She Speaks: The Pandemic Through the Eyes of a Full-Time Traveler

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Like us, you’ve most likely canceled a trip or two in the past few weeks, and the idea of escaping to an exotic locale now feels like a distant dream. But what if travel is your bread and butter? Here, Savoir Flair speaks with “Chief Wandering Officer” Reem Shaath, founder of luxury boutique travel consultancy Whywander, about what these unprecedented circumstances have meant for her line of work.

As the founder of a travel consultancy, how have you been personally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ve all been affected, personally and professionally. Businesses – small and large – have been drastically hit, but it has been remarkable to see communities coming together in support and solidarity. Our clients started canceling bookings in late February and by the beginning of March, all trips were postponed. Our team works remotely around the world, and they’ve been very understanding about some tough decisions to weather this storm.

What has been the single biggest challenge for you in all of this?
Surrendering to the fact that no one has control over anything. It’s a daily practice of responding rather than reacting, and being aware of the meaning I attach to the situation.

Photo: Courtesy of Sebastián León Prado

From a professional perspective, which aspect about the current situation concerns you the most?
With so much uncertainty around containing the spread of the virus, the desire and confidence to travel will take time.

As an industry insider, what can you tell us about the travel industry in the Middle East – both presently and in the foreseeable future?
The Middle Eastern traveler is constantly evolving and seeking new adventures. It’s been a thrill designing customized trips including transformative experiences that are highly nature-oriented and authentic to each place for them. As for travel across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has been ramping up its tourism game for the past eight months.

My ‘Co-Pilot’ and I spent January and February exploring different parts of the country: Abha, Al Hassa, Al Ula, and Jeddah. The sense of generosity in Saudi hospitality is humbling. When our world gets back on its feet, I think people will be looking towards transformative travel experiences, slowing down and genuinely connecting with people and places.

Do you predict a sudden surge in travel once this phase has passed? 
This is what we’re counting on! The craving for travel will only grow with time, so people will definitely be seeking a release. I think it will be a slow build-up rather than a sudden surge, varying based on individual confidence in traveling. Our hotel and experience partners have been very accommodating with cancellation policies – this is reassuring and encouraging for anyone planning trips later this year.

element5 ipad travel
Photo: Courtesy of Element5

What advice would you give to someone who is set to travel in the coming weeks/months?
The general global recommendation is to minimize non-essential travel – something we encourage. Though business is very slow-moving, the health and safety of our clients is our priority. We’d recommend postponing any leisure travel and ensuring that travelers’ cancellation and planning policies are flexible.

There’s comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together.

Considering the role of travel in your life, how are you coping with the current situation?
Like many others, I was unsure of the severity of the situation – too stubborn to cancel trips planned months in advance. I was deep in the jungles of Rwanda and Uganda in early March, when the travel bans started and the spread escalated in Europe. Thankfully, I was able to get home to Spain as planned, and I’ve been quarantined since. There’s comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together, taking it day-by-day and not setting any expectations as we navigate the unknown.

How can wanderlusters satiate their desire to travel when boarding a flight is not an option?
Our imagination and creativity hasn’t been canceled! Now is the time to daydream about bucket list destinations and take time to consider the ways in which we can be more present and intentional in our future travel experiences. The internet is our gateway to virtual travel – from books and movies to virtual tours of museums. We’ve just put together our Virtual Sanity newsletter with some ideas and inspiration.

Photo: Courtesy of Prêt-à-Provost

Are any of your favorite travel destinations hit particularly hard by the pandemic?
Italy is always in my heart.

If the world magically returns to its normal state overnight, where would you travel tomorrow and why?
We were playing this game yesterday, and I said Maldives. But now that I think about it, that’s even more isolation! After a couple of months alone, I think I will crave being around people. In the end, my preference will always be somewhere surrounded by nature – be it jungle, mountains, sea, or deserts.

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