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Travel

7 Couples on Navigating Long Distance Amid Coronavirus



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Countless couples have been separated as governments race to contain the spread of COVID-19, limiting movement of citizens to their home countries and even their own homes. In some cases, one party was away on business or visiting family abroad when borders closed with little warning. In others, a twosome was already in a long-distance relationship but had to postpone future get-togethers. Here, seven couples around the world explain how they’re handling their sudden split and share their most creative tips for making it work in the interim.

Communicating through voice recordings and music

When New York City-based musician and actor Randall, 59, booked a gig as a bass player for a national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar last fall, he was stoked. His girlfriend of 15 years, Muriel, could visit him on tour in Denver, Austin, and other U.S. cities. Muriel, 43, a group director at a digital product company, also landed a sweet opportunity: working abroad in her company’s Copenhagen office from December through June. Randall made plans to visit Muriel in Denmark in May—and then the coronavirus hit.

Randall was in Cleveland when the outbreak ramped up. The musical production was being staged for three weeks, but shut down after just two nights. He grabbed the first flight he could back to NYC to repack, grab his passport, and fly to Copenhagen; if they were going to weather a pandemic, they wanted to do it together. “I was hours away from boarding a plane when Muriel called me and said the Danish government closed their borders,” Randall says. “I was heartbroken.”

That was March 12. They’ve been FaceTiming twice a day since. “We’re resigned to the fact that we missed a small window, and it might be months now before we can see each other again,” Randall says.

When they were first separated in early March, he would stay awake until 3 a.m. so he could “walk” Muriel to work. “She would flip the camera around so that I could see the architecture, sights, and sounds of her neighborhood,” he says. “It looked so beautiful there.” He also plays new songs for her on his guitar (“I try not to take her feedback too hard”) and sends her voice recordings with snippets of his favorite poems to listen to before bed. They’ve bonded through cooking—setting their alarms, getting their mise en place ready, and chatting through the meal prep. It’s just like their life in New York, says Randall, except “her dinner is at 7 p.m. and mine is at 1 p.m.”

Making travel plans for the future

Vanessa, a 29-year-old American working in human resources, met David, a 29-year-old British creative director, on Tinder six months ago. They were living in Brooklyn at the time and the relationship progressed quickly. Because David’s visa was set to expire in mid-April, he planned a trip abroad to renew it at the American embassy in England while visiting family.

David’s flight to London was scheduled for Saturday, March 14. When President Trump first announced the European Union travel ban on March 12, it excluded the United Kingdom. Within hours of David’s departure just two days later, Trump announced the U.K. ban.

“The immigration system is complicated enough on its own,” says Vanessa. “And now we’re dealing with a COVID-19 response and a U.K./U.S. travel ban. When even your attorney says ‘it’s uncertain times,’ you know you’re in a situation.”

a screen shot of a man and a woman looking at the camera: David and Vanessa are unexpectedly nearly 5,500 miles apart for the time being.

With David stuck in London for the foreseeable future, Vanessa flew to Los Angeles to hole up with her family. The couple’s approach now is to make things feel “as normal as possible,” incorporating one another into their new daily routines. In practice, that means sharing recipes and doing mundane things like brushing their teeth together. “I think we talk more apart than we do when we’re together,” says Vanessa, who recently met David’s dad for the first time via video chat.

They’ve also started a list of things they plan to do once they’re reunited in New York, like eating at Peter Luger Steakhouse, walking across the Williamsburg Bridge, and sipping cocktails at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. “And, of course, we daydream about future travel,” says Vanessa. “I told David that I’ve always wanted to stay in a hut on stilts over the ocean and he told me to google the Seychelles. That’s at the very top of our dream list now. It sounds romantic and seems very far away from our current realities.”

Handwriting Valentine’s Day cards

Billy, 32, a choreographer in the U.K., and Ariel, 29, a performing artist in Hong Kong, were already in a four-year, long-distance relationship when COVID-19 restrictions were enacted. The couple was supposed to meet for a five-week trip in India in March, but canceled after Ariel was unable to secure a visa. The last time they saw one another was over the New Year break.

