• The Star Staff

A different early-bird special: have vaccine, will travel


By Debra Kamin


When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas.


But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their COVID-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.


Across the United States, older people have been among the first in line to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations. And among hotels, cruise lines and tour operators, the data is clear: Older travelers are leading a wave in new travel bookings. Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel — often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine. For the silver haired, it’s a silver lining.


“We’ve very willingly been compliant with masking and social distancing, and have basically lived inside of our bubble here in Dallas,” Jim Drayer said. “We haven’t been inside a restaurant in a year. So we’re anxious to get out now and do things a little more safely.”


At the Foundry Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, an 87-room luxury hotel housed in what was once a steel factory for the Biltmore Estate, reservations made with the hotel’s AARP promotional rate were up 50% last month. Aqua-Aston Hospitality, a Honolulu-based company with resorts, hotels and condos in its portfolio, reports that senior-rate bookings climbed nearly 60% in January.


The Drayers, who have gone gorilla trekking in Africa and done adventure travel in India, Israel and Egypt, admit that their trip to Hawaii, which they booked through the members-only vacation club, Exclusive Resorts, is something of a baby step. (The vacation club reports that more than 50% of their current bookings are vacations for members over 60.)


“We’re testing the waters,” Cheryl Drayer said. “We didn’t want to end up quarantined in a foreign country or not allowed back in the United States. This felt like a safe place to go, where we were still in the United States.”


That sense of safety is partly because Hawaii, with its mandatory quarantine and contact tracing, has managed the pandemic well. The couple feel confident that if they were to face any health issues while on the island, they wouldn’t be stymied by an overburdened health system.


“We’re traveling to a destination that, by all the numbers, is safer than where we live right now,” said Jim Drayer. “It feels like our bubble has cracked open a little a bit.”


Alice Southworth, 75, was also looking for a post-vaccine travel destination in a place that was still taking COVID-19 precautions seriously, and didn’t push her too far out of her comfort zone.


A semiretired psychologist, she has continued to see a handful of patients throughout the pandemic, but hasn’t ventured beyond her hometown of McLean, Virginia, in more than a year. She also hasn’t been able to use an indoor gym or attend her beloved water aerobics classes, so as soon as she received the first dose of the vaccine, she booked a visit to Hilton Head Health, a wellness resort in South Carolina, where she’ll have access to a full range of fitness classes and activities. And when she arrives March 28, she’ll be fully vaccinated.


Receiving that coveted first shot, she said, wasn’t just a factor in persuading her to book the trip. “It was the whole of the decision,” she said. But even having been immunized, she knows the vaccine is not a magic bullet, and she wanted to be sure she was selecting a vacation spot where she trusted sanitation measures and where social distancing would still be possible.


“Hilton Head is a good investment in my own health,” she said, “and it’s a place where I feel I will be safe enough. I’m not going to Rome, you know.”


Older people are more eager to travel in 2021 than other age groups and also more likely to link the timing of their travel to when they receive their vaccinations, according to a January survey conducted by the travel agency network Virtuoso. In the study, 83% of respondents over 77 said they were more ready to travel in 2021 than in 2020, and 95% of the same group said they would wait to travel until they received their vaccine.


And while some older adults are focusing on short distances and COVID-19 precautions at their destinations when it comes to post-pandemic travel, others are enthusiastically planning to just go big.


“There’s a lot of pent-up desire among seniors, and a sense of life running out,” said Jeff Galak, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “There’s a theory called mortality salience: When your own mortality is brought to mind, behaviors change. We’re going to see upgrades to better cabins on cruise ships, and booking of better hotels.”


For travelers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, said Conor Goodwin, corporate marketing manager of Charlestowne Hotels, the ticking of the clock is another strong motivation to book as soon as an inoculation makes it safe.


“The 65-plus demographic is losing out on their golden years and they’re understandably eager to get back out there,” he said.


The Bristol Hotel in Virginia, which is part of Charlestowne’s portfolio, saw revenue from travelers over the age of 65 increase 179% between Dec. 13 and Jan. 22. The French Quarter Inn, in Charleston, South Carolina, which is also managed by Charlestowne, saw 11% more bookings from people over 65 between Jan. 10-28 compared with Dec. 22 to Jan 9.


Some older travelers are even opting to finally book those big-ticket dream trips. Fernando Diez, who owns Quasar Expeditions, a luxury cruise operator in the Galápagos Islands, says that in December, when front-line health care workers were among the very first Americans to receive vaccines, he saw a wave of requests for trip information from doctors and nurses.


Since Jan. 1, however, 70% of his booking inquiries have come from guests over the age of 65 — in previous years, that number was closer to 40%. Most inquiries are for travel from June onward.


“Most of them say they’ve been vaccinated, and they’re comfortable now traveling to a destination like Ecuador and the Galápagos,” Diez said. “The vaccination gives them the confidence to travel to a remote spot.”


And Lauren Bates, founder and owner of Wild Terrains, a women-only tour operator with itineraries in Mexico, Portugal and Argentina, said she was stunned when bookings in December and January — for trips starting as soon as May — were 40% higher than in January 2020, and three-quarters of the women who booked in that time were over the age of 55.


“We’re seeing a lot of women in their 60s and 70s booking trips with friends,” she said.


Public health experts call for caution, however, reminding seniors that even when they have received both doses of their COVID shots, the recommendations for masking and social distancing remain the same.


“The vaccine is still not 100% effective, and if you’re living basically in a sea of virus, it’s good to be very careful even though you’ve been vaccinated,” said Dr. Manfred Green, director of the public health program at the University of Haifa in Israel. “We’re still not sure if someone who is vaccinated could acquire the disease without getting sick, meaning the virus would be with them and they could transmit it to someone else.”


And all older travelers should choose destinations where hospitals have not been overburdened by the pandemic, Green said, because vaccinated or not, older Americans are more likely to suffer from health issues unrelated to COVID.


The tourism industry, battered by the pandemic, is now getting a much-needed boost from this new surge. Hotels and resorts, which have faced record-low occupancy throughout the pandemic, are wholeheartedly embracing the fresh wave of travelers, with many rolling out new programming and features geared toward their oldest demographic.


At the Marker Key West Harbor Resort, which sits on two lush acres in the Florida Keys, transactions from guests over the age of 55 were 70% higher last month than in December 2020, translating to a 41% increase in spending.


Allie Singer, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, said the jump is almost certainly coming from newly vaccinated seniors.


The resort responded by bringing back programming that had taken a hiatus during the pandemic but was popular with older visitors in the past, including aqua yoga — which can relieve joint pain and arthritis — and a 5 p.m. “welcome reception” on the resort’s pool deck with appetizers and live music.


“It’s very attractive to the senior crowd at that hour,” she said.

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