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Foreign travel presents added challenges — and opportunities — during COVID

The Nabataean tomb called the Treasury peeks from between the walls of the Siq in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.
Hanke Gratteau

My wife and I are at that age where we want to travel before we get to that age when we no longer can.

It’s a limited window, and we have no idea when it will close, which has left us — like a lot of other people — feeling that life was passing us by these last two years.

So a few weeks ago, COVID-19 be damned, we headed off on a big blowout trip that took us to the Republic of Georgia, Turkey and Jordan.

The obvious question is whether that sort of international travel is wise during a global pandemic.

I don’t have a definitive answer for you, other than to say we had a great time and, knock on wood, haven’t been infected with COVID.

But I have some observations that might be useful to anyone contemplating their own trip right now, no matter the destination.

COVID definitely adds some complications and stress — everything from arranging a COVID test in a foreign city to heightened tensions when the inevitable gastrointestinal upset occurs.

If my son and his husband hadn’t been along and handled most of the logistics, I’m not totally sure we could have pulled it off.

But the pandemic has also created some great opportunities — in terms of lower prices and smaller crowds — for travelers willing to jump through the extra hoops.

The moment that brought that home most clearly was in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, as we were hiking through the Siq, the narrow canyon that leads to the amazing carved sandstone tomb known as the Treasury.

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan
Mark Brown

You’d likely recognize it from the scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where Indy and his father discover the Holy Grail.

“You must choose, but choose wisely,” the immortal Knight memorably warns as Indy and the bad guys try to guess which goblet is the Grail, because drinking from the wrong one means instant death.

After the movie, the site became a major tourist attraction, so popular that the path on which we were walking would have been packed shoulder to shoulder with people just two years ago, our guide tells us.

Now during COVID, the same path is so sparsely populated we can hear our footsteps echoing off the canyon walls and the birds singing from the cliffs above. The guide says he prefers it this way, even with the loss of tourist dollars. We did, too.

The threshold issue is finding a country that’s open for business and wants you to visit.

This vacation started as a long-booked trip to China in the spring of 2020, which obviously didn’t happen.

Then we figured we’d try for Japan this year instead, but when summer rolled around, Japan wasn’t accepting visitors either.

At my son’s suggestion, we settled on Georgia, formerly a part of the Soviet Union.

Why Georgia?

One big reason, on top of it being a unique destination (that I highly recommend), is that the country was still welcoming visitors.

Georgia and Turkey each required only proof of vaccination for entry. We are fully vaccinated.

My working premise was that it would be as safe to visit the Republic of Georgia as the state of Georgia, which statistically speaking, wasn’t quite true.

The vaccination rate for the state of Georgia is nearly double the vaccination rate for the nation of Georgia, in part because the U.S. hoarded the vaccine for our own people.

A woman whose family operates a small winery where we stayed in the Kakheti region explained that many older Georgians are distrustful of the vaccines. They don’t believe they were tested properly. Sound familiar?

She believes the distrust in her country is driven in part by Russian propaganda.

In most places we visited, mask wearing was certainly on par with what we see in the U.S., if not quite a bit better, especially in Turkey. (We were only in Istanbul.)

Masks are required — both inside and outside — in those countries. Compliance is especially high among people in public-facing lines of work such as restaurant, hotel and airline employees, even cab drivers.

Still, there is obviously mask fatigue and resistance everywhere we went, just like here.

Part way through our trip, Jordan added a requirement that travelers produce a negative PCR test result before being admitted to the country, which forced an unscheduled side trip to an Istanbul hospital.

Royal Jordanian airlines also asked to see proof of travel insurance, which we luckily had obtained despite not realizing in advance it was required.

The U.S. also required a negative COVID test result for our return, but our government accepts the less stringent rapid test.

If you’re planning on taking a trip during COVID, I can only invoke the guidance of the Grail Knight:

It’s your choice, but choose wisely.