“We are uncertain when we’ll meet up again,” says Billy, who is hoping for a summer reunion. In the meantime, they’ve been arranging video-call movie dates, always pressing play at the same time. “We’re both deaf, so I have my captions in English and she has hers in Cantonese,” he says. “We did that with the TV series Peaky Blinders, too.”

The couple eats one meal a day together: Because of the eight-hour time difference, that usually means breakfast for Billy and dinner for Ariel. In a sweet gesture, Billy recently sent Ariel a Valentine’s Day card written in Cantonese. “It took me a whole day to write one card and it made my wrist ache,” he says, “but it also made me realize how beautiful the Cantonese language is.”

Bonding over the pup

Leila, 28, a director of brand marketing in New York City [Editor’s note: Leila is an employee of Condé Nast], and Nikola, 37, a kinesiologist from Belgrade, Serbia, met in Italy in 2016. Leila moved to Florence on a whim, with one suitcase in hand; Nikola was already living there. They met at a friend’s barbecue and were inseparable for nearly four years.

That changed in December when Leila moved to NYC. “It was a whirlwind,” she says. “Nikola proposed on Thursday, I boarded a flight with a one-way ticket on Friday, moved into an apartment I hadn’t seen in person on Saturday, and started the dream job I moved back for on Monday.”

The last time the newly engaged duo saw one another was in mid-January, when she made a quick weekend trip to Italy. Nikola is currently quarantined in Florence; Leila is on lockdown in New York. The travel ban, coupled with visa-related headaches, means they don’t know when they’ll see each other again. “Long distance relationships are hard,” says Leila. “FaceTime holds you over, but what ultimately gets you through is the end date.”

To keep the fire going, the pair plans virtual date nights where they cook a meal in sync and queue up the same TV show or movie. Nikola also helps Leila practice her Italian. One of the happiest bonds they share is their dog Sonny, a Golden Retriever/Cocker Spaniel mix living with Nikola in Florence. The trio FaceTimes together, but when the six-hour time difference proves too tricky, Nikola sends Leila photos of Sonny with captions like “Ciao mommy.”

Dressing up for dates

It was a love of salsa dancing and bachata that first brought Megan and Angel together—and it’s also what is keeping them going while separated by a pandemic.

Megan, a 34-year-old U.S. life/business coach and semi-professional dancer, and her boyfriend Angel, a 25-year-old Dominican systems engineer and dance instructor, met at a nightclub in 2015. They were living together in Santo Domingo for two years, until Megan recently moved to Atlanta for work. The last time they saw one another was over Christmas break, when Angel visited the States. Megan’s plans to visit him in the Dominican Republic in April have been foiled.

“Before the coronavirus hit, Angel was looking for jobs [in the United States],” says Megan. “But with the state of the economy, it will be much more difficult for him to find work now.” They don’t anticipate seeing one another for at least three to six months.

Planning out activities for date nights helps. “On Friday, for instance, we played virtual dominoes, listened to bachata music, and drank wine,” Megan says. “We’re also doing a fancy dress-up dinner where we’ll prepare pasta bolognese at the same time over Zoom and then eat together by candlelight.”

a screen shot of a person: Angel and Megan are now dressing up for dancing and date nights over video chat.

Other bonding efforts include simultaneously reading Conscious Loving by Gay Hendricks, partaking in online couples therapy “to make sure our relationship stays strong,” and, of course, dancing. “Angel specializes in salsa and I specialize in swing,” says Megan. “Since we can’t dance together right now, seeing each other dance alone is the next best thing.”

Buying a new plant every week

This American-born, Beirut-based couple has been together 24 years—until now. Lorinda, 46, is an international social worker. Brian, also 46, is an artist and the chair of a university art and design department. He was en route to Casablanca, Morocco to work on a mural project when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. Beirut announced its airport would close to all flights on March 18, with 10 days notice for those abroad to return. Thinking he could finish the project in Morocco and fly back before then, Brian stayed. But the next day, without warning, Morocco shuttered its land, sea, and air borders, stranding thousands of tourists, Brian among them.

“We do not know when he will return,” says Lorinda. “So, I am here, alone in Beirut with our two cats.” The Lebanese government has ordered people to stay at home and instituted a nightly curfew. But Lorinda isn’t just separated from her husband—her whole family is spread out. Her 23-year-old daughter is in Nebraska and her 20-year-old son is on lockdown in Doha, Qatar.

