Wednesday, 2 February 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 5

Lugano (Switzerland) - Milan (Italy) - Bastia, Corsica (France) - Altiani, Corsica (France) - Corte, Corsica (France)

If you are travelling around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, what places will you choose to visit? What health measures and related red tape will travel require? What will travel across international borders be like?

We got our first look at how the producers of The Amazing Race addressed these questions in this week’s episode, filmed in September 2021 after the planned route of the race around the world had been revised to make it possible to resume the race, on a much-modified route, despite the continued pandemic and continued restrictions on international (and in some cases domestic) travel.

The cast and crew of The Amazing Race 33 were bussed to Malpensa Airport (MXP) in Milan, the nearest major airport to where the previous leg of the race ended in Italian-speaking southern Switzerland, to board a chartered jet to “an unknown destination”. That was a twist that wouldn’t be possible with scheduled airline flights whose destinations are made known at check-in and announced before boarding.

In the previous seasons, the racers have usually had a chance to search for maps and guidebooks to their next destination in airport shops or by bartering with other travellers while waiting for flights. Perhaps more importantly, the racers, like real world travellers, can normally learn a lot by chatting up fellow travellers at the departure gate. There are always some people waiting for a flight who are returning to the place that you are going. If you ask politely, and express interest in their insights, they are often happy to help translate your personal “cheat sheet” of key phrases (e.g., “I don’t eat meat”) and offer, first-hand, often recent, advice about things like what to expect on arrival and how best to get from the airport to your first destination.

The racers’ “unknown destination” was revealed when they landed at Bastia airport (BIA) on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. It’s noteworthy that the TV producers chose Corsica as their first choice of a safe, feasible destination after Switzerland. It’s even more noteworthy that the Tourism Agency of Corsica (ATC) thought there was enough of a chance of attracting visitors from the USA to pay to co-sponsor a TV show about travel to Corsica during the pandemic.

The status of “neutral” Switzerland as a financial and political safe haven shouldn’t cause it to be perceived — as it was represented on The Amazing Race 33 — as a “safe haven” from COVID-19 or any other epidemic. But that fallacious thinking is indicative of the confusion of international borders with barriers to the spread of infectious disease.

Corsica is an island, and the moat of the Mediterranean Sea might seem to provide more protection against infection than a land border — a mere line on a map. Islands from Hoffman and Swinburne Islands in New York Harbor and Long Island Hospital in Boston Harbor to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay have historically been used as medical quarantine sites. But if you can visit an island, then by definition it won’t be the case that, as in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “nobody ever goes in… and nobody ever comes out”. An island open to visitors, like a cruise ship even if an island is typically much less crowded than a ship, can as easily be a closed incubator for infection as a partially (but not entirely) closed refuge for its residents.

Whatever the logic or illogic of regarding islands as relatively “safe” from COVID-19, islands have been relatively popular destinations for those who are still travelling as tourists during the pandemic. That’s been especially true for islands like Corsica that are part of larger, primarily-mainland countries.

Some independent island countries such as New Zealand have chosen to impose extreme restrictions on entry during the pandemic, hoping to protecting their residents at the expense of almost all international tourism. But when an island is part of a mostly-mainland country, there is generally free movement for citizens between the island and the rest of the country. Subjecting travel between the island and the mainland to special restrictions would be taken as treating islanders as second-class citizens, undermine claims that the island is “an integral part” of the country, and tend to revive what are often barely-suppressed or dormant island separatist or nationalist sentiments and movements.

No country includes such far-flung exclaves and islands as France. For perhaps no other country are the consequences of privileging national borders over geographic proximity so perverse, in a time of pandemic or otherwise.

“Metropolitan” (European) France includes mainland France and various more-or-less nearby Atlantic and Mediterranean islands, of which the largest is Corsica. But France also includes, among other discontiguous territories, the islands and archipelagos of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Tahiti and New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and — less than 20 km (12 miles) from Newfoundland — St. Pierre and Miquelon. That’s not to mention French Guiana, the site of the equatorial rocket launching base at Kourou that’s the counterpart for France and the European Union of Cape Canaveral for the USA, on the mainland of South America.

Corsica and all of these overseas territories are as much a part of France as Hawaii is a part of the USA.

Some special COVID-19 restrictions have been imposed on travel between mainland and metropolitan France and the overseas territories, just as some restrictions have been imposed on travel between Hawaii and the US mainland. But these trips are still treated as domestic journeys. Just as it’s easier to travel between Hawaii and the US mainland than between Hawaii and Japan or other Pacific islands, it’s easier to travel “within France” than between France and foreign countries.

During the pandemic, travel and tourism are down overall. But relative to other competing destinations, tourist travel from metropolitan France to some of the overseas territories has benefited from their French status. Tourists from metropolitan France who want a tropical holiday but don’t want the new hassles of visiting their usual foreign beach vacation destinations, or aren’t allowed to go to those countries at all, are again filling flights to Tahiti and Réunion, despite the distance and expense. (The flight between Paris and Papeete is the longest domestic flight in the world, and the only one that normally requires a refueling stop.) The government tourism promotion board, Tahiti Tourisme, is refocusing its marketing on domestic visitors, i.e. visitors from metropolitan France, rather than from closer places in Australia, Asia, or the Americas.

