The World Nomads Podcast: COVID-19 Travel News, 20 May

In this episode, the travel journalist stranded by border closures in a bungalow in rural Thailand, and the band of ex-pats rescuing hungry dogs affected by COVID-19.

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woman patting dog Photo © Olivia, stranded in Thailand is volunteering with Robyn Responds, in a mission to save Thai street dogs

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The World Nomads Podcast: COVID-19 Travel News

As governments around the globe impose lockdowns and people self-isolate, coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit the travel industry hard. The World Nomads Travel Podcast has suspended its regular destination episodes and, in their place, offering a round-up of the major coronavirus-related travel headlines, including the future of travel.

What’s in the episode

00:30 Lockdown measures being eased in Europe

01:28 What are your favorite road trips?

02:03 Stranded in Thailand

05:15 Staying busy while self-isolating

06:30 Helping the street dogs 

09:30 Estonia once you can travel again

11:25 Lovers of human connection

14:40 Supporting local

Quotes from the episode

"I hope this idea of the off the beaten path and supporting one another and supporting local is something that we will always remember, the year 2020 as the year that changed the way we look at travel and we look at connections with other human beings" - Olivia

Who is in the episode.

Fueled by passion, integrity, and adventure, Olivia Taylor Balsinger has utilized her global perspective to manifest a successful career as a travel and broadcast journalist.

This ability to connect with humans of all demographics has been the backbone of her personal and professional life. In fact, after spending five years hustling in New York City, she met the love of her life serendipitously over a beer on the most crowded street in Bangkok and moved to Copenhagen, Denmark to start a life with him. While based in Europe, Olivia spends the majority of her time wandering the world (she’s visited 103 countries thus far!).

A journalism, psychology, economics graduate from the University of Connecticut’s Honors College with a Harvard University International Relations post certificate, Olivia was always thinking bigger picture.

Following her studies, Olivia moved to the Big Apple where she worked in a travel firm for a year before realizing the 9-6 schedule and commute on the Q train were not for her. So she did what every parent and society tells you not to do: she left.

She left and with no ulterior motives, met an editor of Yahoo Travel, who wanted the world to hear that story of the time she skipped her flight home after an adventure escapade through the Balkans and journeyed through Turkey, as the refugee crisis was beginning. An editor told Olivia that if she was alright leaving stability and a bi-weekly paycheck, she could make a career out of traversing the world and telling peoples stories.

If you can believe it, she was.

Olivia has not exactly had a “normal” 20’s. She has lived with a shaman in the middle of the Amazon (and yes, has tried aiwaska), backpacked The Nakasendo Way from Kyoto to Tokyo (leaving no sashimi uneaten), flown mere meters from Mr. George’s nose helicoptering over Mount Rushmore, circumnavigated Newfoundland on an expedition ship, accidentally got caught between a pack of buffalo and lions in pitch-blackness on a South African safari, and was very perplexed seeing people grilling at 2 am in the midst of a northern Norway infinite summer.

Since then, Olivia has been published in over fifty international print and online outlets for travel and lifestyle was honored as InterContinental Groups’ Latin America “Journalist of the Year” (2017) and has been a panelist and host for major travel conferences like New York TravFest and New York City’s SoHo House’s “Millennial Mindset: Travel.” She has been quoted as a travel expert in Forbes, Oprah Magazine, and Elite Daily. Her love of being on-camera eventually transpired into travel broadcast segments for various travel trade outlets.

She has also co-taught a travel storytelling class at New York University and has been featured on a Bravo television show. She is the co-host and co-producer of  JOURNEYS BEYOND, a travel docuseries co-starring the acclaimed host and former co-producer of Anacostia, Benjamin Bryant.

More recently, Olivia was given the opportunity to serve as Executive Producer on two-holiday movies with global distribution. One—Destination: Christmas—was shot in the Republic of Malta and Olivia again realized her passion and expertise is a mélange of storytelling and travel.

She is the co-executive producer and publicist of a public television series, Fly Brother, currently being broadcast across the United States

couple kissing in the water
Olivia and Jonathan were separated in Thailand when the borders closed. Photo credit: Supplied

Resources & links


Kim: In this episode, the travel journalist stranded by border closures in a bungalow in rural Thailand, and the band of ex-pats rescuing hungry dogs affected by COVID-19.

Kim: Hi it’s Kim and Phil and Olivia’s story shortly but Phil, countries across Europe are easing lockdown measures.

Phil: Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, and Poland are among those reopening food and drink outlets, shops, and some attractions but with social distancing rules in place.

Belgium is aiming to reopen to international tourists by 15 June (at the time of recording), while in Greece borders are likely to reopen to international travelers on July 1st, at the earliest.

The US-Canada border will likely remain closed through June for non-essential travel.

