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The New Escapism: Isolationist Travel (The New York Times)

As travelers seek safety amid social distancing, the travel industry is adapting with outdoor trips, remote lodgings and private camps.

Written By Elaine Glusac

Published by the New York Times on June 24, 2020

Tentrr connects travelers looking for camping sites on private land. Above, a site near Wevertown, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, which goes for $150 a night. Credit: Erik Endress

From taking cooking classes in the home of a local to learning traditional crafts from Indigenous people, much of travel — up until March 2020 — was all about connecting with others.

Now, in the Covid-19 era, travel is fraught with the demands of social distancing and hygiene. As people start thinking about taking trips, either by themselves, or with close family or friends, travel companies are pivoting with new offerings and ways to offer distance from the crowd.

In pursuit of the great outdoors

Pre-pandemic, less than 20 percent of Americans spent time outdoors more than once a week, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Since then, adult bike sales have risen 121 percent nationally; in Vermont, sales of fishing licenses have gone up 50 percent. In a recent McKinsey survey on how behaviors are changing because of Covid-19, 18 percent say they are spending more time outdoors, where transmission rates of the virus are believed to be lower.

Now, even endeavors that seem to mandate a team are offering self-guided options. Rowing The World is introducing self-guided rowing tours for individuals and small groups in Seattle, Sarasota, Fla., northern Michigan and Maine.

Llamas help carry the loads on picnic hikes and multi-day treks with Paragon Guides in Vail, Colo. This summer, the company will continue to offer the guided trips, but those who seek to avoid all human contact can rent a llama and go it alone (llama rentals start at $100 a day; lunch hikes cost $490 for two).

Camping where no one will find you

It can be hard to get a prime camping spot in summer through, the reservation website that represents 12 federal agencies managing public land, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. The anticipated surge in domestic outdoor travel may only tighten the squeeze.

One solution: Seek private land. Websites and apps like Hipcamp and Campspace connect campers with landowners.

“Getting outside is essential for human health and happiness, and in this current moment in time of stress and anxiety, the outdoors are more important than ever,” said Alyssa Ravasio, the chief executive of Hipcamp, which manages bookings at more than 300,000 sites in the United States. About a third of the sites have canvas tents, yurts or tree houses.

Hipcamp expects a busy summer. Already in May, its landowners have earned three times as much as they did in May 2019.

Another service, Tentrr, offers sites on private land with glamping-style furnished tents and outhouses. Sites range from a brewery in the Finger Lakes region of New York (from $145) to a farm in Tennessee (from $75).

“I don’t want the average camper who has all the stuff,” said Ken Ford, who recently built a Tentrr site on family property near Wevertown, N.Y., in the Adirondacks ($150 a night). “I want a person who drives up in a motorcycle with nothing, and it’s turnkey.”

Group tours spread out

Hand sanitizer has long been on the buses of group trips. Now those buses will be scrubbed, their occupancy reduced and new routes established as tour companies like Collette and G Adventures reboot post-pandemic, which includes offering generous cancellation policies.

Active tour companies like Backroads think naturally socially distanced forms of travel such as biking and hiking lend themselves to current demands. In July, Backroads plans to resume trips in the United States in places like Sedona, Ariz., and the Florida Keys. The company is taking the temperature of all travelers at the start of a trip, reducing group sizes to an average of about 10 and planning fewer group meals.

For some companies that are looking ahead to international travel getting its footing back, the crisis offers an itinerary reset. Geographic Expeditions plans on altering its walking tours to avoid crowded destinations in places like Japan.

“It’s a challenge,” said Don George, who will guide three of the company’s trips to Japan, including Kyoto, next spring, “but it’s also exciting to think about off-the-beaten-path places that we can visit that will illuminate the spirit and soul of Kyoto.”

In the future, travelers won’t be touring Bangkok by tuk tuk with G Adventures. In redesigning its trips for the pandemic, the small-group tour operator plans to drop elements over which it doesn’t have full control — like cleaning tuk tuks — and work on offering things like assigned seats in vehicles to ensure social distancing and single rooms without a supplemental charge.

Paddle-boarding in southern Utah with the Moab Adventure Center. The company is offering small, private programs for those who prefer not to be in larger groups.

Credit: Moab Adventure Center

Pivoting to small groups

By renting cabins, villas, R.V.s or houseboats, small groups can practice social distancing in isolation. Families and friends who decide to travel together in the near future will find resorts and services scaling to suit them.