The consequences for some other fragments of French territory that don’t have the advantage of tropical beaches have been more perverse and problematic. Although the runway on St. Pierre was extended to enable flights to Paris, that formerly-weekly flight has been suspended during the pandemic, leaving the only flight or ferry access to St. Pierre and Miquelon via Canada. But travel between metropolitan France and St. Pierre is subject to (lesser) restrictions as domestic travel, while travel on the ferries to and from Canada is subject to more stringent restrictions and burdensome procedures applicable to international travel. Last month the representative of St. Pierre and Michelon, the least populous constituency in the French National Assembly, was pelted with globs of seaweed by a mob on the front steps of his house protesting his support for the Macron government’s COVID-19 vaccine rules which restrict travel back and forth to Newfoundland.

How does all this play out with respect to Corsica?

The producers of The Amazing Race aren’t the only people to have thought of Corsica, a relatively spacious and lightly-populated island almost half of the land area of which is a national park, as a relatively safe destination for a pandemic vacation. In a rare exception to global patterns, passenger traffic at Corsica’s busiest airport in Ajiacco (AJA) was up almost 50% from what it was two years earlier in December 2019, just before the pandemic.

Some metropolitan French visitors undoubtedly changed their plans to visit Corsica instead of holiday destinations in other Mediterranean countries or further abroad. And some visitors from elsewhere in Europe chose to go to Corsica because they could get there without having to fly.

Corsica is separated from Sardinia, a somewhat-larger island that is part of Italy, by a strait less than 15 km (10 miles) across, with several smaller islands in between. Corsica is twice as far from mainland France as from mainland Italy. But because of restrictions on international travel during the pandemic, even within the European Union, the percentage of “foreign” visitors to Corsica (the largest share of which are from Italy, including mainland Italy and Sardinia) was down in 2021. The increase in visitors from mainland France made up the difference, so that total visitorship from outside Corsica in high season equalled or matched that in 2019 before the pandemic.

This means that, aside from concerns about coronavirus, you shouldn’t expect Corsica to be a bargain-basement destination or one to visit in high season. It’s one of the cheaper parts of provincial France, but it’s still France. Lodging is at a premium in July and August, which are months to avoid any French holiday destination. The Amazing Race 33 made a good choice to go to Corsica in September. The best combination of weather, (lack of) crowding, and prices and availability of lodging on Corsica is in shoulder season in the spring and fall.

Assuming you’ve picked out Corsica as a pandemic travel destination, what logistical and bureaucratic hoops do you have to jump through to get there from the USA during the current phase of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The USA is currently on the French government’s Red List of countries “posing a higher risk” of COVID-19. Before you can board any flight from the USA to France, you’ll need to show the airline (which has been deputized to enforce these rules) your “certificate of vaccination” (WHO Yellow Book or white CDC card), a sworn declaration that you haven’t knowingly been exposed to anyone infected with COVID-19 within 14 days, and documentation of a negative COVID-19 test taken less than 48 hours before departure. Scheduling that test and getting the result in time might be problematic.

There are no intercontinental flights to Corsica, no year-round flights to Corsica from anywhere outside France, and no year-round flights (at present) from the USA to anywhere in metropolitan France except Paris. In Paris, almost all flights from the USA go to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), while almost all flights from Paris to Corsica, like most flights to other provincial French airports, go from Orly Airport (ORY).

So to get to Corsica from the USA, you typically have to fly to fly to Paris, go through customs and immigration at CDG, then transfer (by RER commuter train) to Orly to get a flight to Corsica. Alternatively, you can take a train from Paris to one of the ferry ports in the south of France (Marseille, Toulon, or Nice).

There are overnight trains (“Intercités de Nuit”) from Paris to Toulon and Nice, but they leave from the https://www.seat61.com/stations/paris-austerlitz.htm”> Gare d’Austerlitz, not from either of the Paris airport train stations. The easiest if not fastest connections probably involve a TGV (high-speed train) from the CDG Airport train station direct to Marseille, and then an overnight ferry from Marseille to Corsica. (This isn’t unusual: Even if you are neither arriving nor departing by air, you can often avoid transfers between train stations in central Paris by changing trains or taking a through train by way of the CDG Airport station.) TGV tickets can be surprisingly cheap if you book a couple of months in advance. Fares on regular TGV trains are as low as EUR19 (USD22) one-way between Paris/CDG and Marseilles, or EUR10 (USD12) on equally fast but fewer-frills OUIGO trains on the same route.

Don’t try to cut the connection in Paris too close, because you’ll need take your paper vaccination record to an authorized French pharmacy to get a vaccination pass with a QR code scanned into a special app on your smartphone before you can board any French domestic flight, high-speed or long-distance train, ferry, or long-distance bus. This “pass vaccinal” is also required to enter any French restaurant, museum, or theater.

Two pharmacies at CDG airport, one in Terminal 2E and one in Terminal 2F, are currently accredited to perform this service, for a fee capped by the government at EUR 36 (USD42). The pass vaccinal is a brand-new scheme effective 24 January 2022, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has gone through this how the process went, and how long the wait was, at either of these locations. It’s unclear whether there is any alternative if you don’t have a smartphone or your phone is out of juice or doesn’t have service when you arrive in France. I’d welcome readers’ recent experiences on this as well.

The ferries and flights between Corsica and mainland France have their own requirements including a “pass vaccinal” (installed on your smartphone by a certified French pharmacy, as above) and a sworn statement that you haven’t “been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19” within 14 days.

You have to go through a different set of procedures, including another test, to satisfy US requirements to board a flight back to the USA. And you need a plan for where and how (and at what expense) you will quarantine yourself if you are exposed at any point along the way.

Whether the trip is worth these hassles, or whether they should be a warning sign that maybe you shouldn’t be travelling between continents just yet, will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 2 February 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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