And this has been hinted at before but as vacation season ramps up in the US travel industry experts have said Americans will forget about flying in favor of road trips. The National Park Service is planning to increase recreational access and services on a "park-by-park basis"

If you want to share your favorite road trip with us email [email protected]

Kim: Olivia is a freelance travel writer with a passion for adventure and eco-travel, which is just as well because when borders started to shut due to COVID she found herself happily stranded in a bungalow in rural Thailand.

Olivia: Yes. So I was actually traveling with my boyfriend/unofficial photographer, Jonathan. We put our apartment up for rent for the majority of spring. He took a hiatus from work to finish his Master's program. I'm a travel writer and editor for my work. So we were basically had no plans and were just kind of bopping around and seeing where felt right. So we were actually in India, we were in Delhi when the Danish borders were shutting in mere hours. Of course, Jonathan could get back, but his girlfriend and American could not. That came right before the American borders shut and I could get back, but Jonathan could not. So with literally five hours in India to choose, we found a cheap flight from Delhi to Bangkok, and we said, "You know what? We'll be together. COVID can't destroy beautiful weather and delicious Pad Thai. We'll take it easy here and just see what comes next." So, that's what originally brought me back to Thailand.

Kim: So you are with Jonathan, it's not some long-distance relationship like we've heard in other episodes?

Olivia: Unfortunately, he is an officer on a Danish oil tanker. So as soon as the flights to Europe started dwindling down in Thailand, he knew that he had to get home or he risked losing his job. So about a month ago, he left me, kind of to find myself. But obviously we chat every day. This is the first time in my life where I've really had to make every decision for myself. And really every decision was an important one. So he will be there at the end of this. I'm really hoping that at some point in the near or distant future, either Denmark opens again, the US opens again, Thailand opens again. But until now, we are very much the long distance relationship type with him in the middle of the ocean.

Kim: What are you doing? You're there? Jonathan's gone back to Denmark. He's gone back to work. You're a travel writer. There's not a lot of commissioning going on. So what have you been doing?

Olivia: Well, I'm the kind of person that always needs to keep myself busy just in order to stay sane. And also because I really do love what I do. So, as a travel writer and editor, I've pivoted a lot of my messages to stay home, but in the future blank, blank would be the optimal post-pandemic vacation. So I helped to launch LA Style Magazine's travel sector, which has been a lot of learning, SEO on the backend and kind of looking for new talent, new writers. At the same time, I also am the executive producer of a PBS show, so a public television show that's streaming across all of the United States. It's funny.

I don't even have a TV here in my bungalow, but I'm getting all of these pictures of friends who are saying, "Hey, Liv, is that your show that I see when I turn on the television?" So, yes it is. And it's been a lot of fun to kind of show people that the idea of friendship and connection when traveling, which is what the message of Fly Brother, the show, is about, still remains true, even during a global worldwide pandemic. So in fact, it's been more meaningful than ever because it just shows us the importance of the people that we meet when we travel, not just the place. As a little bit of a pivot from my normal every day, because those two things are a little bit in line with my career and my trajectory, I've met a really wonderful group of ex-pats from all over the world here.

We joke that we're a bit of the United Nations of Thailand. And we, of course, in a socially distant manner, have this prerogative to really help the street dogs and the elephants here in Krabi, because the street dogs really rely on the scraps of the hotels and the restaurants and tourists just leaving half a McDonald's hamburger in the garbage near the beach. But with legitimately no tourists, these dogs are starving and near death. So what we do is we get on our motorbikes early in the mornings. We collect food, we have a donation site available, or we use our own funds. And then we have about 85 street dogs in different packs that we ride our bikes too, which is, A, a new phenomenon for me because I've never been exactly the most graceful human being so doing that on a motorbike is definitely stepping out of my comfort zone.

I never had thought really how much a pandemic would affect ... with this chain of events, how it would affect the animals and in turn affects the humans. Because now a lot of Thai people culturally are more frightened of these street dogs. But if the dogs aren't having to come up and beg and really show their strength in order to just survive, if they can be fed and we feed them food, we feed them vitamins. We've taken some to the vets actually, just to make sure they're all right. Their manes, their fur, then everyone kind of lives in harmony. So the Thai people generally have been very, very open and welcoming to the group of ex-pats riding around and helping the dogs.

Kim: How wonderful. And we're going to be chatting to a couple of organizations actually that will be touching on animals and the effect the pandemic has had on them. Very timely that you bring that up, but let's break all that down a bit, Olivia. I said that you were a travel writer, and not a lot of people are commissioning at the moment. Then you go on to tell me that you've helped launch LA Style Magazine's travel sector. I'm still doing the World Nomads Travel Podcast, even though we've got this focus on COVID-19, how it's affected travelers, what the industry is looking like in the future. So there is an appetite for travel content, isn't there?

