ROME—If you would have asked Dejan Ljevanic, who runs the Jahorina ski resort on Bosnia’s famed winter ski mountain, a year ago if he thought the 2021 ski season would be such a success, he says he would have laughed in your face. But Jahorina and Bosnia’s second mountain Bjelasnica are doing the best business they’ve done since long before the pandemic started.
Skiing in Bosnia has always been popular for those who live in the Balkans. It’s considerably cheaper than the Swiss, French, or Italian Alps, but doesn’t quite carry the prestige of places like St. Moritz or Zermatt in Switzerland or Cortina or Courmayeur in Italy. But with France and now Italy recently added to the Centers for Disease Control danger list for holiday travel as cases soar, and with this this week’s scheduled lifting of Austria’s national lockdown in question, hard-core skiers are rushing to resorts in Bosnia and Serbia where it almost seems like COVID never happened.
Despite the fact that just 24 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, case numbers are low—but so is testing, which means they don’t seem as dangerous as perhaps they are. Restrictions are relaxed, with masking a choice and testing requirements much less stringent than most other places.
Travelers need a negative COVID test to enter Bosnia or Serbia—or they will be told to quarantine, though not under obligation by law. But once in, no one asks for vaccine status, testing results or even whether people have recovered from COVID. Ljevanic says they provide COVID testing in their resort rooms—not for access to the mountainside, but for travelers who need them to return to their own countries when the fun is over.
The Balkans are not the only place that COVID forgot—or that forgot COVID. The Canary Islands have also emerged as one of the seemingly COVID-free spots luring tourists from all over. Around 76 percent of the population is vaccinated, but most tourists don’t need to be vaccinated to enter the Spanish archipelago since a negative PCR test or proof of recovery from the virus will suffice. Travelers from the UK, however, do need proof of vaccination as do people coming in from what are deemed “high risk” areas like the southern African countries. The CDC considers the Canary Islands a Level 2 risk for travel, making it an option for Americans as well. Once there, the black sand beaches are open all winter and the local health authority offers free insurance to international travelers to cover costs if they catch COVID while there, though with La Palma volcano now actively erupting, visitors may also need to keep an eye out for lava.
Mexico has also been the exception to the no-go travel rule since the start of the pandemic with the country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, coming under fire for his laissez-faire approach to the virus, telling people “don’t worry” about a rise in cases in late November. Throughout the pandemic, the Cancun airport has been full of arriving tourists—an escape for those who wanted to escape thinking about the virus. In fact, Mexico had one of its best years ever for European tourists as they sought to evade the now-lifted two week U.S. travel ban by partying or sunning in places like Tulum or Zipolite.
The country’s four-tier system is is seemingly blind to the number of new cases in places like Cancun and Playa del Carmen, perhaps to ensure tourists feel welcome despite the CDC warning that Americans should “reconsider” travel there. (This is not, however, just due to the pandemic but also increased violence along many beachfront areas with gunmen on jet skis opening fire in Cancun in early December.)
Turkey—long considered an exciting if occasionally occasionally dangerous destination after threats of local terrorism—has also enjoyed a bump in travelers during the last waves of the pandemic, now surpassing Spain in terms of its popularity, according to statistics gathered by the Istanbul Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism against the Spanish Tourism statistics.
Istanbul, Ephesus, and Cappadocia might be cultural draws, but in Turkey, the all-inclusive seaside resorts are also a big source of tourism, especially from Russia. The country’s Culture and Tourism Ministry reported an 86 percent increase in visitors between January and September 2021 compared with the same period in 2020. In September 2021, foreign travel arrivals were 59 percent higher than a year ago, suggesting the trend is only growing as other places buckle under COVID restrictions. You can enter the country unvaccinated, but you will have to provide a negative PCR test to do so.
So who’s poised to “win” next?
Thailand is emerging as a potential hotspot for 2022 pandemic travel with the highest growth in internet searches this fall, according to Google’s Travel Insights. One of the reasons is its successful Test and Go program which allows travelers to quarantine in a luxury hotel while they await their negative PCR test or go to one of the “sandbox” scheme hotels on a resort island where no quarantine is required (though travel around the country is dependent on a negative test).
As the number of off-limit destinations grows as the fourth wave of the pandemic washes over the tourism industry, travel is once again almost entirely about risk assessment. Places that say they have no problem may indeed be in denial. But for an increasing number of travelers who can’t stay grounded any longer, those risks are worth it.