'Social distancing' in the spectacular wilds of western Mongolia; carefree times indeed, but when can we reasonably expect them to return?
An Update: May 8, 2020
In recent weeks, developments around the world have been unprecedented and fast-moving. We appreciate that everyone (and indeed every country) will be different, but we are now choosing to look forward, and plan for that time when at least some of you, will be keen to join me once again on one of our scheduled premium expeditions , or have us custom design a private adventure just for you, your family, or close group of friends. Besides, like many of you no doubt, without some restorative adventure to look forward to, I'll simply start to go mad!
As such, we have recently revised our selection of small group expeditions for the rest of 2020, starting (fingers crossed) with a planned expedition to Zanskar in late July. These rescheduled expeditions are open to all, and we will take deposits up front as usual. However, in the event that any expedition is unable to run, then they will be postponed, and your deposits transferred in full to the newly rescheduled trip without penalty. If there are mitigating circumstances that ultimately preclude your participation in the postponed trip in question, then we will fully credit your deposit against any other future trip, in perpetuity. The same flexible terms also apply to our custom-designed private trips.
For the rest of the year, we will also limit expedition group sizes to just 5 guests and introduce even stricter hygiene procedures for all crew and equipment. For private groups and families, maximum group sizes will understandably be more flexible.
However, until such time (in the not too distant future we hope) as there is a treatment readily available for Covid-19, or much better still, a vaccine, we understand that for most clients, careful consideration will be given to just how the emergence of the virus will impact their adventure travel planning over the next few months, and perhaps even years. This new and fast-moving virus has made far more intelligent people than myself look a little foolish with their predictions in recent times, but to try and help with those deliberations, I thought it may be useful to collate some of my initial thoughts on the matter, prompted in part by questions I have been posed by our clients over the last several weeks. So, by referencing the main substance of those queries as a rough template - here goes.
So, should I be planning an adventure any time soon?
Well - in our experience, adventure has always been just as much about the anticipation as the journey, and so for many of us, there will be a powerful restorative and psychological boost in having an uplifting and inspiring adventure to look forward to. Furthermore, by planning, and ideally booking a trip today, you can help us give our local partners (most of whom have no safety nets to speak of), and their communities, a little hope, as well as some tangible deposit funds to help tide them over the next few months.
When do you expect things to re-open?
Obviously, we cannot operate in isolation, and the exact timing is difficult to predict, but we are hopeful that by mid to late summer, some regional Asian destinations will start to re-open, probably in stages, with some additional restrictions around visa issuance, and an initial requirement to demonstrate antibody-based immunity, or a recent negative test (more on that later). Regional countries will also need to agree to an initial framework, or travel bubble, for the coordination, and synchronization, of reciprocal protocols with regards to quarantining, tracking and testing, for specific groups of travellers - which may prove difficult in many cases (e.g. Nepal, India) where the epidemic situation is currently deemed to be relatively unclear.
We also need air travel to come back, which we assume will happen regionally at first, and then internationally. A co-ordinated strategy, both on the part of various Asian countries, and some of the relevant international regulatory bodies (e.g. IATA/APAC) will also be critical in order to create the framework for a standardized strategy to help mitigate fragmentation and confusion.
Will getting there be more of a fuss?
Probably, for the forseeable future at least. There will be temperature checks at airports, you will need to wear a mask to board a plane, and some destinations, as already mentioned, may even require proof of a recent negative test (again more on that later) to enter the country. To reiterate, a co-ordinated approach, with standardized regional proceedures would probably work best. Given that we have always been first and foremost about creating extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime adventures though, we trust that, whatever the increased level of inconvenience, we will make it all worthwhile.
What about the potential risk of joining a small group?
I suspect that everyone, and indeed every country, will be different, but for some clients, such as those of you here in Hong Kong perhaps (where Covid is, and has always been, relatively contained), the impact of the virus is likely to have been more measured, and so the propensity to start planning again, is likely to be more psychologically straightforward than for a client based in New York for example. Either way, for the forseeable future, I suspect that many of you will probably seek out small-group experiences or private travel, to ensure that their fellow travelers are people they know well, see often, and feel safe around — their immediate or extended family, or a close community of friends.
At the very least, nearly everyone will feel much safer joining a relatively small group, and so for the rest of 2020, all of our scheduled expeditions will be limited to just 5 guests. Furthermore, although we take all sensible precautions to mitigate risk, an element of risk is inherent in all of our adventures. Indeed, if we were to try and quantify the specific risk posed by Covid when joining one of our remote small group expeditions, and compare it to the usual considerations on the list, in all honesty, it would probably come somewhere near the bottom in any overall assessment.
Are some destinations likely to be safer than others?
It is difficult to say at this stage. While all of our adventures take place well off the beaten track, not all destinations will be viewed equally in the aftermath of Covid-19. Some countries such as Bhutan and Mongolia have only had a handful of imported cases, and so the virus is just not as seeded in those places. It is also very easy to imagine shaking off the smallness of isolation amidst the pristine peaks of Bhutan, or the big blue skies of Mongolia, so I am sure that they will appeal.
