'Social distancing' in the spectacular wilds of western Mongolia; carefree times indeed, but when can we reasonably expect them to return?
Update March 8 2021
During the last year, developments around the world have been unprecedented and ever-changing. We appreciate that everyone (and indeed every country) will be different, but we are now doing our best 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 small group 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 and rescheduled the bulk of them to 2021 (although in truth it will probably not be practically possible to run a trip until, fingers crossed, our planned expedition to Mongolia in August). 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 forseeable future, we will also be limiting our 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 as vaccines are widely available, we understand that most clients will continue to give careful consideration to the ongoing impact of the virus on their adventure travel plans over the next few months, and perhaps even years.
So to try and help with those deliberations, I thought it may be useful to collate some of my thoughts on the matter, prompted in part by questions I have been posed by our clients over the last few months. 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 local communities, a little hope, as well as some tangible deposit funds to help tide them over these difficult times.
When do you expect things to re-open?
Obviously, we cannot operate in isolation, and the exact timing is still difficult to predict, but we are hopeful that by the Autumn of 2021 some regional Asian destinations may start to re-open, probably in stages, with in some cases restrictive quarantine requirements (which are not likely to work for all but the most determined travellers), and probably the need to demonstrate proof of a recent negative test, and/or approved vaccination. 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 for example - which may prove difficult in practice. Indeed, at least in Asia, there has been a lot of talk but little or no action to date.
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.
And while there has been much talk of 'air corridors' and 'travel bubbles', it seems that our best bet in the first instance, at least from our Hong Kong perspective, is the opening up, with the requisite health/vaccination certificate and clearance (hopefully without the whiff of vaccine nationalism that is in the air), of some of our favourite destinations in western China and eastern Tibet.
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 many destinations, as already mentioned, will require proof of a recent negative test and/or vaccination to enter the country. This is all perfectly manageable using decentralized ledger (blockchain) infrastructure for example but it is probably wishful thinking to expect that countries, and the relevant supra-national organizations, will quickly come together to agree on reciprocally agreed protocols. To reiterate, a co-ordinated approach, with standardized regional proceedures will 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 when it is safe to do so.
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 propensity to start planning again, is likely to be more psychologically straightforward than for a client based in the U.S. 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 forseeable future, all of our scheduled expeditions will be limited to just 5 guests. Many guests may aslo prefer to trek with relatively limited support, and the use of pack animals rather than porters.
Hopefully, within the next few months, there will also be cheap, widely available testing kits that will help us all to manage the process of joining even relatively small international groups. And once we embark on the trip itself (having demonstrated a recent all-clear), while we always take all sensible precautions to mitigate risk, an element of risk is inherent in all of our adventures, and I suspect that if we were to try and quantify the specific risk posed by Covid once we actually set off on one of our remote small group expeditions, and compare it to many of 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 have had relatively few cases (at least outside of the major urban centres), 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 continuing advances in the availability of effective treatments, and even prophylactics, over the next few months. Currently there are several drugs that have already demonstrated efficacy in treating severely ill Covid patients such as the anti-viral remdesivir, and the steroid dexamethazone (which is well known to us as a treatment for severe altitude sickness). Crucially, progress is also being made with other anti-viral drugs that could be administered orally, and as soon as symptoms appear.
So, for the vast majority of people, in the unlikely event that they catch the virus, the chances of then going on to get seriously ill 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 widely available vaccines is also becoming a reality for many of us (I am scheduled to receive my first jab on March 26) which will obviously help to substantially reduce the threat still further.
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. With the availability of ubiquitous low cost saliva testing kits, it may also be practical for us to rapidly test key members of our local support crew in a non-intrusive manner before embarking on an expedition.
Other promising pieces of technology for example are smart phone linked tests and apps currently being used by the NBA. As already mentioned, for the foreseeable future, many countries (or territories) will also require proof of a recent negative test, and/or some type of immunization passport to pass through border controls, so such innovative solutions (ideally linked to a blockchain, or decentralised ledger) will be highly anticipated. It is difficult to predict how fast all these medical technologies will develop, but as a born optimist, I am confident that more solutions will become available as the year progresses.
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 in the future.
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, as people become bolder post Covid in terms of reimagining the possibilities for their big annual getaways.
Likewise, in terms of sustainability, there are very few ways of travelling that are more sustainable than putting one foot in front of the other, and directly experiencing the places and people that we encounter along the way! 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 trading screen, and stay long bitcoin!
If anyone has any follow up questions, please do let me know.