Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: Travelling in the time of Covid
It took me a few months to get on the road, but I have not let the pandemic stop me from travelling. I believe it is important for our mental health to get out of the house and periodically offer ourselves a change of scene.
I also believe that the only silver lining to having to do all your meetings on Zoom is that it does not matter where you are when you participate in the meeting. If you are working through the internet — as most of us are these days — why not do it from a nice location?
Even so, let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is difficult in the pandemic world. So, here is my list of tips for today’s travellers.
1. Stay safe. Remember that every time an Indian delegation or a team travels abroad, somebody or the other gets Covid, even if they are all very careful. We know now that there is no logic to how the virus spreads. People who strike us as being reckless remain uninfected while those who seem cautious end up testing positive.
Two things follow from this. Always be super-careful and wear masks when you are around people. And remember that no matter how careful you are, there is always the possibility of getting infected. So, when you set out, factor in the possibility that some member of your family could be infected. Work out what you will do if that happens. Do not, for instance, head off to remote places where medical facilities are hard to find.
Also, never forget that reckless travellers risk infecting people at their destinations. We have a responsibility not to endanger their health. While it is true that without tourism, many people employed by the travel and hospitality sector would find it difficult to make ends meet, that does not give us the right to risk their safety or that of their communities.
2. The choice of hotel has never been more important. Always look for a place that enforces strict Covid protocols. This doesn’t mean you look for a five-star hotel, but remember that the big chains have strict Covid protocols for their staff (even at their cheaper hotels, the Fortunes, the Tridents etc.) and take action against employees who flout those protocols. I am sure this is true of many standalone properties too, but be sure to check.
The hotel matters also because you will be spending more time in the hotel than you would have in a pre-Covid world. It is hard to be sure about restaurants outside hotels, especially in resort towns. And many places you might otherwise have gone to, may well be shut or operating at limited capacity.
So, don’t skimp on the hotel.
3. Stay away from trendy destinations. I went to both Mussoorie and Mashobra before either were packed out. But I would think twice about going to either place now that the rush has begun. My advice is to do what I now do. Go to places that are not in season. I went to Goa in the monsoon, to Rajasthan in the summer and I hope to go back to the Maldives in off-season.
Remember that contrary to what we sometimes believe, you are less likely to get Covid from a hotel bed or a plate of food than you are from the very large and noisy family also staying at your hotel. Stay as far away from strangers as you possibly can. Keep your mask on.
Besides, all the trendy destinations are now ruinously expensive in season. The off-season choices are much more reasonably priced. So. it makes economic sense to take the road less travelled.
4. Focus on the outdoors. All the research now shows us that if you stay some distance away from strangers in the outdoors (if you are not at a political rally or a mela), then it is extremely unlikely that you will get infected. In some Western countries, they have said that masks are not necessary outdoors.
So, try and do as much as you can in the open air. If the weather is good, I try and eat all my meals al fresco. Never forget that crowded rooms are the enemy. That is where you are most at risk.
5. Stay local. It is not always possible but something like seventy per cent of my holidays have been to destinations that are within driving distance. I feel much safer staying away from crowded airports whenever possible.
Not only does this offer you more flexibility (no cancelling tickets etc.), it also saves you money. Use the money you save on air fares to pay for a better hotel than you would normally stay in.
6. Choose hotels in isolated locations. In Mussoorie, I stayed at the lovely JW Marriott, which is surrounded by forests. In Goa, the ITC Grand, with its 45 acres, offered guests lots of space to be alone and both Sukhvilas (Chandigarh) and Rajvilas (Jaipur) were spread-out properties.
Now that the Maldives has opened up to Indians again, I imagine that many of you are planning to go. A word of advice: choose your property carefully.
Though every hotel will have a beautiful lagoon with clear, blue water, too many of the properties were originally built with European package tourists in mind and try to become party central in the evenings. Steer clear of such places.
Of the hotels that I like, the two Soneva properties are designed to give guests a lot of space. In March, I went to the newly opened The Nautilus. This had just 26 self-contained villas and enough space for you to enjoy your holiday without bumping into too many strangers.
Remember that because Maldives is just a collection of hundreds of separate tiny islands, the locals are usually Covid-free, having had few opportunities to pick up the virus. The danger comes from foreigners, from other guests. So find a hotel that lets you enjoy the beauty of the Maldives and don’t risk your health by partying.
7. In an ideal world we would all be fully vaccinated by now. But, given the disaster that is our vaccination programme, most of us have not had both our shots. Nor have other guests we may bump into. So, please be super-careful. All the evidence suggests that a single shot offers only minimal protection against the Delta variant.
In such situations, our best measure of safety is a RT-PCR test. It can be a nuisance, but I always feel more secure at destinations where they ask for test results or vaccine certificates. One reason I was secure while in Himachal was because nobody was allowed to enter the state without a RT-PCR test. (The week after I left, they scrapped that requirement and all hell broke loose).
Vaccine and test regulations can be a bother. By the time you read this, the EU will (hopefully) have recognized that Covishield is the same as the AstraZeneca vaccine, but that such a distinction should ever have been made is crazy.
Also, Indian state governments can be foolish. Just before I went to Goa, they suddenly announced that a vaccination certificate would no longer be enough. I got my tests done but then the Chief Minister announced that a double-dose vaccine would be enough after all. But they neglected to tell the airlines, all of whom insisted on RT-PCR tests anyway.
So, it can be maddening. But hey! These are not normal times. Look after your health, the health of other travellers and the safety of the locals in the destination you are visiting.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, August 1, 2021
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