to all.

“What applies to the Baath Party should not apply to the Baathists as individuals,” al-Kadhimi wrote in an article about year before IS took Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

“Everyone in Iraq agrees that a set of pressures, compromises and ambiguities forced millions of Iraqis to join this party, which reduced the state and linked all of its aspects to the party,” he added.

Irbil-Baghdad ties

Kurdish officials announced Wednesday that al-Kadhimi agreed to reverse his predecessor’s decision that halted the revenue share of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is estimated at nearly $400 million, according to local media.

The news was cheered by the public in the northern Kurdish region, where public school teachers protested over the weekend because they had not received their last paychecks.

Kurdish Areas of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq

“This is great news,” Nahro Zagros, an Irbil-based university professor and an expert on Iraqi politics, told VOA. “One has to realize that when [al-Kadhimi] was first nominated to the government, Kurds were the first group to endorse him to become the prime minister of the country. So, he is returning the favor now.”

The Iraqi government has yet to announce any new decision vis-a-vis the outstanding budget dispute with Irbil, which essentially is caused by fundamental disagreements over the right to sell the country’s natural resources.

US alliance

In the past, al-Kadhimi viewed the United States as an indispensable ally of Iraq, while advocating for more balanced relations with Iran, America’s longtime foe.

“There is no doubt that Iraq is in dire need of intensified support and backup by the United States, as a strategic ally in the fight against IS,” al-Kadhimi said.

Some experts assert the reality of Iraqi politics dictates that any leader of this majority-Shiite nation remain a loyal ally of Iran, regardless of one’s visions for the country.

“Previous prime ministers were not Iranian puppets when they started their job” said Zagros, the Irbil-based analyst. “They became Iranian puppets because they had no power to resist Iranian influence in Iraq.”

Reclaiming the Street

How one town is helping people enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.  

Reporter/Camera:  Matt Dibble, Adapted by: Zdenko Novacki

Will Virus Keep Florida Spectators from Astronauts’ Launch?

In ordinary times, the beaches and roads along Florida’s Space Coast would be packed with hundreds of thousands of spectators, eager to witness the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years.  

In the age of coronavirus, local officials and NASA are split on whether that’s a good idea. NASA and SpaceX are urging spectators to stay at home next Wednesday for safety reasons.

Officials in Brevard County, home to the Kennedy Space Center, are rolling out the welcome mat in an effort to jump-start a tourism industry hit hard this spring by coronavirus-related lockdowns.

If people are comfortable coming and watching the launch, “by all means, come. If they aren’t, I respect that too,” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.

“I’m not going to tell Americans they can’t watch a great piece of history. I’m just not going to do it,” he said.  

The sheriff said he is asking visitors to practice social distancing as they watch the launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule. Liftoff is set for 4:33 p.m. EDT.

Around 85 reserve deputies will be on hand to monitor crowds and ask people to comply with social distancing if they are in groups. A local chain of beach shops is distributing 20,000 masks to spectators in coordination with the sheriff’s office, Ivey said.

The sheriff, who grew up in Florida watching launches, wants a new generation to be able to experience the energy, excitement and feelings of patriotism that comes from watching a U.S. launch with astronauts.

“NASA is a true part of our history in Brevard County,” Ivey said.

Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine asked potential spectators to watch the launch online or on TV from home. The space agency is also offering a “virtual launch experience.”

NASA is doing its best to facilitate social distancing inside the Kennedy Space Center by limiting access, although it may be hosting two VIPS. Vice President Mike Pence says he plans to be there, and President Donald Trump said he’s thinking of attending.  

The visitor center at Kennedy, usually a prime spot for viewing launches, is closed to the public.  
NASA astronauts have not launched from the U.S. since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. It will be the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts to orbit for the space agency.

“The challenge that we’re up against right now is we want to keep everybody safe,” Bridenstine said. “And so we’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center, and I will tell you that makes me sad to even say it. Boy, I wish we could make this into something really spectacular.”.

Although crowd sizes varied, a high-profile space shuttle launch could attract a half million visitors to the Space Coast. Local tourism officials think next week’s launch will bring in no more than 200,000 spectators.

With airline passenger traffic drastically down and nearby Orlando theme parks closed because of the pandemic, “we’re not going to be getting the out-of-state traffic we may have gotten during the shuttle era,” said Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism.

“The environment is different with COVID and people now reemerging from stay-at-home orders,” Cranis said. “There are going to be a number of people who are hesitant.”

The Space Coast’s tourism business is down by about 40% for the year, and that could cost the area $1 billion, he said.

“A launch like this after a big long weekend could really give us a shot in the arm,” Cranis said.

Local hoteliers are looking forward to the influx of visitors after two bad months. Tom Williamson, who is general manager of two hotels on the Space Coast, each with 150 rooms or more, said one hotel was closed and the other only had 15% occupancy in April. He expects both hotels to be at or near capacity on the night of the launch.

“We’re glad to seem some signs of life,” Williamson said.

Steven Giraldo works as a technical consultant for a software company in St. Petersburg, Florida, but he has a side gig with some space-buff friends offering charter boat tours for watching launches. For next week’s SpaceX launch, he had booked around 150 people from as far away as Australia for $75 a head on a fleet of boats. He ended up scrapping those plans.

“It would take too much logistical effort to see if everyone is wearing a mask, making sure no one has a fever, and how to you social distance on a boat?” Giraldo said.  

Instead, he plans to watch the launch with seven other friends, some from Arizona and Indiana, in a boat on the Banana River.

“This was going to be our biggest event. The historical significance of it created a lot of buzz,” Giraldo said. “But I just don’t know how we could have done it.”

 

Africa 54

On this edition of Africa 54, the remains of a fugitive suspect linked to the 1994 Rwandan genocide are identified by DNA testing; New scientific models are showing that South Africa’s future in the fight against COVID-19 may be grim; Members of Nigeria’s largest medical union are back on the jo. after ending a strike over alleged police harassment; In Ghana, the COVID-19 pandemic spurs health technology innovations; Anti-coronavirus announcements are appearing in unlikely places across Kenya.

A54 Entertainment: It’s not often that we hear music from the two-island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe. But one sibling duo is creating such beautiful music from there, the world is taking notice. The host of VOA’s Music Time in Africa, Heather Maxwell, is joined by Kwame Ofori to share their story and music.