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When will we travel internationally again?

Anticipating arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, travel agencies launch new tour package deals, but limits exist

Puka Shell Beach in Boracay of the Philippines is a popular travel destination in Southeast Asia.(Philippines Tourism Office)
Puka Shell Beach in Boracay of the Philippines is a popular travel destination in Southeast Asia.(Philippines Tourism Office)
It is a question that we have been asking ourselves for almost a year now. With the COVID-19 pandemic, traveling overseas has been out of the question for months for most people. So, will we ever travel again? If so, when?

Though the authorities are still advising against nonessential international travel, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines is lifting spirits in the travel industry and among the public. Travel agencies -- already pushed to the brink -- are launching overseas tour package deals with unprecedented features.

Hana Tour, one of the biggest travel agencies here, launched new tour package deals Monday for the first time since the virus broke out here in January. The trips involve popular travel destinations that have opened their doors to foreign tourists with eased COVID-19 border restrictions: the Maldives, Turkey and Switzerland; Cancun, Mexico; and Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

The trips will leave from January. Considering the virus-tainted times, the passengers will fly business class and stay at all-inclusive resorts for anywhere from nine to 14 days.

On concerns of possible local COVID-19 infection, the trips provide travel insurance with coverage of $2,000 for medical treatment. The agency will also provide an emergency credit card.

Yet though the travel destinations may not require quarantining, a mandatory two-week quarantine in Korea is still likely to face travelers upon their return.

“It is a careful start,” a spokesperson from the tour agency said. “As the two-week self-quarantine rule is likely to stay until the departure dates, we will only accept customers who are OK with it.”

For trips that leave after May, countries and cities where “travel bubbles” have been discussed -- such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Taiwan, the Vietnamese cities of Danang and Hoi An, and Japan’s Fukuoka -- are on the list. The reservation fee for the trips is just 2,021 won ($1.85).

The tour agency, like most other firms in the industry, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the exception of 10 percent of its some 2,500 employees, it has extended unpaid leave for staff for another four months to March. The government relief that covered about 60 percent of their usual wages ended in November.

Very Good Tour, another major travel agency here, opened reservations last month for trips to Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan that depart in March, followed by Southeast Asian countries and Australia in April, China in May, Northern Europe in June and Africa, and Central and South America in July. The reservation fee was 10,000 won, less than one-tenth of the usual deposit.

According to the company, around 100,000 customers made reservations in the first two weeks.

Despite the package deals, the two weeks of self-quarantine remain an obstacle for many.

“The two-week self-quarantine rule makes it impossible for office workers like me to go overseas,” said Yoon So-hye, who works at an information technology company in southern Seoul. Yoon used to travel abroad for leisure at least twice a year.

“But for freelancers or those without jobs, I can see that tour packages would be appealing,” she said.

In response to that concern, Modu Tour, a travel agency here, has launched “travel bubble” tour packages with indefinite departure dates. Unlike the trips offered by the other two agencies, Modu Tour’s trips will depart only when safety is guaranteed -- meaning when the tourists would be exempt from quarantine upon returning to Korea.

The trips do not have a reservation fee. Moreover, the tour agency will gift 500,000 won to each group when the trip is actualized. A “disinfection helper” sent by the agency will accompany the tourists, who will dine separately and stay only at global franchise hotels.

But even apart from the quarantine rules, public sentiment toward nonessential international travel is far from warm.

Last month an online post from a user who introduced herself as a new bride went viral. The user said she’d taken her honeymoon in Cancun in November and completed the two-week self-quarantine in Korea after the trip. When asked why she’d gone ahead with her trip, she cited cancellation costs for hotels and flights.

Though some of her online questioners were supportive, others frowned upon her choice and called her irresponsible.

“So what if you were confirmed of the infection during the self-quarantine in Korea? Who would have paid for the medical expenses? We all want to travel, go back to our daily lives, too. There is a reason why we are trying to stay in at a time like this,” one comment read.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)

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