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Iceland and other destinations are opening to Americans, but should you go?

The crashing waves at Iceland's Black Sand Beach appear snow white against the dark pebble sand and cliffs of basalt columns tower overhead.

JESSICA KWONG, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/TNS

By SUNNY FITZGERALD | Special To The Washington Post | Published: June 4, 2020

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For travel lovers weary of sheltering in place, the news that popular destinations such as Iceland and Greece and parts of the Caribbean will be reopening to international tourists is encouraging. But before you book any trips, you'll have to examine the policies of each country carefully and answer some important questions. Because Iceland is one of the first countries to announce it will reopen to American travelers (no later than June 15) we'll look at these issues from the perspective of traveling there.

The state of the pandemic in the destination

Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, says one of the important indicators of whether a destination is truly ready to reopen is the number of daily new novel coronavirus cases. "Before considering a visit (anywhere), look at the statistics from that country," he says. "Make sure the daily new cases for the most recent two weeks are extremely low or close to zero." Iceland has reported a low number of cases — 1,806 total, with just four new cases over the past two weeks.

Chi also recommends that travelers assess the quality of the health care facilities and the capability of the destination to treat visitors. A look at the country's coronavirus recovery and fatality rates might help you determine whether you'll find good care there. In Iceland, the recovery rate is higher than 99 percent.

Be mindful of how the pandemic has affected daily life in your destination. Ryan Connolly, co-founder of bespoke travel operator Hidden Iceland, says that "even at the absolute peak of the pandemic, you could still go into shops" while abiding by the distancing guidelines. Visitors can expect tour companies to be operating, and restaurants, gyms, bars, swimming pools and nightclubs to be open with some precautions in place, though some hotels may be operating at reduced capacity.

If you plan to travel internationally this summer, it's wise to inquire with your travel provider about which activities and accommodations are available before you decide on a destination.

Border control and space

Consider how visitors to the country will be screened, and how many people you may be mingling with. Visitors to Iceland, for example, will have three options on arrival: a coronavirus test (children are exempt from testing), quarantine at their own cost for 14 days, or proof of a test taken before boarding their flight to Iceland. Because it's an island nation, Iceland should be able to monitor visitors effectively; according to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, there will essentially be one main point of entry for international travelers: Reykjavík-Keflavík Airport.

Iceland is also a good place for physical distancing and outdoor recreation; it's the least densely populated country in Europe and its main attractions have always been its fire and ice offerings. "People come to Iceland for nature — not theme parks, cinemas or other places where you're confined," says Connolly.

According to Chi, "Safety (with regard to the coronavirus) will vary by destination, but as a general rule, you should avoid crowds, especially indoors. If you're doing outdoor activities where there are very few people, that's pretty safe."

Getting there

Your intended destination may have the coronavirus under control, but if a flight is required to reach it, Chi says, "the biggest risk is getting there." Factors that make air travel to Iceland or anywhere else risky include possible exposure in the airport, prolonged time spent in the enclosed space of a plane, lack of physical distance from other passengers and using the restroom.

If you'll be flying, examine airline policies on passenger spacing (no, they're not all leaving the middle seat empty), mask requirements and disinfection procedures.

Entry requirements and costs

Each destination will determine its own entry requirements, and those are subject to change, so look for updates. Be aware that, even within a country, requirements may vary. For example, anyone arriving in Hawaii — including Americans from other states — must quarantine for 14 days.

As noted above, visitors to Iceland will have to quarantine or take a coronavirus test if they haven't already. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs says the Icelandic government will cover the cost of the tests for the first two weeks. Visitors arriving after that will bear the cost, which will likely be less than $225 dollars per test, according to government sources.

Consider a country's capacity for testing. Iceland's government facilities can test and process results for 500 international arrivals per day. Although Iceland received about 6,500 visitors per day in June 2019, this month there will be only a few flights arriving daily from abroad as the country gradually welcomes international visitors. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs says plans are in place to significantly increase testing capacity.

Chi says travelers should understand that coronavirus tests are not 100 percent accurate — false-negative results are possible, particularly within the first couple of days after infection — and the type of test given on arrival may differ by country. He notes that antibody tests are less accurate than PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and may be less useful, because having antibodies doesn't necessarily exempt a person from future infection. But there is not yet an ideal option.

The risk of inaccurate results, Chi says, is one of the reasons Taiwan, another island destination with a low number of coronavirus cases, has not determined when it will reopen to international visitors. "One measure they're contemplating is a highly sensitive test (to be used) at the airport," he says. "So far, they haven't found one."

In countries that seek to restart tourism without requiring a lengthy quarantine, Chi believes the most likely approach for now will be a PCR test upon arrival, quarantine until results are received, and permission to carry on with your travels if the results are negative.

In Iceland, a PCR test will be used, and you're expected to go to your accommodations and follow distancing and hand-washing guidelines until the results are received. If the test comes back positive, you — and anyone you've been within six feet of for 15 minutes or more — will be notified and required to self-quarantine.

Your health

Chi recommends that people with chronic or respiratory conditions postpone travel for now, and he suggests that even those without existing conditions might want to wait a few weeks to see how things play out. "You don't want to be the guinea pig," he says. By the second half of August, Chi believes the travel industry will have had time to test and improve coronavirus-related safety measures.

If you're American, you'll also need to consider that the current State Department Global Level 4 Health Advisory may affect your travel health insurance; check with your carrier to see whether it will cover you during the pandemic.

If you are not comfortable traveling yet, Connolly says, Iceland will be waiting to welcome you when you're ready. "We've got glacier hikes, midnight sun, and whales in the summer and ice caves and Northern Lights in winter. Both are an amazing time."
 

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