NEWS-PRESS SPECIAL REPORT : The road ahead for travel

CDC deems air travel safe for fully vaccinated passengers

The Santa Barbara Municipal Airport is currently seeing the highest numbers of travelers since the start of the pandemic, with 700 to 800 people a day coming through the checkpoints and departing.

An announcement that avid travelers, travel agents, airports and many others have been anxiously waiting for was made Friday morning by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fully vaccinated individuals can travel both within the United States and internationally “at low risk to themselves.”

All airplane passengers, including those who have been vaccinated, must continue to wear masks and adhere to COVID-19 guidelines. And officials continue to recommend people avoid unnecessary traveling. But a recent CDC study suggested that vaccinated people getting infected with and/or transmitting the virus is rare. 

The announcement came amid an already increasing number of travelers nationwide with spring breaks and additional loosening of restrictions. Last Sunday marked the 18th straight day of more than 1 million people streaming through checkpoints in the U.S., the most prolonged travel rebound during the pandemic, according to national media reports. 

The CDC announced Friday morning that air travel both in the U.S. and internationally for fully vaccinated people poses a low risk for them, meaning travelers can visit places such as Sydney, Australia.

“The industry was really waiting to get (this announcement) from the CDC, so this is a good thing,” Deanna Zachrisson, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, told the News-Press Friday. “Now that the science behind it seems to suggest it is OK to travel, that’s one more vote of confidence to propel the last folks that might be hesitating … There’s no reason to avoid traveling at this point if you’re vaccinated.”

The Santa Barbara Airport is also seeing the highest numbers since the start of the pandemic, with 700 to 800 people a day coming through the checkpoints and departing. However, Ms. Zachrisson said that’s still only half of what it would’ve been compared to 2019, so it’s “not anything close to normal.”

But the airport is nevertheless preparing for an influx of bookings and air travelers. 

“Quite a bit of capacity” is being added to the airport, according to its spokesperson. Rental car companies are bringing back their staff, and the restaurant and gift shop is bringing back its furloughed employees, which she said is “a great sign.” 

Furthermore, the Santa Barbara Airport will be up to serving 11 cities by the end of June, which Ms. Zachrisson said is “pretty amazing” considering where the airport was a year ago. 

“Everybody knows and believes leisure travel is the source of the rebound,” Ms. Zachrisson said. “Business travel is going to be lagging.” 

She added that it’s hard to pinpoint a specific demographic of travelers starting to book again, other than ones with a “disposable income” who managed to keep their jobs during the pandemic.

That all being said, the pandemic has taken many wild, unpredictable turns, and the potential of a surge in cases has led industry officials to remain cautious. 

“Most people who plan on being vaccinated believe that they will be vaccinated by the end of June, and most people who want to travel think that they are going to be traveling in the summer,” Ms. Zachrisson said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how that collective belief amongst all of us actually turns out.”

For independent travel agents, this news means their already rising number of bookings will continue to do so. 

And for some of them, they can finally get back to work. 

Karen Ensign, a Carpinteria independent travel advisor, can now spend a full day in the office as opposed to her previous two to three hours during the pandemic that would cover all her bookings. She told the News-Press that business for her started to pick up around three weeks ago, and a large portion of the bookings are actually re-bookings from canceled cruises and trips to Hawaii. 

Between Hawaii, Mexico and Costa Rica, Ms. Ensign said she thinks travelers will stay closer to home initially. She added that most of them are 70 and older and planning for cruises.

“While the U.K. and Europe are always popular destinations, the continuing lockdowns in the U.K. and the increase in COVID-19 cases and variants in Italy will most likely make travelers hesitate to travel there anytime soon,” she said. “As for Santa Barbara, I think we will see a lot of travelers visiting from here in the U.S. and maybe even from abroad. Santa Barbara is a world-class destination, and a lot of people save up to come here for a vacation.

“And if you have to be in lockdown during a pandemic, Santa Barbara is not a bad place to be.”

Ms. Ensign herself had to put off many things over the course of the pandemic without making close to her normal income. While she said that she and her co-workers could get overwhelmed at times before the pandemic, she looks forward to helping her clients with their travel plans again. 

