For years, Toronto resident Sidonie Wybourn dreamed of traveling around China, exploring the cultural sites in the south and venturing to the Great Wall. Then came the pandemic. Three years later, the country is finally loosening its strict COVID-19 travel rules – but Wybourn is no longer planning a trip there, even for after the country’s current wave of crests. China’s record of increasingly aggressive actions, including its human-rights abuses and arbitrary detentions of citizens, has caused her to shelve her plans.
“I just don’t think I’d be comfortable at this particular time undertaking that trip, which was a long-awaited dream on my bucket list,” says Wybourn, a 39-year-old who has traveled to 40 countries. “I feel sad because I do believe that China is a really beautiful place with a rich history. I hope someday I will be able to visit.”
Travel is surging globally as the world moves past the emergency stage of COVID-19, but the range of tourist destinations isn’t the same as it was prepandemic. Increased geopolitical tensions, economic instability and growing authoritarianism have narrowed the options, taking many destinations out of contention for the average tourist.
China’s rift with the West has created a chill for business and pleasure travelers alike. And visiting Russia now – another place Wybourn had hoped to visit one day – is off the table for most since its invasion of Ukraine. Of course Ukraine itself, as well as its neighboring countries, are also no longer considered viable destinations for most travelers. Other hot spots flare up periodically, such as Peru, where tourists were evacuated recently from Machu Picchu after the ousting of the country’s president.
Dale Buckner, chief executive officer of US-based security service Global Guardian, says there is more uncertainty now than there’s been in the past 80 years. “There’s more tension between large nation states, particularly nuclear-capable nation states, than we’ve had in a long time.” His company produces a global risk map, which has been updated to show that in many countries, the threat of unrest, as well as crime, terrorism, health issues and natural disasters, is now higher.
While travelers have always had to keep an eye on developments at potential destinations, Bruce Poon Tip, founder of the tour company G Adventures, says that monitoring risk has become a game of whack-a-mole. Shortly after the Ukrainian invasion, G Adventures stopped its tours into Russia, and also barred Russian nationals living in the country from taking their trips. It was just one of many destinations the company was forced to drop in the past few years.
“Our fastest growing trip six years ago was Iran – we couldn’t put more trips on fast enough – and it’s gone,” says Poon Tip. “Look at Myanmar. That’s closed and that was a huge destination for us before. … Some people will still travel to Turkey, but because of the political situation, there’s a lot less people traveling there than there was five years ago. The list goes on and on.
However, Poon Tip says, there are some bright spots. Colombia, which he says was dead as a travel destination in the 1990s and early 2000s because of crime and drug cartel activity, has bounced back significantly as the government embraced tourism. One of the world’s greatest travel destinations, Egypt, is starting to come back after years of instability, he says. South Korea, which handled COVID-19 well, is popular, as is Costa Rica, which became a hot spot for digital nomads during the pandemic.
Data on Canadians’ travel destinations haven’t been released for the last half of 2022 yet, but industry observers are getting the sense that people are avoiding far-flung destinations that require multiple flights. Figures from the World Tourism Organization show that worldwide, domestic travel has rebounded more than international travel (domestic airplane seat capacity was down 17 per cent in September from prepandemic levels; international travel was down 31 per cent). Europe and the Americas are leading the recovery in terms of welcoming international arrivals.
Wayne Smith, interim director of hospitality and tourism management at Toronto Metropolitan University, says many Canadians are heading to the Caribbean, Brits are holidaying in Spain and France, and Americans are seeing sights within their own borders. “We’re seeing a lot more of what we call short-haul travel,” he says. “People want to go somewhere foreign, but not too foreign. Somewhere they have a perception of safety.”
In the current environment, people shouldn’t be deterred from leaving home, experts say, but they do need to spend more time evaluating risk. Travelers shouldn’t rely on old blog posts, guidebooks or information from people who visited years ago. Instead they should look for recent information, including the Canadian government’s travel advisories. Travelers should also scrutinize their insurance coverage, and while they are away, stay plugged in to the news so they are aware of major developments.
“We aren’t telling you not to go to these places, but we’re saying you should have a real plan with rigour so you know what to do if you get injured, you get stranded, get kidnapped or you get hacked,” Buckner says. “That calculus is part of the new world order and what Canadians have to think of when they are traveling abroad.”
A polarized planet: Five destinations that have fallen out of favor
Repressive crackdowns and issues related to COVID-19 have greatly reduced China’s appeal as a destination, and its clampdowns in Hong Kong and threats against Taiwan have added risk to the region. The arbitrary detention of the Two Michaels was a warning to many travelers. “If you’re there on business or travel as a Canadian, you have to understand you could potentially get used as a pawn,” Buckner says.
Your dreams of riding the Trans-Siberian Railway will have to wait. The Canadian government warns that travelers in Russia might be unable to use their bank cards and could face shortages of products and scrutiny from local officials. Leaving can be tricky, too, with limited flights out of the country.
A financial crisis in the Mediterranean nation has led to hyperinflation and shortages of electricity, medicine, fuel and food. “Lebanon was known as one of the best places to visit in the Middle East and one of the best destinations for young people,” says Smith. “Beirut was a major party city, but now, Lebanon is in total collapse.”
After the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, the country drew raves as a tourist destination, noted for its gorgeous surf spots, luscious tea plantations and spicy street food. But government mismanagement and corruption led to an economic crisis last year, which saw locals coping with rationing, hyperinflation and shortages of goods. “Sri Lanka did really well for us during COVID,” Poon Tip says. “Now it’s another area that’s just completely collapsed.”
While many Canadians still travel to the US, for some, its appeal has wanted. “There’s a large portion of Canadians who won’t travel to certain parts of the United States,” Smith says. “Part of it is a semi-protest against the political beliefs, and there’s also that perception of safety.” Canada, he says, is in a strong position to attract international tourists who might have otherwise visited our neighbours. “With all this political turmoil, Canada might be seen as one of the better countries to visit. It is perceived as a safe destination, and that will become very important for Canada’s tourism success.”
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