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Considerations for Traveling Internationally in 2022

Posted on

05/10/22

Author

Aaron Slosberg, Director of Programs

While we’re not fully out of the pandemic quite yet, we are still able to find meaningful ways to travel. How do we ensure that we are running safe, meaningful, and responsible travel programs in the current climate? Read on to find out how and why we’ve returned to travel and where we go from here.

Mario and Celestino, community leaders in the Parque de la Papa community in Peru.

Para nosotros es como nuestros hijos y bueno hermano, tú nos enviaste tus hijos para cuidar y para compartir nuestra cultura de parque de la papa y nuestros ancestros de todo lo que vivencias de nuestra comunidad. Las puertas están abiertas y cuando usted puede enviarnos los hijos, estamos a la espera. 

For us, it’s like our own children and well, brother, you sent us your children to care for and to share in our culture from Parque de la Papa, from our ancestors, and all the ways of life here in our community. Our doors are open and when you can send us your children, we are eagerly waiting. – Mario, Parque de la Papa, Perú.

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On a Sunday afternoon in July 2021, my phone beeped with a video message from Luis Reyes, our Latin America Program Director, who was visiting a Dragons student group in the Peruvian Andes. Like a nervous parent answering a call in the middle of the night, I held my breath until I could be sure all was well. As soon as I opened this message though, two familiar faces reassuringly greeted me. 

Mario and Celestino, longstanding homestay parents and community leaders in Parque de la Papa, were dressed in their technicolored traditional ponchos and chullos (beaded hats). It had been a year and a half since Dragons students had been able to visit their community and even longer since I’d been there in-person. 

After so many months of navigating mercurial pandemic conditions, of meticulously mapping a responsible return to international travel, of thinking through the myriad ethical and safety questions, the sincerity and simplicity of Mario and Celestino’s message finally brought it all home: we can travel again. And, we can do it with integrity.

While no one needs a detailed play-by-play of the pandemic, we can all stand to learn from the unique challenges of the past two years and what they can teach us about creating safe, responsible, engaging, and original travel experiences in this new global reality. What I hope to offer to you is two fold:

  1. How did we get here? Let’s briefly revisit the sudden shutdown and incremental reopening of international travel so we can better understand what the future holds.
  2. How can we travel again with integrity? As an organization, Dragons has tried to intentionally learn from our successes and failures over the past three decades. Let us share some of what we’ve learned firsthand over this pandemic.  

How did we get here?

In February 2020, Dragons had student groups traveling in 14 countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. As COVID-19 rapidly escalated from a regional epidemic to a global pandemic, we worked around the clock to safely bring our students home as international borders and flights shut down with unprecedented haste. If you, or anyone you know was involved with international travel during that time, I offer you a heartfelt handshake and hug! Those were stressful times to navigate and perhaps a story for another day!

By the end of March 2020, we had officially entered a new global reality in which once easily passable international borders had hardened into a seemingly ever-growing wall of COVID travel restrictions. By May, the US State Department would change the entire basis of its travel advisory system due to COVID concerns, essentially throwing 80% of countries into an alarming red “Do Not Travel” category. The cliché that the ‘only certainty is uncertainty’ had never felt so true.

As the pandemic tragically surged at home in the US, remote work and virtual learning became the new norm. An emergent mental health epidemic swept across the nation, particularly affecting our youth, with dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles.

The Dragons mission to “cultivate meaningful connections through immersive and responsible travel” felt impossible to embody amidst a global pandemic. The virtual classroom was embraced out of necessity. While it’s nothing short of a technological miracle, in the long run, we all know that screens can never substitute for real face-to-face human connection, especially when it comes to travel and experiential learning.

How can we travel again with integrity?

Dragons spent the summer months of 2020 collaborating with other travel providers and educational institutions to develop program protocols in-line with public health guidance. With the unpredictability of international travel, as well as the ethical responsibility to the places we visit, Dragons first focused our energies on developing US domestic programming rather than rushing to return to travel abroad. Over Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, Dragons was able to safely bring together student groups for our new Rio Grande and Colorado River Basin Gap Semesters

In order to return to in-person programming at a time when nearly all school campuses still remained closed, we took extensive precautions to prevent the transmission of COVID while allowing for genuine community engagement and values based education. To highlight a few of the risk mitigation tools we initially implemented:

  • Students kept a daily health log prior to arrival, submitted a pre-travel PCR test, and agreed to adhere to our COVID Participant Agreement that outlined our expectations and best practices for prevention.
  • We offered pre-travel webinars openly sharing the risks, protocols, and need for adaptability under changing circumstances.
  • We designed COVID conscious itineraries to mitigate exposure risks by prioritizing outdoor spaces, minimizing time in urban areas, and considering COVID risks for each activity. 
  • Once together, student groups went through a multi-day “Pod Formation” phase before undergoing additional PCR testing and finally being able to relax protocols amongst group members.  
  • Throughout the program, our instructors were trained to uphold our detailed COVID In-Field Protocols & Management Manual, which in addition to common sense safety measures outlined a plethora of contingency plans.

