Joey Levy, a luxury travel adviser with Embark Beyond, was helping clients plan a long-awaited honeymoon.
They wanted to go to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see wild animals and Victoria Falls, staying at some of the region’s best lodges.
For that, they were prepared to pay five figures. But then PCR testing costs got in the way.
Each country required a negative result 72 hours before entry, and the remote lodge they’d chosen in Zimbabwe said the only way they could arrange for one was to fly in a doctor – for $6,000 (R88,430).
“I could have chartered a flight for the doctor and it would have been cheaper,” said Levy, who ultimately rearranged the itinerary to avoid the exorbitant fee.
In the middle of a pandemic, it’s one thing to travel to a remote place such as the savannas of Zimbabwe or the jungles of the Amazon and quite another to get the Covid-19 testing and paperwork you need to spend time there – even with help from a seasoned travel agent.
It’s especially true for customers who hope to visit more than one country before returning home.
That’s left some returning travellers grappling with sticker shock, and it’s not always the travel provider’s fault.
Tour operators and resorts are using planes, boats, and automobiles to ferry tests to labs within the required turnaround times.
It’s an any-means-possible approach to follow rules that aren’t always as simple as they sound. Sometimes, it’s still not enough for it to make sense for international clients – often in regions where their business is so needed.
Rapid antigen tests are also hard to come by in many countries – especially in places with limited health care access – leaving travellers with little option but costlier, time-consuming PCR tests.
For its six lodges and camps in Tanzania, eco-luxury safari operator Singita has had to ferry government-accredited Covid testers back and forth on bush planes and vehicles to collect nasal swabs for delivery in Dar es Saalam, more than 500 miles away.
Initially, that cost the company $500 (R7,370) per test – a price tag passed on to consumers.
More recently, Singita has managed to bring it down to $300 (R4,420), thanks to the opening of a Covid-19 testing lab in Arusha, some 375 miles closer to Serengeti National Park, and careful coordination of flights that carry both Covid testers and arriving or departing passengers.
Because of the time it takes to get tests to and from the lab, the Tanzanian lodges had to impose a three-night minimum stay – at about $2,500 (R36,840) per person, per night. Typically, clients have stayed two nights and moved on.
“It was quite complicated, and we actually had to dedicate two people full-time on the PCR logistical planning,” says Jo Bailes, the company’s director of operations. “It cost a lot of man-hours for the company.”
Another tricky location for the company is Kruger National Park, where it runs two camps in South Africa, near the Mozambique border.
There, Singita is charging about $262 (R3,860) per test to help cover a driver making a four-hour loop to get the samples to a lab.
“We have guests checking in on different days, and now you have to send someone back and forth every second day to take the sample to the laboratory,” Bailes says.
“If you add it up over six months, you can imagine this is an exorbitant and unforeseen cost.” As a result, the company is now helping to foot the bill for the construction of a new lab near its properties, to be used both by locals and guests.
Guests could potentially defray costs by packing home-test kits. American travellers, for instance, could use the FDA emergency-use-authorized BinaxNOW Covid-19 Ag Card 2 Home Test, which sells for $150 (R2,210) for a pack of six tests, or the Ellume Covid-19 Home Test, priced at $45 (R660) per test.
Not all tests by those companies are FDA approved, and there is plenty of fine print on how to use the ones that are. Notably, they must include a telehealth video call—someone observing the test – which requires at least a good internet connection.
There’s also legwork involved since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires that any test “be authorized for use by the relevant national authority” in the country where you are administering it.
There’s also no guarantee that local governments will accept them for entry or onward travel, so they have the potential to solve only for tests required to reenter the US unless you’re very lucky.
This is why even those who deal with more straightforward logistics have found the costs of PCR testing to be prohibitive for some travellers.
Take Deborah Gellis, also a travel adviser at Embark. A couple she’s working with was planning a similarly now-or-never vacation to southern Africa, connecting South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and the Seychelles in a span of roughly two weeks.
“They have their hearts set on staying at all these places since they are close to each other,” Gellis explains, adding that the pair is hoping to have a baby in the next year and, as she says: “Who knows when they will be back?”
But each time the couple crosses a national border they’ll need new PCR tests, ranging from $175 to $340 per person, a cost exceeding $2,000 (R29,500) over the course of the trip.
Gellis says they’re considering abandoning their entire plan—proof that for the lodges on their itinerary, there are many barriers to economic recovery.
Who pays what
Some companies are willing to absorb the cost of Covid-19 testing as a means of getting back to business faster.
In the Maldives, the Soneva Jani and Velaa Private Island resorts joined forces last year to open a Covid-19 testing centre at the airport in Maafaru in Noonu Atoll; open to both guests and locals, it was built in 30 days.
The investment included a Roche Lifecycle 96 machine, which sells for about $41,000 (R604,300) and can process up to 700 tests per day, as well as salaries for staff from the nearby ADK Hospital to operate the lab.
At the Soneva property—where overwater bungalows with their own waterslides and retractable roofs can cost upward of $4,000 (R59,000) per night – a member of the resort’s medical team visits guests’ villas to conduct nasal swabs and throat tests.
Those are sent by speedboat to the nearby lab for analysis. “At Soneva we offer complimentary testing as part of our commitment to providing a safe environment for all our guests and staff,” says Sonu Shivdasani, founder and chief executive officer of the resort company.
Cruise companies have considered a similar approach, given their propensity for being far away from labs.
The only one to commit thus far is Viking Ocean Cruises, which invested in building full-scale labs staffed by three technicians on each of its six seagoing ships, currently sailing in such places as Iceland and Croatia.
“We spend as much on PCR testing as we do on fuel – $15 (R220) to $20 (R295) per person per day,” says Torstein Hagen, the company’s chairman. “It’s serious money. In the many millions”.
On the plus side, he says the investment allowed him to get back in business faster and in a bigger way than all his competitors, some of whom are just restarting business, several months after Viking’s first pandemic-era departures.
Not all remote testing costs are out of hand. In the Peruvian Amazon, guests on the recently launched, all-suite, 20-passenger Aqua Expeditions ship Aqua Nera pay only $30 (R440) to $40 (R590) for rapid antigen tests conducted by medical staff who come on board on departure day in Iquitos and deliver results in minutes.
The same tests can be administered at the end of trips, too, for return to the US or other countries.
And for its guests in Machu Picchu, tour company Intrepid Travel works with labs in the large cities of Lima and Cusco, capping rates at $100 per test.
The variability of pricing is wide enough that the International Air Transport Association in July asked governments to act on price-gouging for Covid tests, citing a proprietary survey in which 70% of respondents called the cost of testing “a significant barrier to travel.”
According to the US Department of State, antigen and PCR testing in Finland costs from $234 (R3,450) to $352 (R5,200).
In Sweden, a test can cost you anywhere from $60 (R890) to $360 (R3,830). And in the UK, tests average around $100 (R1,473) but can run up to $575 (R8,475); this adds up when locals need to take three tests per round trip abroad – especially if they are travelling with family.
The irony is clear. Until testing costs and availability are brought in line, the very thing helping to ensure pandemic-era safety will also prove a significant impediment for the $9 trillion travel economy.