America protecting its own: International COVID-19 lockdown provided lessons for travelers

International travelers often want to get lost while in exotic locales like Morocco. But getting off the beaten path is not the same as going it alone, especially when the U.S. State Department has your back.

While my wife and I always make sure we begin our international excursions to exotic locales with up-to-date passports, an adventure early this year made clear the need to be prepared to get out of the foreign country and back to U.S. soil quickly. And that is where other government programs for travelers proved their worth.

The international explosion of COVID-19 infections and worldwide closing of borders in mid-March 2020 provided an experienced traveler couple, the author and his wife, first-hand experience on how to stay calm and carry on when a splendid tour suddenly turns into a worrisome wait for governmental evacuation.

You may have read in the news in March and April about the many Americans trapped for weeks in Peru as the country locked down, unable to move around the country and unable to gain passage to leave the country. To a slightly lesser degree, tourists in North Africa faced the same obstacles, as we found out four days into our 10-day March tour of Morocco.

The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, ordered his country’s borders shut on March 15 to prevent COVID-19 from entering the relatively uninfected kingdom. Seemingly overnight, the Moroccan government shut down all “non-essential” intercity travel, including foreign tours, and simultaneously ceased all commercial flights into and out of the country while also “advising” all non-worker foreigners to leave as soon as possible.

That seeming contradiction, that Catch-22 — ordering tourists to cease touring and leave but also canceling commercial flights — proved the importance of three international vacation imperatives: start with a reputable, reliable tour company; make sure you take advantage of U.S. government international travel programs; and, whatever the situation, stay calm and avoid the “ugly American” syndrome.

Be a ‘smart’ and confident traveler.

Taking the three tour imperatives from the most important to the most personal, American travelers should sign up for the Trusted Travel/Global Entry program through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And when traveling internationally, they should always — always — use the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

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