Let me start by saying that while I’ve put a lot of thought into this, I absolutely don’t have my mind made up, and I’m open to learning from others. It’s possible that I’ll be writing a follow up post tomorrow saying “I was completely wrong.”
I also think there’s value in having open dialogue around when it’s responsible to travel again. I wrote about that very topic a bit over a week ago, and you guys had lots of interesting opinions.
This pandemic is serious
I’ve been social distancing for well over two months now. I have the utmost respect for the doctors and scientists who have provided guidance throughout all of this. I’ve happily given up all my usual “freedoms” to try and do the right thing.
COVID-19 is serious. This isn’t the flu. This isn’t a joke. This isn’t a political conspiracy theory. The stock market isn’t more important than peoples’ lives.
And let me also say that between Ford and me we have three elderly parents who are potentially in a high risk group if they were to get COVID-19.
I say all of this because I want to make it clear that I’m taking this seriously and I’m trying to do the right thing.
A world without travel & tourism?
In a previous post I asked you guys when you think it’s responsible to travel again. We also conducted a reader survey asking when people would feel comfortable resuming air travel, and some of the most popular responses included the following:
- When there’s a vaccine/immunity (25%)
- When there’s extensive tracing/testing (24.8%)
- When there’s accurate/normalized data to determine risk (21%)
As you can see, many people are only comfortable resuming travel when there’s a vaccine. I totally appreciate the spirit of this, though realistically:
- It’s far from certain that there will ever be an effective vaccine
- If there is a vaccine, it’s unlikely to be widely available within the next year, and most likely it would take much longer than that
Based on that I have a follow-up question, and I’ll keep this specific to the travel industry — what’s the “real” cost of potentially no tourism for several years? Not in terms of the stock market or in terms of investments from billionaires, but rather in terms of the roughly 10% of the global population that’s directly or indirectly employed in the tourism sector.
Let’s say those jobs simply don’t exist anymore, which would be the reality if there were no tourism for several years. What will the impact be on those people being able to feed their families, having access to healthcare, having access to education, etc.?
I’m not just talking about people prospering, but when you consider that a lot of tourism is in developing parts of the world, for some people this is the difference between life and death.
I’m not knowledgable enough to actually calculate the “real” cost of an end to tourism, and how that compares to the impact of continuing on with tourism in an era of COVID-19. But it does raise a logical follow-up question for me…
Should responsible tourism make a comeback soon?
This brings me to the real point of this post. Should responsible tourism make a comeback sooner rather than later? Is that actually what maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number of people?
I think it’s important to recognize that not all travel is created equal. While this is a disease spread by people interacting, “travel” isn’t inherently risky in and of itself:
- Airplanes are obviously a challenge due to density, but so are subways, elevators, and many stores and restaurants
- When traveling you’re more likely to partake in more activities, which increases risk
- You’re also at an information deficit in terms of knowing local protocols, etc.
But that’s also why I think we shouldn’t paint with such a broad brush and view all travel equally.
For example, I’m seriously considering taking a trip to Iceland in June, as the country plans to open to tourists from all over as of June 15. Iceland’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and the plan put forward by the country is the most well thought out and reassuring initiative I’ve seen so far:
- Iceland has handled the COVID-19 pandemic really well, has very few active cases, and has tested a large percentage of the population
- Iceland wants visitors under this plan, so it’s not like you’re going to a country where you’re not wanted or welcomed (a vast majority of countries still have major travel bans, and obviously that’s a huge barrier for travel)
- Iceland will allow people to be tested upon arrival (alternatively you can provide a health certificate, or quarantine for 14 days)
- There will be contact tracing via a smartphone app, for an added layer of protection
- Most COVID-19 transmissions seem to happen indoors, while Iceland is largely about outdoor tourism
If we went, we’d take several additional precautions:
- We’d isolate ourselves for a couple of weeks before the trip (I would say that we would also get tested, but that’s still not actually that easy in the US without having symptoms)
- We’d try to be as responsible as possible while in Iceland; obviously there’s some risk with hotels, restaurants, and so forth, but our activities would be focused around the outdoors
- We’d self quarantine for 14 days when we get back to the US, and of course wouldn’t see our parents during that time
Some might be saying “well isn’t it more responsible to just take a road trip in the US if you’re going to travel?”
Frankly I feel more comfortable at the prospect of being in Iceland than doing most things in public in the US. Doctors and scientists have repeatedly pointed out that we need more testing.
Iceland gets that. Our leadership doesn’t. Just yesterday President Trump said:
“When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”
I’m still conflicted about this
Let me once again emphasize that I’m not 100% committed to traveling next month. Quite to the contrary, this is something I’m putting serious thought into before making a final decision.
I realize I have a large audience here, and the last thing I want to do is set an example that encourages people to travel recklessly.
I also have the option to stay home, one that Ford and I have both taken very seriously over the past two months, given we recognize that many people don’t have that ability.
My thought process in deciding whether to travel goes far beyond my own safety, but rather is also about the safety of those we come into contact with. I think there’s a serious social responsibility there to consider, and that’s my biggest hangup.
The problem with COVID-19 is that those being irresponsible aren’t just hurting themselves, but are potentially hurting others even more. Is there a way to balance those interests and support tourism while not putting others at risk in an irresponsible way?
I totally understand those who say they won’t travel until there’s a vaccine, and in many ways I at least agree with the sentiment. At the same time, that could take years, or might never happen, and if that’s the case, it will spell an end to global tourism.
That will lead to hundreds of millions of people not having a livelihood, and will take an immeasurable toll on our society as well.
If we agree on that, is it irresponsible to start consciously traveling in the coming weeks and months? That means:
- Traveling to places where you’re welcomed, where the pandemic is under control, and where there’s testing and tracing
- Being responsible before and after travel to be sure that you don’t spread the virus to others, especially those who are most vulnerable
Personally I think Iceland’s initial model is the best case scenario we’ll see until there’s a vaccine, because they’re trying just about everything that one country can do, from having the situation under control, to welcoming tourists, to testing, to tracing. Ideally we’d have a better coordinated global effort, but that seems highly unlikely at this point.
Sound off (politely) in the comments section and let me know what you think, please!