On the other hand, despite being equally spectacular, the beautiful mountains of Western China, or Eastern Tibet for example, may be a much harder sell, not because they are any less safe, but because they are more closely associated with the original source of the outbreak. Fortunately, we have deep expertise across several different destinations in Asia, so we can be nimble, and adjust our geographical focus in accordance with specific in-country developments, and changing client preferences.
What additional health precautions do you plan to take?
First of all, I am a big believer in human ingenuity. As such, I expect there to be an effective treatment, and even a prophylactic, within the next year or so. Currently there are several treatments that have demonstrated efficacy, including the promising remdesivir, as well as some evidence from Japan that a combination of Nelfinavir and Cepharanthine seems to be effective in clearing the Covid-19 disease. So, for the vast majority of people, in the unlikely event that they catch the virus and then go on to get seriously ill, the chance of actually dying from Covid will be taken off the table - and so the disease will just become one of many other infectious diseases, the threat from which we live with all the time. The development of a widely available vaccine (again there are several promising candidates in the pipeline and being fast-tracked) would obviously help to eliminate the threat completely, although this is probably a 2021 story for most of us.
In the meantime, for all of our expeditions and private trips, we are formulating even stricter protocols around hygiene for both clients and staff, including the meticulous cleaning of all equipment, and the safe preparation and serving of all meals. Within a few months, with the anticipated availability of ubiquitous low cost kits, it may also be feasible for all potential participants (including me) to test themselves in a non-intrusive manner before embarking on a trip. Other promising pieces of technology are several smart phone linked applications such as the test currently being developed by Luminostics. As already mentioned, at least at the outset, some countries (or territories) may also require proof of a recent negative test, or some type of antibody-based immunity passport to pass through border controls. It is difficult to predict how the medical technology will develop, but as a born optimist, I am confident that solutions will become available sooner rather than later.
How do I best insure myself, particularly for evacuations?
Having comprehensive travel insurance (that includes cover for emergency evacuations) has always been a strict pre-requisite for joining one of our scheduled expeditions. Typically we have tended to recommend specialist adventure trekking policies such as those offered by World Nomads, or alternatively best of breed generic options, such as AIG Travel Guard.
For the forseeable future though, clients may consider supplementing such policies with a specialist medical evacuation membership such as the one offered by GEOS, or trade up to secure one of the most comprehensive evacuation and insurance policies on the market, such as that provided by Ripcord Rescue Travel Insurance. Either way, insurance costs are likely to go up, and while we always have contingency plans in place for any emergency evacuation (which includes a group Search & Rescue membership with GEOS) , as well as a satellite device to activate them, for some people the extra layer of safety and protection provided by the policies of a medivac specialist will probably appeal.
What about booking conditions going forward?
We are a small, specialist operator, with no technology layers between you and us. We also try to avoid the impenetrable legal speak typical of big corporations, in favour of a flexible approach that personally considers each booking on a case by case basis, and works towards producing fair outcomes all around. For now, we are committed to 100% transferable deposits (or indeed full payments), in the event that any of our scheduled expeditions, or private custom trips, are unable to run due to Covid-related factors.
Given the logistical compexity of the unique adventures we offer, it is just not possible for us to operate without booking deposits, but we do promise that, wherever humanly possible, all deposits will be fully transferable towards any of our future trips, in perpetuity. Again due to the nature of our adventures, while we appreciate that shorter booking windows will be tempting for the forseeable future, it can be difficult for us to deliver trips at the very last minute. In most cases, we will need at least a couple of weeks to make the necessary arrangements.
Will you be changing the core focus of your operations?
No, not really. Uniquely-designed small group expeditions, and private trips, have always been our core focus. Indeed, we pride ourselves on creating and delivering extraordinary adventures; the kind that will probably appeal even more going forward. It is a highly specialist and personal approach, and one that is first and foremost about quality over volume, and deep experience over speed. Our trips also create a backdrop for people to (re)connect with nature, and perhaps more importantly, themselves. For many clients, our expeditionary-style adventures can be incredibly restorative, even transformative, and so I am confident that more intrepid travelers will continue to seek them out, perhaps more than ever. Sadly though, for a variety of operational reasons, costs may have to increase (as they probably will across the entire travel industry).
And frankly, is Whistling Arrow going to survive?
Absolutely we will. Our main assets have always been our loyal clients, who we strongly believe will continue to value our unique, private-guided, small group adventures, many of which you simply won't find anywhere else. We are also small, and nimble, with low fixed costs, and so can either hibernate, or spring into action as required. Deep, direct client relationships, and a highly-personalized approach matter at times likes these, so thank you for your support. We will definitely still be here, and raring to go, whenever you feel ready for some adventure once again. In the meantime, I will revert back to my (rather lucrative at times like these) trading screen, and close out some options positions.
If anyone has any follow up questions, please do let me know.