When the prospects for event travel fell off the coronavirus cliff, the owners of Cedar Lakes Estate, a 500-acre compound in New York’s Hudson Valley that normally relies on weddings and meetings in summer, decided to pivot from catering to large groups to reopening as a resort that offers plenty of social distancing. Now, travelers can rent its 18 cottages, which sleep two to 12 people, and enjoy mountain hikes, sports like volleyball and tennis, and swimming in two lakes. Guests order meals to be delivered and arrange activities via a concierge using text or video conferencing (rates from $1,180 a week).

In June, the New York City-based travel agency Embark Beyond started Camp Embark, a private camp program based at luxury resorts from Rhode Island to Montana, with a dedicated camp counselor organizing children’s activities (prices from about $1,200 a night, plus $1,000 to $2,000 a week for camp counselors).

Adventure International, which specializes in private tours to places like Mount Kilimanjaro, has found that interest in trips in the United States is surging. Six days at its private glamping site near Yellowstone National Park, including meals, excursions and a guide, starts at $2,900 a person.

Roadies, which offers itineraries in top-of-the-line buses modeled after rock-star tours, is offering the coaches to private groups of up to 10, spending a week visiting U.S. Open golf courses, ski resorts in the Rockies or California wineries (prices start around $4,000 a person).

More affordable options include private tours offered by the Moab Adventure Center in southern Utah, which runs rafting, mountain biking and rock climbing trips. Climbing lessons that normally cost $107 a person will cost $595 for up to four people.

“We’d always done private tours, but never advertised it,” said Brandon Lake, a co-owner of Moab Adventure Center. “Now we’ve built out a parallel track for people to make the choice they’re most comfortable with.”

A tiny rental home at Canoe Bay Escape Village in Wisconsin.

Credit: Canoe Bay Escape Village/Steve Niedorf

The couple’s bubble just got cozier

Images of empty beaches and sunset drinks for two: In many ways, the travel industry already caters to couples with the promise of shutting everyone else out.

“We’ve been doing social distancing for years. It’s what we’ve built our brand on,” said Adam Stewart, the deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts, which operates 15 all-inclusive properties in six Caribbean countries. “Romance requires privacy.”

The resorts, most of which are reopening this summer, cater to couples with two-person soaking tubs, hammocks for two and private dinners on the beach. When the resorts reopen, their restaurant tables will be spaced farther apart. Elevator trips will be limited to one couple. Thirty-passenger buses that transfer guests from the airport will take a maximum of 10. Beach parties with rum drinks and reggae remain but, added Mr. Stewart, “We will not be having the conga line.”

Restricted to employees and guests only, all-inclusive resorts offer more privacy.

“With everything being contained to the resort itself, I truly don’t have any fears,” said Bobbie Mergenthaler, a home health care worker in Kouts, Ind., who booked a weeklong trip with her husband in November to celebrate their anniversary at the all-inclusive Secrets Cap Cana Resort & Spa in the Dominican Republic.

Resorts consisting of stand-alone guest quarters, from the high-end Bluefields Bay Villas in Jamaica that come with their own chef (villas start at $980) to the glamping tents at Collective Vail in Colorado (from $249) and the budget-friendly tiny house rentals at Canoe Bay Escape Village in Wisconsin (from $125), say they are naturally configured for the Covid-19 travel era.

“The homes are not near others, you have little to zero contact with other people and you’re in a wilderness setting where you can decompress,” said Dan Dobrowolski, the owner of Canoe Bay Escape Village, adding that most summer weekends are sold out.

A bubble of one

In May, moderators of the Facebook page Solo Travel Society asked their 260,000-some members, “Has the pandemic changed your outlook on how you will travel solo going forward?”

Within three hours, nearly 200 responses ran the gamut from fear of getting the virus on a flight to impatience with travel restrictions. But most hewed in the resilient direction of Chris Engelman of Ottawa, Ill., who wrote, “Traveling makes me happy. I’m going to continue to live a life of joy.”

“People are looking at road trips in your bubble, in your car,” said Janice Waugh, the founder of the website who also runs Solo Travel Society on Facebook where members are also talking about solo camping and self-guided walking and cycling trips.

Solo travelers often join tours, and companies like Tauck have catered to them by dropping single supplements on some trips. But with trips abroad on hold because of border restrictions, and group trips a potential health threat, Audley Travel, a custom tour operator, said the private trips it has designed for solos have doubled since mid-March, indicating a shift away from group departures.

For summer and fall, Caren Kabot, the founder of Solo Escapes, plans to replace small group trips to places like Morocco with weekend trips in the rural Northeast where many of her clients can drive until they get comfortable with the safety of air travel. Hiking, boating and culinary activities may be on the agenda.
“We’ll do socially distanced dinners,” she said. “It may be a very long dinner table, or two tables. We’re adjusting.”

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