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Long-distance travel under COVID restrictions

Martin Koch
November 19, 2021

With the main travel season in Europe over, those who feel drawn to the sun must journey farther. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic complicates the situation for both tourists and providers.

A finger pointing at a globe.
Demand for travel to far-away places is increasingImage: picture-alliance/R.Guenther

"It was great! I finally got to see people again and tell them about the country!" says tour guide Daniela Piras of her recent tour in Jordan. Starting from the capital Amman, she visited the legendary rock city of Petra, among other places, with 24 travelers. It was the first long-distance trip for the 46-year-old since 2019.

The ups and downs of the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic resulted in an almost complete collapse of the long-haul travel market. According to the German Travel Association (DRV), the shortfall last season was 94 percent compared with the pre-COVID year of 2019, and the drop in sales for tour operator travel was 69 percent. For the industry, this meant a loss of 12 billion euros ($13 billion).

Petra Treasury building in the rock face of a gorge in Jordan.
The world famous "Treasury" in the rock city of Petra in Jordan Image: Daniela Piras

And although there was a slight recovery this summer, at least for short trips within Europe, the travel market in general and long-haul travel in particular will have to grapple with the effects of the pandemic for a long time to come, stresses DRV President Norbert Fiebig: "A revenue level approaching that seen before the pandemic will probably not be achieved until 2023 at the earliest."

Yet there is some good news for long-distance travelers: Prices in this segment have risen only moderately despite the coronavirus-related outages. "You can't manage a crisis like this by raising prices, it requires a lot more," says Frano Ilić from travel provider Studiosus. Thanks to its reserves, it has been able to refund all customers for cancelled trips. In addition, they have reduced their own costs as much as possible, put employees on short-time work and produced fewer travel brochures. Financial assistance from the German government also helped to overcome the effects of the crisis.

DRV President Fiebig agrees with this assessment: "The economic situation of tour operators and travel agencies also improved thanks to government aid, enabling many to survive the crisis."

An entrance to the gorge in Petra, Jordan.
A rare sight: The Petra Gorge in Jordan — without tourists Image: Daniela Piras

Travel under 2G-rules

In the meantime, an increasing number of tour operators are again offering long-distance trips. Most run on the basis of the 2G rule, which stands for "geimpft oder genesen" in German, meaning people who have either been "vaccinated or recovered" from the coronavirus. In other words, unvaccinated travelers cannot participate. At Studiosus, the decision to go with 2G was based on the experience of group tours carried out under the 3G rule, which allows tested unvaccinated people.It had been difficult to coordinate trips under 3G explains press spokesman Frano Ilić: "It was simply no longer possible to travel smoothly if daily tests were required. And the vaccinated and recovered were increasingly displeased because the onward travel was delayed by the non-vaccinated people having to be tested."

The reactions to the 2G arrangement have been positive: "We are experiencing a high level of acceptance and a lot of approval among travelers, and only a few have cancelled their trips as a result," says Ilić.

An empty pool and beach in Thailand in March 2021.
Other long-distance destinations from Europe, including Thailand were largely off-limits to touristsImage: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

Tour guide Daniela Piras has also experienced an appreciative response to the coronavirus regulations from her clients. "The travelers were very relaxed. All of them complied with the extensive requirements of the Jordanian government in advance, had their vaccination card, entry permit and PCR test with them — and then enjoyed their time in the country," she reports. The regulations on the ground were similar to those in Germany, including keeping distance, observing hygiene rules and wearing a face-mask. And of course, as a tour guide, she made sure that the bus was regularly aired longer than usual and that meals were consumed outdoors as often as possible. She was not afraid of COVID: "The risk of a foot injury when walking over uneven paths in the rock city of Petra or in a gorge is greater," says the experienced guide and adds with a smile: "Besides, we had five doctors in the group, so that would not have been a problem either.

The challenge of sustainability

The coronavirus crisis has hit all tourism industry operators hard. After the record year 2019,in which many destinations suffered from "overtourism," in other words, were visited beyond capacity, numbers dropped to record lows. Now, it is a matter of getting back on track from the downtime, on the one hand, and not repeating the mistakes of the past, on the other. 

Camels and tourists in front of the pyramids in Egypt.
Sustainability in tourism is good for every destination — including Egypt Image: DW/B. Bathke

Aage Dünhaupt, TUI press officer for the airline, hotel and cruise sectors, sums it up this way: "It is important to strengthen the sustainability aspect in all travel, and thus also in long-haul travel. We have been working for some time to reduce the environmental impact of our airline, cruise and hotel activities." To this end, he said, the company is cooperating with the initiative "Science Based Targets" to develop appropriate plans for climate neutrality and to involve external experts. "In recent years, we have already been able to achieve positive effects in the vacation regions through far-reaching measures and have also launched projects through our TUI Care Foundation, where guests can find out and get involved in how vacations can be more sustainable."

Studiosus press spokesman Ilić stressed that his company remains committed to sustainability, as it has been since before the coronavirus crisis. "From 2021, not only bus and train tours, but also all flights will be climate-friendly — it was important to us to stay our course in this area."

The tourism governing body is in favor of such initiatives. DRV President Fiebig says, "We are part of the problem, but we will also be part of the solution." Others, like Daniela Piras, have a different view: "Tourism is always something that helps: we help restore the economy and prevent even more people from falling into poverty." 

Adapted from German by Susan Bonney-Cox