She said, “I hope I can maintain a good work and life balance when travel really picks up again. And it will — all signs point to a big wave of travel requests coming soon.”

Rayanna Cole-Dombroski is another local travel agent and coordinates both leisure and corporate travel. Throughout the pandemic, she said she was issuing maybe one air ticket a week and booking five hotels a week at maximum for corporate business, and she’s only issued a handful of leisure air tickets since last March. 

However, this week, Mrs. Cole-Dombroski said she’s already issued 15 air tickets and booked 10 hotels. While it doesn’t come close to her previous average of 200 air tickets and 100 hotel bookings each month, business is still increasing. 

Corporate travel has picked up as companies reduce their restrictions on employees traveling. Mrs. Cole-Dombroski said her corporate travelers are typically in their mid 20s and 30s and tend to book one to three weeks out. Her leisure business is currently mostly individuals in their 60s through 80s that have been vaccinated, and they’re booking further out, from July through October and even sometimes for 2022.

“I do anticipate travel to keep increasing, at least I hope so, but at a much slower pace than what has been projected, depending on infectious numbers, additional variants and destination entry restrictions and documentation,” she told the News-Press prior to the CDC’s announcement. “The current increase in business may not impact our business at all right now. It depends on how long this increase in bookings lasts. My 30 years in this business have made me more realistic, so although I’m very optimistic right now to see travel increasing, I’m also very cautious that it could subside.”

A recent poll from Destination Analysts showed that 82% of American travelers would feel more comfortable traveling after receiving a vaccine, while 44% said they plan to avoid all travel until the pandemic blows over. 

Visit Santa Barbara hasn’t conducted its own study, but Kathy Janega-Dykes, the organization’s president and CEO, said there has been a slight uptick in travel. 

She attributed the increase to more factors other than the vaccine as well, such as hotels reopening for leisure travel in January, restrictions lifting for outdoor dining and other types of visitor attractions, spring break and good weather. 

However, she said it’s important to remember the bigger picture of tourism and what an influx could cause. 

“We have a long way to go to help our industry rebound,” Ms. Janega-Dykes told the News-Press. “Restrictions are still in place around meetings, which make up a significant portion of mid-week travel, along with travel for business, sports, concerts and more. 

“In our market, coastal and luxury hotels are faring better right now than their inland, mid-tier counterparts. Just because we see leisure travelers returning doesn’t mean that everyone is equally benefiting. We’re also facing fierce competition from destinations around the country, which are all trying to reclaim lost income for their communities.”

The CEO said the local hospitality industry has proved that it can operate with safety and health protocols in place, and restoring regular levels of travel is “extremely important for our community.” She cited the latest report from the state Employment Development Department, which showed a loss of 2,900 jobs in accommodations (a 49% loss) and 4,300 jobs in the food and beverage industry (a 23% loss) in February.

“Leisure and hospitality jobs are still the hardest hit sector in Santa Barbara County,” Ms. Janega-Dykes said. “The return of visitors will help stabilize the businesses and attractions that even locals rely on, such as our favorite restaurants, bars, wine tasting rooms and museums. That will in turn help them recover from the devastating losses they took over this past year and secure jobs of our friends and neighbors.”

Kristen Miller, the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said the CDC’s announcement on Friday will “surely support” an increased amount of travel to Santa Barbara in the coming weeks and moving into this summer. 

“As long as individuals act responsibly by wearing masks and maintaining an appropriate amount of distance, travel is possible and supportive of long term economic recovery for some of our region’s hardest hit industries,” she told the News-Press. “In-person dining is starting to flourish in our county and our case numbers have remained low. This, along with vaccinations available to more people, is definitely supportive of safe travel throughout the county.”

She said an influx will be positive for the region, and there are enough safety protocols in place all across the board that support travel. 

“Guests who visit Santa Barbara by air generally make a greater impact to the travel and tourism industry as they typically stay longer periods of time, spending more on hotels, food, and services,” Ms. Miller said. “With the expansion of flights into our regions, we can expect that travel and tourism will boost the economy and help the long term recovery post-COVID. Our hope is that we can return to business as usual, while still practicing all necessary safety protocols, to continue supporting the balanced needs of our residents and guests.”


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