While Americans are still largely limited to domestic and regional travel, companies specializing in Asia and other far-flung locales are eagerly waiting for more countries to open. Senior editor Jeri Clausing spoke with Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, about navigating the pandemic and her outlook for the year ahead.
Q: We are now a year into this travel shutdown. How is your company faring?
A: We’re surviving. We had over 150 trips that were supposed to have gone in 2020, and almost everybody postponed rather than canceled. So that’s very good. We have quite a lot still on the books, a lot starting later this year that we are very excited about.
We had 27 employees. And we had to furlough 20 of the 27. That was tough. But it’s what we had to do.
The good news is, for leisure travel, we know we have a very strong and bright future. So I feel very optimistic for later this year and further out.
Q: So I take it bookings have started to pick up?
A: The phones started ringing again once the vaccines came out. Thank God. Some people are still not signing on the dotted line or making the deposit for trips later this year. But people are making deposits on 2022 trips. What we’re obviously all waiting for is for countries to announce they’ll reopen.
Q: Are you getting any intelligence about potential reopening dates in Asia?
A: We’re based in New York, and the other co-founder of the company is in Bangkok. I talk to him just about every day. Right now, they don’t have the vaccine, so they are way behind us. We’ll have to see. We have a big, major expedition to Japan going in June. I spoke to the head of the Japan tourism authority, and he said they are going to start opening up June 1 to people who are vaccinated and Covid-negative. But they’re going to have to get permission. I think what is going to happen is we are going to go back to the days where you had to get a visa. And in the application process you have to prove you got the vaccine more than two weeks ago. Going back to that for a while in places that had started doing away with visas, I think, makes sense.
Q: I know you sell mostly Asia. Are there any destinations you are able to sell for travel now and in the near future?
A: Dubai and the Maldives are already open, and a lot of people are going there. If you go to the Maldives you can get a pool villa and stay there and not interact with anybody. So there is a lot of that. Or later this year, next year, a lot of people want to go to Bhutan. It’s very spiritual, very beautiful. It’s also a relatively easy place to social distance. People want to go back to Japan. There is also interest in some of the more remote, off-the-beaten-path places like the ‘Stans. We do all five ‘Stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. So you could do all five in two or three weeks.
Q: Are you seeing people doing that, booking longer trips?
A: Yes, longer trips are a trend due to pent-up demand. For example, we have one client who normally does a two-week trip, and in 2021 she is doing a three-week trip.
Clients are slowing down and reflecting on their values, looking for more spirituality in their travel and the opportunity to look at what is really important to them, which includes mindfulness, meditation and spirituality. And finally, as clients have found they can work from anywhere, clients are booking travel where they can travel and experience a destination but also work when needed.
Q: What other trends are you seeing?
A: For the future, we are seeing interest in family travel, especially travel for the festive season. Clients have missed their family vacations, so they are planning now and are looking at Southeast Asia — Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia — as well as Japan.
Honeymoons are leading 2022, as this segment of the population wants to make sure that they have something to look forward to. This is also the case for those who had to have a smaller ceremony or celebration in 2020 due to Covid. Our Aman Jet Expeditions have been extremely successful, as clients are vaccinated and do not want to wait to travel.