As communities around the globe begin to open up after months of lockdown, and it appears we can travel to select destinations, many of us travelers are wondering whether we indeed should travel. After sheltering in place to protect our health and be responsible citizens, how far do we go in opening up ourselves?
COVID-19 has certainly not been beaten. We have made some progress with treatments but still have no vaccine. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out recently in the New York Times, the virus remains a mystery to us in many ways. But we have also learned that asking all nonessential workers to shelter in place brings enormous personal and economic costs. The unemployment rate in the United States has ballooned, with certain communities and sectors of the economy hit particularly hard. The U.S. leisure and hospitality industries have lost over 50 percent of their jobs in the past two months, and in countries that are more dependent on travel and hospitality, the impact has been even worse.
At AFAR, we are huge believers in travel as a force for good in the world. Travel is responsible for approximately 10 percent of global GDP and spreads wealth across the globe. And as we all know, the benefits of travel go far beyond economics. Done right, travel fosters creativity, cross-cultural understanding, and empathy in both the traveler and the host. Of course, we at AFAR want everyone to be able to experience all those benefits as soon as we can.
The question of whether we should travel has become very personal. I’m a big believer in trying to act out of caution rather than fear. Caution, to me, implies responding to rational concerns. Fear implies responding to emotions. If you or someone close to you is vulnerable to COVID-19, you are going to be especially cautious. If you’ve been staying home out of a sense of civic responsibility, then you may feel ready to travel as soon as restrictions are loosened in your community.
I think travelers’ first step from sheltering in place is to travel in their communities and regions. And as we take even those first, small steps, we will need to be sensitive. We will encounter people who we think are being overly cavalier and others who are more cautious than we are. After sheltering with mostly like-minded people, this will take some getting used to. We will likely find ourselves in some uncomfortable situations. This will all be part of the process, for us as individuals and as a community. We are starting to incrementally spread out and seeing what happens. As I mentioned above, there are still so many unknowns: Will infection rates jump? Why do some communities have lower rates than others? We should learn from all this.
Once you are comfortable within your own community, you can decide what is most critical for you as you travel farther from home. At this time of heightened sensitivity, we believe a travel advisor can be especially helpful. Tell your travel advisor what you are comfortable with and uncomfortable with. They can research the situations in the places you are considering and speak to the hotels in person to help reduce unpleasant surprises.
While we were sheltering in place, the travel and hospitality industries responded quickly to reset their operations to deal with our new world. We should all expect more touchless interactions, more plexiglass and masks, more and better cleaning, and so on. We also need to ask our hosts what their expectations are of us as their guests. Of course, not everything can be worked out in advance, and we must be respectful of each other as we face new challenges. But when a good host welcomes a good guest, our travel experiences can be as rich and fulfilling as ever.
We are each going to have to go at our own pace, and of course we need to pay careful attention to what local officials are saying about the rules for visiting a destination. But if destinations are open to respectful visitors, then we can be open to visiting.