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Wealthy travellers are starting to book year-end vacations

The new offering from Roar Africa is lavish, even for the safari outfitter’s well-heeled, often well-known clientele. With Roar Privé, they can experience an eight-day safari in South Africa without coming into contact with another human—except for their private pilots, guide, butler, chef, and whomever they choose to bring along.

Passengers wait with their luggage outside terminal 2 at London Heathrow Airport in London, UK, on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016.

These very socially distant safaris start at $60,000 per person. Since early May, Roar has sold them to a half-dozen groups for the year-end “festive” season and beyond.  

“I would never have thought to put it out there [during normal times],” says Roar chief executive Deborah Calmeyer, because of the additional cost of the trips. But these are not normal times and, in this moment, the appeal goes beyond exclusivity. “I’m so fearful for our wildlife and the people dependent on travellers coming back. Whatever we have to create to make it safe, that’s what we’re going to do.”  

The coronavirus crisis has all but shut down travel around the world and across the board. The number of people going through US Transportation Security Administration checkpoints has dropped by some 95% since the start of March. That month, private jet companies began turning away customers as international borders closed. 

“Many of those will expire by the end of the year. There are not enough days or rooms to satisfy all the credit out—so if people don’t grab options, they may lose their credits.”

– Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder and chief executive officer of luxury travel firm Indagare

It’s still unclear when shuttered resorts, airports, and borders will reopen. But wealthy jetsetters are betting that by November or December, travel will be somewhat normal—and that spending additional dollars can keep them sufficiently safe.

“We had several weeks of crickets … not a single request,” says Brooke Lavery, co-owner of New York-based travel consultancy Local Foreigner. “Probably two weeks ago [in early May] is when it really started to come back.”

Some of the earliest requests are coming from clients who have the means to fly privately. Aside from being at reduced risk of infection, these travellers are also unaffected by flight cancellations or other airline disruptions. “At the drop of a hat, they could get themselves out if they needed it,” she explains. “They’re more free.”

Resorts that are set up to accommodate private aircraft, such as Petit Saint Vincent in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, are likely to see a corresponding boost. Almost all of the 22 cottages on the 115-acre private island are booked for the year-end holidays. 

In the US, the 12-cabin Dunton Hot Springs resort in Dolores, Colo., near Telluride, is sold-out for Christmas. In Aspen, Colo., the Little Nell’s director of sales, Mark Elias, reports: “We currently have twice the number of rooms confirmed for the holiday week, Dec. 24 to Jan. 2, as we did at the same time last year.”

At the more cautious end, say agents, are clients who are refusing to travel until a coronavirus vaccine is available, or at least until things are more stable. 

A traveler walks through Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia, US, on Monday, March 16, 2020.

Some consumers may be caught between. There’s some urgency for those who have credits for cancelled trips, says Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder and chief executive officer of luxury travel firm Indagare. “Many of those will expire by the end of the year,” she says. “There are not enough days or rooms to satisfy all the credit out—so if people don’t grab options, they may lose their credits.” 

In any case, “luxury, high-end travel is going to be what comes back first,” says Kate Doty, managing director of premier access for adventure specialist GeoEx. Deep-pocketed travellers can afford to pay for space, privacy, and even coronavirus testing for staff.

Mary Margaret Hanke, a six-time guest of high-end tour company Classic Journeys, has already booked her extended family of eight to visit Peru to celebrate the graduations of her daughter and niece. Though the country’s borders are still closed, and a curfew is in place, they are scheduled to leave at the beginning of August. 

“The girls may not be able to walk across the stage with their diplomas,” says company founder Edward Piegza. “But they can walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.”