Iris Dimpsey and her mother Tanya are about to board an airplane for San Francisco. They’re carrying mixed emotions along with their baggage.
Iris is a 17-year-old senior at Seattle Academy embarking on a tour of three colleges she’s considering attending next fall. It’s supposed to be one of life’s great experiences. But Iris isn’t fully vaccinated yet, and it’s just not as much fun as it should be.
“I am a little stressed,” she said. “But I’m going because I have to look at colleges and stuff. And I feel like that’s really necessary for me to be able to choose a college. So, I’m a little worried.”
Tanya Dimpsey is an old hand at flying amid a pandemic after helping care for an ill relative in Texas. It’s no fun, she knows, and she feels for her daughter. While the campuses are technically open, they’ll be touring them via app and aren’t even allowed to go into the buildings Iris will be spending the next four years in. But life goes on, Dimpsey said, even in the time of COVID-19.
“Given the year of disappointments, I think we’ve all adjusted our expectations,” she said. “We’re grateful that we have the opportunity and can afford to visit the schools. You make do with the opportunities that are available and recognize that, again, everyone’s safety is important.”
The Dimpseys are doing the same complicated internal math as millions of other Americans who are itching to get out of their homes and into an adventure as COVID-19 vaccinations start to impact our travel habits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new advice for air travel last week, saying that fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without going into quarantine afterward or getting tested for coronavirus, though they must still adhere to mask mandates and other safety guidelines to stop the spread of the disease. This has emboldened the brave to book trips, or multiple trips, as some people have in the heat of what’s now being called “revenge travel.”
The news was generally met with excitement, especially here in King County, where 51.8 million air travelers passed through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for tourism, business and convention purposes in 2019.
“I think it’s really fantastic news in many respects,” said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle. “We have really started to see and feel a change in Seattle in the last month with a kind of a shift in momentum. There are more people in town.”
But like with many things during these strange times, though, Norwalk has conflicted feelings.
“And yet, I’m not sure how much more encouragement is needed because I think people are traveling, and probably maybe too aggressively at this point, in some cases,” he said. “So I think it’s a mixed bag in the sense we still have to be careful, very careful. And I know that’s such a terrible message to give as a destination marketing group. But I think we just need to be as careful as we can because it could change in a heartbeat.”
Norwalk’s nerves underscore the fact that officials fear the virus might be gathering strength for a fourth wave due to worrying new variants. Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news conference on Thursday that some Washington counties might get rolled back to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan next week.
Thus, that complicates all the thorny questions we wrestle with in even the sunniest of times about the ethics of travel. Should we board that plane or book that room when we could be spreading the disease into areas less prepared for a spike?
“Travel is going to happen — near and far,” said Jake Haupert, co-founder of The Transformational Travel Council, an organization with the goal of changing the way we travel and live to something more mindful. “It’s really important to be conscious of the fact that just because you can travel and you have a vaccine card doesn’t give you a right to go into some of these communities still dealing with the darkness of COVID and be blatantly unsafe or unaware of the potential impacts.”
Early indications are that many Americans aren’t putting much thought into how they travel. Quick openers like Texas and Florida were overrun with millions of travelers last month, with sometimes disastrous results.
Even in the more sedate areas of the country like Western Washington, where mask mandates have been largely followed and infection numbers have remained relatively low, there are signs the floodgates are opening.
A year ago this week, the airport was literally empty. Today, thousands of people will pass through security and board a flight — 31,800 a day were processed by TSA the week of Easter, and this could increase next week because spring break is always a busy travel period.
David Montanaro, managing partner of Pallino, an Italian restaurant at Sea-Tac’s central terminal, saw an immediate increase in travelers once the CDC gave the all-clear.
“It tends to be more families traveling,” Montanaro said. “Also larger groups are traveling. And people do seem to be happier and just a little bit lighter.
“There’s a little more energy, a little more sparkle, for lack of a better word. My sense is — and this is unscientific — it’s definitely much more of a leisure component than an ‘I-have-to-travel’ component.”
Travel professionals say that will shape tourism in the near future, with domestic trips spiking as Americans visit relatives and blow off steam. Business and international travel will increase toward the third and fourth quarters as we trend toward possible herd immunity and sort out who is and isn’t allowed to travel where in the post-vaccine future.
Travel agent Sheelagh King, of North & King Signature Travel, says the vaccines are “a critical step.”
“And, yes, it’s going to eliminate some people from traveling for now,” she said. “But it is nothing new in the travel world to be required to have a vaccine. You need them for parts of Africa. You need them for Brazil. Yellow fever certificates, this is nothing new. So I think for those who are vaccinated there is going to be a huge sense of relief and safety. And for the vendors, it’s going to allow them to get going. So I think it’s critical and our bookings are already taking off for 2022, last quarter of 2021 and all the way into 2023.”
The pandemic was a double whammy for King personally and professionally. Her business, which largely focuses on river tours, was shut down. And she usually travels overseas as many as six times a year. Her business is bouncing back and she hopes to make it to the United Kingdom in June — though she knows that’s a long shot — and already has a fall trip booked to the Mediterranean.
She also has booked trips into Spring 2022 already and is advising clients to take advantage of generous cancellation policies and book now because there will be an accommodation shortage soon.
“And I don’t think there are going to be any hot deals,” King said. “There are some deals right at the moment. If you could travel tomorrow or next week, I saw that Iceland Air had a ridiculous business-class fare. But as soon as this vaccine allows us to actually open up Europe and the rest of the world, it’s going to be such a rush that I don’t think there’s going to be any deals and I don’t think there’s going to be enough accommodation, either on the sea or in the top hotels, to accommodate all the people that want to go.”
Montanaro seconds King’s fear and thinks the problems will spread far beyond accommodations. He’s already seeing problems at the airport where demand is outstripping supply.
“The challenge is all your supply systems and the supply infrastructure have gone from having to shut down overnight a year ago to now seeing restaurants kind of explode,” he said. “So it’s going to take a while before everything kind of balances out and people get used to kind of what the new cycle is. So we’re seeing shortages of product and difficulty getting select certain types of things. But those are all good issues to have compared to the alternative.”
King thinks the thrifty traveler may have to wait years to book bargain rates again.
“I’m just hoping that three years from now we’ll see those deals back again,” she said. “And I think it’s going to be tough for us bargain hunters in the luxury level of travel. I think it’s going to be very tough to find a bargain. And I’m telling all my clients, ‘Figure out what you want to do now.’”