Olivia: Yes, I believe there is an appetite for travel content, as long as writers and editors are mindful and aware. I mean, I think it would be blissfully unaware to be advertising, "Hey, come to Florida," or, "Hey, this new hotel opening is absolutely awesome," without recognizing the fact that there is a worldwide pandemic affecting literally every person on this planet, but some organizations such as Tourism Estonia, so Visit Estonia had the best marketing campaign. They said, visit Estonia ... later on. So, with that, I wrote an article for LA Style all about things that you can do in Estonia and in Tallinn once you can travel again. So I think it is important to remember what we love about travel, to keep supporting the travel and tourism industry. I mean, especially these small businesses who depend on the summer season and the spring seasons to continue surviving much less thriving.

So I've always been a big supporter of the small business movement. And my goal in publishing is to give as much exposure as I can so that when everything calms down, and it will, it seems so much ... travel doesn't seem like a distant, distant dream anymore as it did a month or two ago. As we break the horizon a little bit, I want people to remember to support local businesses and to spend more time outside. So for example, the article I wrote about Estonia, it's all about bog walking, how Estonians literally use the bogs, which most people find kind of gross. And what I found kind of gross until I actually experienced it. But using these swamplands to social distance, to get into nature, and doing things like that is going to be the new trend in tourism. It's not going to be going and standing behind 4,000 people in amusement parks or going to a giant Mall of America. So promoting socially responsible and small businesses is what I believe writers, publishers, PR gurus, everyone should be doing right now.

Kim: Let's get to the TV show then. So you're sitting around in your bungalow and suddenly you become the co-executive producer of this show you've told us about, Fly Brother.

Olivia: The host of Fly Brother is Ernest White II, he and I actually met on a press trip years ago in Namibia, and instantly connected. Really both lovers of human connection and love and the world. So from the beginning, as most relationships develop, we had no idea that we would mutually benefit each other in careers, but at the time I was actually working as a top matchmaker, yes, matchmaker. So literally setting people up around the country on blind dates. And I thought he would be perfect. So I put his foot in the door for an opportunity. When he was really starting out, he had his little film crew, but not anything bigger. I believed in him. I thought his message was amazing. And I thought more people need to see this, but of course, a lot of the travel market is saturated.

So I just kind of kept my fingers crossed and hoped everything would pan out for him. A few years later, I got a call from him that he was going national. So he's made it to the kind of the step that all American, at least travel hosts, would love to be on literally every TV across America. And he said, "We worked so well together. You know you care about human connection. You're kind of a type-A go-getter. Why don't you come on board as a producer?" So season one has already been completely shot and filmed. There will be eight episodes, the first ... which have been broadcast in about five cities already. So this was at the start of May. It was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where we see the host, Ernest, sambaing and eating and connecting throughout the city.

My real job right now is kind of getting season two ready. So working with destinations, working with interesting people who may be someone we can interview or someone we can kind of even explore a new city with, as we go forward with the show. So we're lucky that season one has already been completely filmed before this happened and in a strange way ... and I mean, a New York Times article just came out yesterday about Ernest and launching a TV travel program in a pandemic. But in a very strange way, when all people can do is think about where they want to go next, as they're sitting on their couch and perusing channels, it's the perfect opportunity to showcase places that really need the tourism, that is maybe a little bit more off the beaten path and hopefully, it provides some positivity to anyone who's watching.

Kim: And you're right, I've spoken to so many people for this COVID-19 podcast series. And a lot of the travel writers or bloggers are going back to a lot of their content, and they've looked at what they thought was off the beaten track, but then there's even off the beaten track. So they're visiting what they did there, the photos that they had and writing articles about the things that we would never have known about. I don't need to know about Florida. I don't need to know about Paris and Berlin-

Olivia: Exactly.

Kim: London.

Olivia: Eiffel Tower saturated. Yes. I hope. And like I said before, supporting local businesses, also supporting local DMOs. And, I remember fondly that when I went to Namibia actually on this trip with Ernest, the Tourism Board had invited four journalists for the year. And that really sunk in for me because it showed that they were not only selective, and I felt honored to go and represent my publications and do this absolutely stunning country with all of these ... with the most intricate geography you can imagine, do it justice. But also I was thinking, visit Florida, visit California, you blink and another journalist has written about it. So, it really means that much more, especially if you're an emerging journalist and emerging travel blogger, not only to support a local DMO or somewhere that's a little bit lesser-known.

Also, you're going to see much more unique in what you offer if you're not just talking about Disney World, if you did something off the beaten path that other people don't know about and say, "Wow, I need to read and understand more about this." So I completely agree with you, Kim. And I hope the mentality sticks, I hope this idea of the off the beaten path and supporting one another and supporting local is something that we will always remember, the year 2020 as the year that changed the way we look at travel and we look at connections with other human beings.

Kim: So beautifully said Olivia links to how you keep her work with the stray dogs and more in show notes. Olivia has also put us in with filmmaker Ernest White the second and we will share that chat when it happens.

Phil: If you have subscribed to the World Nomads podcast, which you can do from wherever you get your favorite pods, then next episode you will hear how panic buying of the company’s toilet paper benefited a number of charities it supports.

Bye

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