- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2021

Vaccinations are sparking a surge in travel bookings from Orlando to Las Vegas, and tourists are eyeing Italy’s sunny shores again as Europe plots a comeback.

But the optimism is running into rising gas prices, ever-shifting travel rules and a shortage of foreign workers who fill seasonal jobs at U.S. parks and resorts.

The upshot is a season of uncertainty. Declining COVID-19 rates are injecting confidence into long-dormant industry, but slow bureaucracies and the wobbly economy threaten to turn this summer into a hot mess unless travelers are savvy and plan ahead.

A third of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and nearly half have received at least one shot. As the numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths decline, bookings to Hawaii, the Caribbean, Key West, mainland Florida and Palm Springs are booming, according to AAA.

Some call the phenomenon “revenge travel.”

“People are being so fed up from being stuck under stay-at-home and quarantine protocols that what they are doing is book rather bigger trips and longer trips to more exotic places,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “The revenge is, ‘I’m going to compensate. I’m going to restore the time I lost. I’m going to seize the season and really splurge on travel.’”

Eager travelers might face a series of headaches, however, starting with sticker shock at the gas pump. After an anomalous year of low prices, the cost at the pump is rising and sits a bit higher than in pre-pandemic years. The national average is $2.90 per gallon.

Post-Memorial Day prices “will be high, higher than years before,” Gas Buddy, a travel app that helps people find cheaper gas, said in a recent blog post. “And prices are only going to increase in the weeks to come because of more demand. This means you could be paying $10, $15, $20 more per fill-up at peak summer prices.”

With increased demand, a shortage of tanker truck drivers is causing supply problems in some places. Many drivers left the sector during pandemic shutdowns.

Renting a car right now is no picnic, either. Companies have downsized their fleets and are now struggling to restock, partly because of a semiconductor shortage that is hampering auto production.

“In Hawaii, it’s almost impossible to rent a car,” Mr. Townsend said. “People are booking U-Haul trucks to get around there.”

The company that runs Avis and Budget car rentals said customers should book and prepay early to get the best prices.

“As we return to a state of normalcy in a post-COVID-19 world, we expect larger fluctuations in market demand and customer rental patterns, such as those associated with vacation destinations, and are constantly adjusting our fleet to meet that demand,” the Avis Budget Group said. “We continue to receive new cars in every day and look forward to helping people experience their mobility needs in a safe and efficient way.”

Air travel is starting to heat up after a drastic slowdown in 2020. The Transportation Security Administration is screening about 1.5 million people per day, inching closer toward May 2019 numbers, which averaged over 2 million.

Airfare trackers say customers should book their trips now instead of waiting until demand peaks and deals dwindle.

“It’s more about the fact summer flights are always expensive every single year” than about pandemic rebound, said Scott Keyes, founder of the Scotts’s Cheap Flights website and author of “Take More Vacations.”

He said airlines would love to charge more to make up for losses over the past year, but they have to compete for leisure travelers, who are more price-sensitive than business travelers.

Generally speaking, it will be twice as expensive to fly in July as it would be in late August or September, Mr. Keyes said.

He said many people are looking at outdoors destinations such as Hawaii, Florida or Cancun. He also is seeing more searches for European favorites such as Madrid, Milan, Paris and Rome. The European Union said it will reopen its borders to nonessential travel by June, although Italy and other member countries plan to open this month.

That is sparking excitement among tour operators and clients who had to postpone once-in-a-lifetime trips last year.

“We do have a lot of interest in Rome, Florence, Amalfi, Sicily, Venice,” said Diana Ferro, vice president at Perillo Tours. “It’s been over a year. People are tired and want to get out there and get back to normal.”

Groups are booked for September, October and next year under the safe bet that Europe will shake off the pandemic by then, but the near-term is hazy.

It’s still unclear how big of a group can ride a bus or enter the Vatican at once, or what share of restaurants will be open this summer in the country synonymous with fine wines and indulgent meals. It also can be difficult to navigate border rules that require proof of vaccination, a negative test or proof of immunity from prior infection.

“Many uncertainties right now,” said Ms. Ferro, who is trying to sort it out for clients. “I’m watching the Italian channel all day.”

Italy’s hot spots are notoriously crowded, especially during peak seasons, though Ms. Ferro said she think circuit-breakers will be in place at hot spots such as the Colosseum in Rome to control the surge.

“There probably will be a rush because Italy is extremely popular, but what I think is going to happen [is] they are going to enforce reservations and really respect entrance times,” she said.

Parks and resorts from coast to coast, meanwhile, are on tenterhooks as they wait for U.S. embassies and consulates abroad to vet candidates for J-1 visas that allow students and other exchange visitors to fill seasonal jobs.

The exchange programs, which promote cultural ties and help businesses that can’t find enough local workers, say diplomatic offices are operating with reduced staff that has to work through a backlog of visa applications as summer approaches.

Program sponsors are pushing the State Department to waive in-person interviews — exchange-workers submit paper applications — or shift resources to embassies with high demand for J-1 visas. They are worried that applicants will pivot to other opportunities if progress doesn’t speed up.

“Absent the department taking one of these steps, exchange sponsors will face a deepening economic crisis this summer, and host employers will also take a financial hit,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange. “What they are anticipating is a surge in Americans going out to amusement parks, to lakes and national parks and other places. And right now, they have difficulty seeing how they’re going to be able to fully staff their hotels, restaurants, things like that, in order to respond to that surge in interest.”

A State Department official said COVID-19 protocols forced it to cut staff at embassies and consulates and focus on the most urgent cases but is trying to improve as the global situation evolves.

“Our embassies and consulates are working to resume routine visa services on a location-by-location basis as quickly as possible,” the official said. “However, the pandemic continues to severely impact the number of visas our posts are able to process. We do not expect to be able to safely return to pre-pandemic workload levels until at least mid-2021. The health and safety of our workforce and customers remains paramount.”

Typically, 100 to 150 college-age workers from places including South America and the Dominican Republic flock to Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, to support winter or summer activities.

Jerry Huskey, the park’s risk manager, said exchange workers comprise one-quarter to one-third of the seasonal workforce, so losing them would force him to shut down water rides, kiddie rides and other activities in a reprisal of partial shutdowns.

“If they can’t get an interview in time, it really doesn’t behoove them to come here for six weeks. They need to be here for the three months,” Mr. Huskey said of foreign exchange workers. “Every day that goes by, it looks more and more like we’re going to have a shortage.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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