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Dream Trips Without the Crowds? That’s the Hope, Anyway.

By Julie Weed for The New York Times | June 1 2021

Tour companies are reporting a resurgence in interest for trips to bucket-list destinations, where travelers can still see the sites without being jostled.

It was the chance to visit a once-in-a-lifetime destination in a once-in-a-lifetime way: practically alone. Visiting the sites of ancient Egypt had long been on the bucket list of Alexander Pancoe, 34, and Nina Laski, 27, of Chicago. Last winter, when they learned the country was open to tourists despite the pandemic, they planned a trip to Luxor and the Valley of The Kings. Places like the Temple of Karnak, which would be packed in the high season, “we had all to ourselves,” Mr. Pancoe said, and were even more stunning than they expected. “There is no photo or movie that does justice to the place,” he said.

Some of the emptiness did not feel so special: The rows of stores selling food and souvenirs, for instance, were devoid of customers. “It was sad to see, because so many people depend on tourism,” Mr. Pancoe said, adding that it felt good to be able to contribute to the local economy.

Last year, travelers, faced with international restrictions, had to put aside their bucket-list dreams of trekking to Mount Everest base camp or visiting the wonders of the ancient world. Now, as vaccines roll out and countries open to visitors, tour companies are reporting a resurgence in interest for summer and fall trips from those hoping to get to these iconic sites, not just without the typical crowds, but practically emptied of visitors.

The return to travel has felt mercurial, said Warren Webster, chief executive of the travel company Atlas Obscura. For months, “every time the horizon looked visible, it moved,” he said. Indeed, according to the International Air Transport Association, international passenger demand in March was still 88 percent below demand in March 2019.

Now though, “the clouds are parting and there’s a ton of demand for once-in-a-lifetime trips,” Mr. Webster said. The company is on track to book more tours later this summer than it did in the same time frame before the pandemic, he said — and that had been its biggest sales period. How long the destinations will remain uncrowded will depend on local restrictions and the pace of vaccinations, he said.

“It’s a kind of celebration”

Widespread vaccination in the United States has given the green light to many would-be travelers, and multiple tour operators said their clients have been calling to talk about trips right after their first vaccine shot. “It’s a kind of a celebration,” said Jim Moses, the president of the travel company Road Scholar, adding that there is “tons of interest in the classics, in particular Italy, U.K. and Croatia.” Summer trips in North America, he said, are almost all full.

Inquiries and bookings have also been spiking with positive travel-related news. When the European Union announced it would start allowing vaccinated travelers from the United States and elsewhere this summer, website traffic to Intrepid Travel’s Italy trip-information page rose 44 percent the next day from American travelers, according to the company.

One avid traveler who beat the crowds is Jane Stewart, who had just retired from her work as a Seattle-area registered nurse when the pandemic hit last year. This winter found her volunteering in a vaccination clinic instead of touring the world as she had hoped. In April, though, she and her husband, Marc, both in their 60s, trekked to Mount Everest base camp in Nepal with the Seattle-based Madison Mountaineering Company.

Talking about the trip had “helped keep us going during the pandemic,” Ms. Stewart said, and when the time came to commit, the couple wanted to “take advantage of this window before it got crowded again.”

On the weeklong trek from Kathmandu to the base camp, the Stewarts’ travel group stayed in small village teahouses, which provide food and lodging. A few times they were the only tourists to stay overnight in a village that in prepandemic days would house up to 500 overnight guests.

Accompanied by mules and yaks carrying their luggage, “our group had the trail to ourselves most days,” she said, something her guides reported was unusual.

The trip lived up to the couple’s expectations. The scenery was “stunning,” Ms. Stewart said, “all the ruggedness, the vertical, was amazing.” The people she met were welcoming and “just so grateful we were there, especially because many had had no income for a year.”

Prepare to be nimble …

Travelers should be ready for sudden changes, though. When the Stewarts arrived in Kathmandu, the quarantine requirement for people arriving in the country had just been lifted so they did not have to spend the expected five days in their hotel room. More recently, Kathmandu has gone into a lockdown and flights into the country have been restricted.

Spotting an open travel window has spurred some to quickly put together an adventure that they would typically plan far in advance. Susan Oomen of Seattle is pondering a trip to Machu Picchu with her husband and teenage sons when the school year is finished. She would usually research and book such a momentous trip over the course of months, she said, but with local conditions apt to change at a moment’s notice, Ms. Oomen will finalize her plans in the next few weeks if she wants to travel in June. She is depending on a travel agent working in Peru to keep an eye on logistics, including testing requirements and any changes in the country’s health situation. Ms. Oomen feels there is little financial risk. “The airlines and hotels are still flexible with their refund policies if we need to cancel,” she said.

While the specific requirements for international tourists to enter most of Europe are still being refined, bookings for summer travel there are already on the rise. Stefanie Schmudde, Abercrombie and Kent’s vice president of product development and operations, said there’s been a great deal of interest in travel to Europe, especially Iceland, a bucket-list destination for many travelers, which is already open to tourists and offers mostly outdoor activities.

Some travelers seem to want to check off their entire bucket list in one fell swoop. A fall 2022 private jet program offered by Road Scholar, which takes 50 passengers to iconic sights around the world, including Stonehenge, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal, sold out in about a month. “Typically we market the trip for a year and it fills up slowly,” Mr. Moses said. The company has added a second trip to meet demand.

Others are imbuing their trips with additional meaning. “We’ve seen a lot of interest from grandparents who have been separated from their grandchildren for the last year,” and want to take them on a special trip, Mr. Moses said. Their bucket-list plans “feel way more important and urgent,” he said.

Traveling safely was at the top of Mr. Pancoe and Ms. Laski’s priority list. “We didn’t want to contribute in any way to a negative health-care situation,” Mr. Pancoe said, by bringing Covid cases into Egypt, burdening the health care system by falling ill while they were there or bringing the virus back to the United States. The pair chose to join a small group traveling with Abercrombie and Kent, because the tour company managed testing, social distancing and other precautions for the group.

Outdoor adventures are also popular now, according to surveys by American Express Travel. Divya Krishnan of Seattle recently checked off a bucket-list item when she camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with girlfriends. “The only other people we saw were scientists, park rangers and a few other tourists,” she said. Now she is considering a hiking trip to Norway or Iceland with her family — “somewhere away from crowds.”

… and be prepared to pay

While prices for overseas trips are about the same as they were before the pandemic, according to tour companies, the trips will set travelers back several thousand dollars per person. Rates may also rise as demand increases. Abercrombie and Kent’s ten-day trip to Egypt, including a Nile cruise, costs $7,595 per person. Atlas Obscura’s seven-day “Lisbon: Tracing the Roots of an Imperial Cuisine” trip with a maximum group size of twelve, costs $3,625. The Road Scholar trip around the world costs $59,999.

Some travelers are reluctant to share their adventures because of “travel shaming” — when friends and family vociferously share their feelings that it is insensitive, selfish or dangerous to others to travel, especially internationally where health systems may be fragile.

An American who joined a small, organized group of fully vaccinated travelers to Egypt in March did not want to lend her name to this article for that reason, and when she asked others in the group if they would be willing to be interviewed, they all demurred.

The Stewarts had considered waiting a year to take their trip to Nepal but “health-wise we can do it now and you never know what’s ahead of you,” said Ms. Stewart, “Life can change pretty fast.”

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