Aaron Slosberg, Director of Student Programs
While we’re not out of the pandemic 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.
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. –Mario, Parque de la Papa, Perú.
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, Peru
On a Sunday afternoon in July, 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:
- 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.
- 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 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 remained closed, we took extensive precautions to prevent the transmission of COVID while still allowing for genuine community engagement and values based education. To highlight a few of these risk mitigation tools we 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, 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 domestic travel was also an important step for honing our COVID safety practices for a 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 an international context. For example, we added even more in-field testing throughout the program, extensive COVID safety briefings for 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, positivity rates, and trends
- Travel restrictions and COVID specific entry requirements such as testing, quarantine measures, etc.
- Availability and access to general medical care as impacted by any increases in hospitalizations
- 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 COVID surges in certain regions, we even had to downgrade and cancel some programs based on new or unpredictable information. Having solid evaluative criteria and the adaptability to respond to changing circumstances have proven key to a safe and responsible return to travel.
Based on our assessments as of November 2021, we are able to bring Dragons students to Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru, Senegal, and Nepal. You can read about how those trips went in the words of students and instructors on our Yak Board.
While we’re not out of the pandemic yet, we are continuing to monitor program locations based on the criteria outlined above informed by a multitude of information channels. We’re excited to return to more places that we’ve visited for years before the suspension of travel in 2020 and again introduce travelers to the many communities we hold close to our hearts and our responsible travel practices.
Aaron Slosberg has been working with Where There Be Dragons since 2008 and is the current Director of Student Programming.