The family leans heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to stay in touch, and Lorinda and Brian read to one another each morning “to make sure we are both up and ready to ‘live the day’, whatever it brings.” Brian is painting pictures for Lorinda each afternoon, and the couple has agreed to order a plant for every week they are separated. “So far, I have three big new plants, which make me smile each time I water them,” says Lorinda. “They remind me that life is a journey of growth. This will pass, and we will see each other again, with a new determination to make each day we have together count.”

Working out and solving crossword puzzles

Lara and Ruben, both 28, were just starting a long-distance relationship when the pandemic struck. Lara works as a publicist in New York and Ruben in tech sales in Los Angeles. The couple met at a wedding in September; and for four months, they flew back and forth every two weeks. The last time they saw each other was March 7; Ruben’s next weekend visit, from March 20 to 22, was canceled.

a person cooking in a kitchen: Lara and Ruben have taken to Facetime dinner prep—to mixed success.

Lara says it’s been surprisingly fun getting to know one another in such an unexpected way. Originally from Paris, Ruben is tutoring Lara in French. They’re also screening movies virtually, solving the New York Times crossword together, and tackling the same jigsaw puzzle in their respective homes. They’ve agreed to stay mutually sober (“We’ve been sending one another different types of coffee to try”) and even purchased Peloton bikes so they can work out together.

They’ve been watching cooking videos from Bon Appétit’s Andy Baraghani, too, and choosing two or three dishes a week to create together. “Ruben has almost no prowess in the kitchen,” jokes Lara, “so it’s fun to make mistakes together and see who will set their apartment on fire first.”

“It’s a trying time,” she adds, “but if we can get through this, our relationship is set for the future.”

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Categories
Cruises

Suppliers girding for long fight as Covid 19 takes toll

As the coronavirus outbreak continued to spread through
Europe and the U.S. last week, the travel industry began signaling that it was
girding for a protracted fight. 

And while some analysts seemed to think it was an
existential battle, others viewed it as yet another crisis the industry would
eventually overcome. 

In a video message to travel advisors, Richard Fain, CEO of
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., was blunt about the toll the outbreak was taking
on the company. 

“In fact, to use a technical term I learned in business
school, it sucks,” Fain said. “Like you, we’re hurting. We’ve had to cancel
cruises. We’ve lost revenue.”

But he also reminded advisors that the industry has
weathered many other crises that at the time seemed insurmountable, including
9/11, H1N1 and Ebola.

Royal Caribbean and the cruise industry at large is “strong
and growing,” he asserted, and when the crisis ends, “We are going to be in a
position to take advantage and move forward in a fast pace, and you will be,
too.”

Analysts echoed that sentiment, even though cruise companies’
share prices have plummeted around 40% over the past month and cruise lines are
cutting prices and relaxing cancellation policies to stave off a booking
slowdown and a rise in cancellations. 

UBS financial analyst Robin Farley said that cruise sellers
were reporting cancellation rates of between 20% and 30% and website and call
center traffic being down in the mid-20% range. On the upside, she said, they
indicated that summer bookings and beyond were “holding up.”

Farley also said it was an “encouraging sign” that booking
activity had improved almost immediately after the Diamond Princess quarantine
until it was hit again by the Italy outbreak.

“There was visible resilience to underlying demand,” she
wrote in a note to investors. 

Robert Kwortnik, associate professor of services marketing
for the School of Hotel Administration at the Cornell SC Johnson College of
Business, said he also believes that the cruise industry will survive this.

“If there is a vertical in hospitality and travel that is
prepared for this, it is the cruise industry,” he said. 

Kwortnik cited the industry’s adaptability and ability to
move its assets. 

“You build a resort somewhere and all of a sudden there’s a
geopolitical shock, and you’re kind of in trouble because the building is not
going to go anywhere,” he said.

Being able to move ships means cruise lines can “hunker down”
as they did after 9/11, when people were afraid to fly. 

