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These are tumultuous times for politics and travel. Add the pandemic, and it may be worth staying home.

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: January 23
  • Published January 23

Travelers arrive at a Deutsche Lufthansa covid-19 testing center before boarding a flight at Munich Airport on Nov. 12, 2020. (Bloomberg photo by Michaela Handrek-Rehle)

Politics is not my favorite topic. I’m much more comfortable talking about the next trip I’m planning, or the best way to get an extra 100,000 frequent flyer points.

But weeks like this past one reinforce how integral political discussions are when it comes to travel decisions. Travel bans, quarantines, consulate shutdowns and visa problems all are rooted in political decisions (and exacerbated by public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic). Set aside for a moment your plans for a vacation. Political decisions can keep families separated for years.

Four years ago, I was on a monthlong trip around the world. Although I hastily planned the trip in about two weeks, I had to change several stops at the last minute.

A former colleague, Lare Sisay, living in The Gambia (in West Africa) candidly advised me to visit at another time. The longtime dictator had been voted out of office. “There will be demonstrations,” he said. “You may be delayed and there may be military actions,” he said. That was all the prodding I needed to replace Banjul with Barcelona for that leg of the trip.

Another stop, Karachi, got crossed off the list when I discovered it was $450 to get a visa. I just kept flying over India to Kuala Lumpur. From there, I continued to Makassar, Indonesia, on the island of Sulawesi. There, our former exchange student lives with her family.

The reception was wonderful. They made me a birthday cake and took me on some crazy adventures. Her brothers took me to worship in their mosque. Later, I visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral, where the Mass was in English. It was my first visit — aside from my stopover in Kuala Lumpur — to a country with a Muslim majority. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, at more than 220 million people.

I was finishing my birthday cake when Sulis, our former exchange student, asked me, “Is it true that President Trump wants to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S.?”

My heart sank. I looked around for a hole to jump into — I was so ashamed. Seeing none, I punted. “Well, that’s not exactly what his executive order said. But I believe that’s his intention,” I said.

She and her family nodded. Indonesia has gone from a colony to a dictatorship to democratic republic in 70 years. They’ve seen it all. But it was a shock to me that Trump’s “Muslim travel ban” could have such immediate effect around the world. By the way, Indonesia was not affected by Trump’s order, which initially targeted Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. President Joe Biden repealed the ban last week.

A Sri Lankan airport worker stands next to a thermal scanner inside a terminal at the Katunayake International Airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Sri Lanka's tourism minister said that the airports in the country will be reopened for tourists according to health guidelines from Jan. 21. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, travelers faced a gauntlet of new travel restrictions. Last March, the U.S. State Department stopped issuing passports except for emergencies. That’s the equivalent of a ban on international travel of any kind, even to Mexico or Canada.

Today, you can order a passport. But it’s time-consuming and expensive. The passport itself is $110. The processing time can be 10 to 12 weeks, unless you pay $60 for expedited processing. The passport agency promises expedited applications will be returned within four to six weeks. There’s an extra charge to send your applications via express mail, which I definitely recommend.

As COVID-19 cases increased around the world, countries closed their borders. Airlines stopped flying. Countries have had varying levels of success or setbacks, but the U.S. has been hit particularly hard. That resulted in many countries barring American travelers. That includes our neighbors in Canada. As our COVID-19 numbers surge, the border with Canada remains closed to all but essential travel.

On Jan. 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that all airline passengers entering the United States must get a COVID-19 test within three days of travel. This new regulation by the CDC is essentially the same requirement that travelers to Alaska or Hawaii must meet.

Later, on Jan. 17, the Trump administration announced it was lifting its COVID-19 travel ban in place for most of Europe, Brazil and the U.K. This came after the announcement of the new CDC testing guidance for all international passengers.

However, the incoming Biden administration elected to leave the travel bans in place due to still-elevated COVID-19 infections, in addition to a new, more-contagious COVID-19 variant prevalent in the U.K.

Prospective visitors to the U.S. who need a visa are out of luck, though. The State Department has halted most routine visa services around the world because of the pandemic.

A woman asks a health worker about COVID-19 tests in the Guarulhos airport, near Sao Paulo, Brazil, as she waits for her connecting flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

U.S. travelers technically still can visit many countries right now. In Latin America, that includes Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala. All of the countries require a COVID-19 test.

In fact, United Airlines has a sale on tickets to Guatemala City for $299 round trip from Anchorage, for travel between now and March 24.

Other countries that still welcome U.S. travelers include Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Uganda and French Polynesia.

Political considerations aside, travelers should look carefully at local COVID-19 numbers. Also, consider whether there are adequate medical facilities to care for you if you’re sick. (Hint: In most places, there are not.) More countries are mandating that travelers carry supplemental travel insurance.

The U.S. State Department maintains a website with current travel advisories for every country. There’s even a map with color-coded countries based on their security level. You can see at a glance all of the “do not travel” zones, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Russia and Iran.

Right now, it’s an easy decision to delay your trip. The virus is widespread. But as folks get vaccinated and start to travel, it’s going to take a while before the customary travel infrastructure is up to speed.

That’s where politics come in. It’s my hope that governments around the world put an emphasis not just on their citizens’ health and safety, but also on the ability to move freely around the globe.