Coronavirus and travel: How we will know when it's OK to travel again

How will we know when it's okay to travel again? Obvious, no? When expert advice says so, but experts can't even agree on whether we should all be wearing face masks. So what are the boxes that need ticking before it's safe to take to the skies, the seas or just hop in your car and head off over the horizon?

When the government gives the thumbs up

On March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a ban on Australians travelling overseas under the Biosecurity Act 2015. There are exceptions, for example for those Australians whose normal place of residence is overseas, but from that date we were in self quarantine from the rest of the world. The Smartraveller website has the latest information regarding overseas travel for Australians.

The lifting of the ban might happen piecemeal, as individual countries are determined to have the pandemic under control, rather than a general tick for overseas travel. It would also require reciprocity. For example the Australian Government might lift its ban on travel to New Zealand, but New Zealand would have to be willing to accept travellers from Australia.

When health professionals give the go-ahead

The government's travel advice during the coronavirus pandemic is based on the recommendations of health professionals but that advice varies from one country to another, and every country has its own individual circumstances that require medical experts to fine-tune their recommendations. It makes sense therefore to check the medical advice for any country you're planning to visit. The ABC's Coronacast podcasts are based on scientific evidence relevant to conditions in Australia.

Curiously, the World Health Organisation currently has advice on its website, dated February 29, 2020, stating "WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions."

At a time when large parts of the world are in total lockdown, and when travel restrictions have proved to be an effective weapon in the anti-coronavirus arsenal, the WHO might not be the best source of travel advice.

When travel insurance offers total peace of mind

Any travel insurance policy purchased after coronavirus became a "known" event in late January will not cover you for any delays, disruptions, cancellations or sickness that you might suffer as a result of coronavirus. You want to be 100 per cent certain that there is zero chance of that happening in your destination.

When other travellers are coming back safe and sound

Returning travellers are a good indication that all is well at your destination. If they had a great time, came back healthy and if the place was lively and fully functioning, you might want to pack your bags. Getting in early, ahead of the hordes, is a great idea if you're planning to knock on the doors of some of Europe's most overloved destinations. You'd also want to be sure that there are no second-wave infections that might cause travel restrictions to roll back into place. If you get caught up while overseas you could find yourself trapped on an enforced staycation, or cooling your heels in quarantine for two weeks after returning.

When will it be safe to travel in Australia?

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Visit Adelaide Hills, recently affected by bushfires, to overcome cabin fever. Pictured: Lot 100. Photo: Josie Withers

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While the federal government has banned overseas travel, the state and territory governments have applied the same restrictions to recreational travel within their boundaries. For the moment those bans are keeping us from holidaying in the sunspots of Queensland, the wineries of Victoria and the beaches of NSW, but there's every chance these might be the first places we visit when the bans start to unwind. It's likely that the states will lift their travel restrictions before the federal government gives the green light to overseas travel.

If that happens there are powerful incentives to be travelling within our shores. One is cabin fever. After being cooped up in our homes and not allowed to sprawl on the beach or even eat a kebab on a park bench, the idea of going anywhere becomes deliriously attractive. Second, caution will be high in the minds of many travellers, especially for families and seniors, and domestic travel carries less risk than an overseas jaunt. There is also a huge backlog of sympathy for those in regional areas that were affected by the double whammy of bushfires followed by coronavirus. Expect a boom in domestic travel.

Where will we go when we're off the leash?

Machu Picchu, Peru.

Machu Picchu, Peru. Photo: iStock

Will it be a quick jaunt to a familiar destination to start with? Or how about a cruise down the Nile, or maybe a white-water rafting trip in Nepal? "I'm pretty certain we'll be travelling around Australia and New Zealand to start with," according to Sujata Raman, Melbourne-based regional managing director for Abercrombie & Kent Australia and Asia Pacific. "Having said that, we're getting bookings for Africa and there could be a strong appetite for isolated experiences, so wilderness areas, very small groups and boutique properties. The pandemic has given people an appreciation for who they choose to travel with and I think travellers are going to be looking for reassurance."

Intrepid Travel, the world's largest adventure travel operator, is still reporting bookings for 2020. According to an Intrepid spokesperson, "the most popular destinations at the moment for new bookings are Morocco, Peru and Australia. Antarctica and Ecuador/The Galapagos have less volume but are also doing very well, perhaps highlighting that bucket list travel will be a key trend for post-COVID-19. Customers re-booking trips are following a similar pattern, with Morocco and Peru at the top, followed by Vietnam, Egypt and India."

"I'm expecting a staged return to travel," says James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid. "Where we travel post-coronavirus will be a much more considered decision. We've got used to hopping on a plane and travelling to the other side of the world for our holidays but we might not take that for granted for some time. I'm expecting the first place we travel will be in Australia, then probably trans-Tasman and then possibly to the countries that have handled the pandemic well, such as the Scandinavian countries. But there won't be a new normal for travel that looks the same as before the pandemic."  

See also: The five lessons every traveller must learn from the pandemic

See also: Forever changed? Cities get a taste of the post-overtourism world

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