“That’s when the whole homeporting model happened,” Kwortnik
said. “If they’re afraid to fly, let’s move the ships closer. … It was a way
to wait out the consumer’s hesitation.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“It’s not like you can do that effectively overnight,” he
said. “You’ve got all kinds of considerations,” such as crew visas, the time it
takes to move ships from one region to another and then having to fill them,
especially ships with 2,000 or more cabins. 

“That’s not something you can just fire emails to travel
partners and say, ‘OK, we have a great deal, let’s fill the ship for next week,’”
Kwortnik said. “Cruising is something consumers take a lot of time thinking
about.”

He added that another industry advantage is that while the
lines might fill ships for less, “a significant portion of revenue is driven
onboard.”

Hotels reeling

Some hotel analysts last week predicted the crisis would
have a significant and sustained impact on the sector.

David Eisen, director of intelligence for the hotel
benchmark service HotStats, said, “When the hotel industry talks about black
swan events that have the potential to disrupt business and cause irreparable
damage, [Covid-19] is it. The outbreak and worry over further contagion has
left the hotel industry reeling in its wake.”

Eisen said the virus has had a “deleterious impact already
on hotel profits.” As an example, he cited Marriott International reporting a
RevPAR decline of nearly 90% in China and Taiwan for February.

“The virus’ impact on domestic travel has been smaller,”
Eisen said. “But containing it and stamping out its spread quickly is all the
hotel industry can hope for to erase what likely will be a difficult first
quarter, at the least.”

He also expressed concern over the “worry and uncertainty”
that permeated many of the hospitality industry’s recent fourth-quarter 2019
earnings calls, with Eisen calling moves like Hilton’s decision to shutter some
150 hotels across China “extraordinary.”

Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights for
the hotel data firm STR, echoed a heightened concern, saying that what had been
a more regional issue in Asia is now “clearly a global issue, the depth of
which is yet to be determined.”

STR has seen significant impact ripple across key markets
beyond mainland China, including in Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where
occupancy dropped 97%, 64% and 59%, respectively in recent weeks, and Bali and
Thailand, where occupancy plummeted by 26% and 24%, respectively.

Given the developing situation, analysts said they expect
the crisis will be a drag on hotel performance in North America. Freitag said
STR is waiting to see which sector of the region’s hospitality industry will
become “the canary in the coal mine,” with the firm paying close attention to
airport hotels, convention travel and gateway cities such as New York, Los
Angeles and Vancouver.

Thus far, U.S. performance appears soft, with STR reporting
that U.S. hotel occupancy fell 2.1% from Feb. 16 to 22, as RevPAR dropped 1.4%.
The steepest U.S. occupancy decline, 4.8%, was at airport hotels.

Drop in airline bookings

After early carnage to Asian carriers, the virus has begun
wreaking havoc on U.S. carriers, including their domestic and transatlantic
networks.

Citing stagnating demand, United planned to unveil on March
7 a new domestic and Canada schedule for April, with a 10% cutback in flying.
The carrier also said it has begun planning similar cutbacks for May.

Those cuts will be accompanied by a 20% pullback by United
on international operations next month and likely for May, as well. The carrier
has also suspended hiring, postponed planned raises for management and
administrative staff and begun offering optional unpaid leave. United and
several other U.S. carriers have also suspended change fees on new bookings.

Data shows why such measures have become increasingly
necessary.

Globally, airfare transactions were down 34% year over year during
the seven days ending Feb. 25, compared with the previous week’s year-over-year
decline of 24%, ARC and IATA data shows. Of particular importance to U.S.
carriers, though, is that ticket sale transactions for flights to, from and
within North America were down 8% year over year during those seven days. That
was the first year-over-year weekly decline for the region since Covid-19 was
identified. It came in the same week that outbreaks occurred in northern Italy
and South Korea, sowing fears of a pandemic.

The Italy outbreak has dealt an especially large hit to the
transatlantic networks of U.S. carriers. According to analysis by Forward Keys,
bookings for arrival to Europe from North America were down a whopping 68.1%
year over year during the last week of February. The dismal figure corresponded
with a global collapse in bookings to Europe in the immediate aftermath of the
northern Italy outbreak. 
___

Robert Silk, Christina Jelski and Nancy Trejos contributed
to this report.

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