For Dragons, the innovation of these US domestic programs were an unexpected silver lining in the ongoing pandemic thunderstorm. At a time when experiential education seemed like only a remote possibility, we were able to safely bring together students, turn off our screens, and dive into an immersive travel experience.

Returning to International Student Travel

A successful return to travel closer to home was also an important step for honing our COVID safety practices for the reopening of international student travel, which would happen in July 2021. As public health guidance and global travel restrictions evolved, we were able to adapt our extensive domestic travel protocols and response plans to the international context. For example, we added regular in-field testing throughout the program, extensive COVID safety briefings for local community contacts and host families, and protocols specific to each cultural context. 

We also went through a rigorous country-by-country assessment for each of our destinations, developing a COVID Country Risk Assessment Matrix that accounted for the following key considerations:

  • COVID case numbers, testing capacities, vaccination rates, and trends 
  • Travel restrictions and COVID specific entry requirements such as arrival testing, quarantine measures, etc. 
  • Availability and access to general medical care as impacted by potential increases in hospitalizations 
  • Local restrictions and community norms related to social distancing, mask wearing, perceptions of foreigners, and public health practices
  • Activity limitations and modifications to program components such as homestays, transportation, independent time, etc. 

Drawing on a variety of resources–both objective metrics and more informal conversations with people on the ground–we grouped our travel destinations into Red, Yellow, and Green tiers. Importantly, we continued to revisit those assessments as travel start dates approached, and due to changing conditions in certain regions, even had to downgrade or cancel some programs based on new or unpredictable information. Having solid evaluative criteria and the adaptability to respond to regional circumstances have proven key to a safe and responsible return to international travel. 

Planning on Traveling Without the Support of Dragons?

The above is a very brief summary of how Dragons navigated a return to travel during the pandemic. You may now be asking, what questions should I be asking for my own independent travels? Here are some questions you should ask before departing on an international trip of your own. There is a lot to consider, but here are a 4 important questions and to get you started:

1. What are the current travel restrictions and COVID conditions in my desired destination?

In addition to the country specific factors outlined above, be sure to consider how often those restrictions and conditions have changed; knowing the history of how a country has closed borders or mandated lockdowns in the past is an important indicator of what could happen in the future. Limiting unpredictability as much as you can is very helpful!

2.   What risks do I pose to the people and places I plan to visit?

We require vaccination for all of our travelers and believe that perhaps even more significant than the risk of you contracting COVID is the possibility that you contribute to community transmission, particularly amongst vulnerable populations. Remember to always consider how you are mitigating your risk to others, not just to yourself, and travel accordingly.

3.  Are travelers welcomed right now in the places I want to go?

Some communities may be welcoming of visitors, while others are fearful of foreigners right now. It is important that you tune into local perceptions of travelers and receive informed consent before entering a community as a guest, especially outside of well-trodden tourist zones.

4.  What are my contingency plans should the unexpected happen on my trip?

Whether it be needing to quarantine abroad because of a positive COVID test or change your itinerary on the fly due to travel restrictions, we’ve learned to not only expect the unexpected, but to be well prepared for it too. Make sure you’ve thought through the possible scenarios and have at least a rough plan of what you’d do should things go wrong.

In Conclusion

Based on our most recent country assessments, we are able to now bring Dragons students to Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru, Senegal, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Morocco, and Indonesia. We’ve come along way since 2020! You can read more about how our recent Dragons trips have gone in the words of students and instructors on our Yak Board.

While we’re not fully out of the pandemic just yet, we are continuing to monitor program destinations based on the criteria outlined above and informed by a multitude of information channels. We’re excited to return to the communities that we’ve known so well for decades and once again introduce our travelers to the people and places we hold close to our hearts. 

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Aaron Slosberg has been working with Where There Be Dragons since 2008 and is the current Director of Programming. 

2 Comments

  1. Jessica Miller |

    Incredible work. What a challenging time! I’m inspired to read about this journey and collective commitment to safe and responsible experiential education. Hope all of the Dragons family are doing well ☺️❤️

    Reply
  2. Alison |

    As a parent with a daughter who traveled with Dragons along the Mekong River pre-pandemic and another who is in her final days in Senegal, I have felt nothing but deep trust and gratitude for your entire team for navigating these waters with consideration, integrity and commitment to your mission. Our students feel more grateful than ever to experience other cultures during these challenging times. Thank you for all the work you do!

    Reply

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