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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Pandemic weakens Bellingham travel industry

'I was just in Bhutan, and I managed to leave right before they closed their borders'

By Dawson Eifert

Stay at home: That’s the emerging message as COVID-19 has taken hold in 49 states, disrupting travelers and the travel industry. For local businesses, the fallout has been immediate.

On March 10, Whatcom County confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Within days, local colleges moved courses online and students began preparing for disruptions to their plans for spring break and beyond.

“I was looking forward to traveling to Europe all quarter and now it’s canceled,” fourth-year Western student Mackenzie Taylor said.

On March 11, President Trump suspended travel to Europe for 30 days, which has forced the cancellation of some travel abroad programs during Western’s spring quarter. As another indication of seriousness, members of the armed services have been prohibited from traveling within the United States. Popular destinations and service providers, including all of The Walt Disney Company’s theme parks and cruises, have been shuttered.

Katie Swanson of KS Travel and Cruise in Bellingham has faced a flood of concerns from her clients. 

“I have a client who canceled because of the virus today,” Swanson said on Wednesday. “I also have a client who has a cruise all the way in October who is worried about cancelling too.”

It’s been a concerning couple of days for her business as COVID-19 has continued to make headlines.

Although it is too early to predict the long-term effects of the virus, efforts to contain it, and the public’s mindset on the travel industry, Swanson understands her clients’ concerns. 

“I was just in Bhutan, and I managed to leave right before they closed their borders,” Swanson said. “It’s all pretty crazy.”

Robin Gilster, the founder of Bellingham Travel and Cruise, says the virus has wreaked havoc with her customers’ plans and trips.

“It’s our elderly customers who we are the most worried about,” Gilster said.

Although information about COVID-19 is still emerging, early data suggests that people over 60 are at particular risk.

Swanson agreed: “Most of my clients go on cruises, and most of my clients are elderly, so it hasn’t been great.”

While students and other young adults who might jump at plummeting ticket prices aren’t at a large risk, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the real concern lies in bringing COVID-19 back home and infecting others who may be at a higher risk.

“People are getting quarantined, like in Italy, and travelers from around the world are getting stuck,” Gilster said. “Things are changing rapidly.”

Related story: Travel decisions in the time of COVID-19

Follow The Western Front on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates. Our full coverage of how the novel coronavirus is affecting Whatcom County is here.

If you’re interested in contributing to the Front’s reporting during this crisis, you are invited to participate in our open newsroom project, where experienced reporters and editors will work alongside the community to gather and verify information that leads Whatcom County toward shared solutions. To participate, please fill out this form.

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