Is it responsible to travel at all right now?
Do I have a responsibility to travel to help support the millions of people who depend on travel for their livelihood?
Does traveling too much and too soon actually hurt the travel industry in the long term by extending the pandemic’s timeline?
Does travel put my personal health or the health of my family at greater risk?
Does travel put the health of at-risk, remote, and less privileged communities at greater risk?
Should I travel to help model ways to do it more safely?
Should I travel to report on safety practices and lapses to inform the public what places to avoid?
By traveling at all, am I helping give license to the irresponsible travelers among us who simply won’t do it safely no matter what?
If I travel, will I alienate followers and destinations who don’t think any travel at all is responsible?
If I don’t travel, will I alienate followers and destinations who think I’m overreacting to the risks and dangers or simply abandoning my post?
This is just a tiny glimpse into the mind of a travel writer in the middle of a global pandemic.
If you love to travel too, your thought process has probably resembled a similar jumble of questions, fears, hopes, and concerns.
Travel was the vector that brought SARS-CoV-2 to our shores. And travel has and will continue to be responsible for further spread of this virus in a battle that Americans are simply not winning right now.
Should we be doing it? Should we be promoting it?
As someone whose business depends on travel, I’m desperately conflicted. Instead of each day bringing more clarity and a path forward, each day brings more second guessing and confusion about what is right. Travel needs to make a comeback for the economic well-being of millions of people in our country, myself included.
But what is the wisest and quickest path to follow to help the travel industry get there? Personally, I fear we are not on it.
As New Zealand contemplates travel bubbles and the European Union reopens travel to a lot of visitors (but not Americans), we are clearly facing longer term and much deeper travel challenges in the US. And we have never been more divided.
Some people are traveling as if coronavirus never existed.
Some are not leaving their house at all – forget even thinking or dreaming of travel for the rest of 2020 and maybe well into 2021.
And then there are a lot of us all in the middle trying to understand how it might be possible to travel cautiously and responsibly. But the uncertainties surrounding travel right now make navigating this middle ground feel nearly impossible.
First, there is now a network of confusing quarantine rules for intrastate travel to navigate. These rules are changing daily, making a trip you book today not particularly doable tomorrow. A few states like Alaska and Hawaii currently require or will require proof of a negative COVID-19 test to enter without quarantine. Testing backlogs and lack of test availability make meeting this requirement out of the question for many travelers.
Next, there are stark differences in policies and practices within the travel world that make planning confusing and hard. The airlines are a great example. Unless you track aviation news closely, you might not know that American Airlines recently made clear it will pack its planes up to 100% full. Meanwhile, Delta and Southwest Airlines have committed to keeping their planes at just 2/3 of capacity for the next several months to leave middle seats open for some social distancing. These differences in policies have led to a lot of misunderstanding, dashed expectations, and distrust.
Additionally, there is the real concern about rapidly evolving risks and changed travel circumstances. Medium term travel planning seems entirely unrealistic. A place that seems open and relatively safe today may not be next week. Some destinations have opened, only to close again when an outbreak spiked in the area. Quite a few counties in my home state of California are in this boat, including most recently San Diego and Napa County which were both forced to shutter indoor dining.
Even if places don’t close officially to tourism, many travelers are finding that their comfort level with a destination wanes quickly when outbreaks become evident. I have seen very real evidence of this even in my blog’s traffic patterns. A lot of people were quickly interested in traveling to places like Las Vegas and Sedona, Arizona when those regions opened in late May and early June. But a few weeks and a whole lot of positive COVID cases in those areas later, it’s complete crickets here on my blog at least.
Last, but certainly not least, many travelers are finding that they are uncertain about travel mainly because of their fellow travelers. More than anything else, other people are the wild card in this pandemic. State and local public health officials or businesses can set rules, but those rules aren’t worth the paper they are written on if people don’t actually follow them.
The mask culture wars are a great example. Even though state laws are increasingly trending towards mask mandates, each community has a very different attitude about their use in a wide variety of situations. Travelers often won’t have a way to know what the local practices are until they arrive, causing consternation and the potential for conflict. Travel blogger Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time reported on his experience with one business in Utah that even told him that they didn’t allow masks.
Even my own sister had this very problem on a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. While she planned a very socially distant beach trip, what she didn’t count on was one simple logistical challenge – the rental condo’s elevator. Despite signs on the elevator that guests should only get on one group at a time, with masks required, fellow guests simply refused to comply. Multiple groups pushed on to full elevators without masks, even when she asked them politely to wait for the next one. What should have been a safe and relaxing vacation turned into one she said she would not have taken if she had known the realities at the destination. I’m hearing more and more stories like hers even from travelers looking to take cautious trips focused on social distancing – other people are making things less safe.
So, what’s any travel-loving American to do?
There simply are no easy answers. None of us know what is right. Mostly, I’m going to stay home. Because my travels are public and influence others, I feel a special responsibility to try to get it right. I also think that the quickest path to travel’s recovery is probably to get the virus much more under control and contained as Europe and many Asian countries have done.
That said, my family has very cautiously decided to do some travel within our home region of Northern California only this summer. We’ll be headed to a currently capacity-controlled Yosemite National Park in a few weeks, where we’ll spend all of our time outdoors on non-crowded hiking trails. And yes, I’ve confirmed that the room we will be staying in is on the second floor of our hotel so we can avoid the elevator.
We’ll also be headed to Lake Tahoe next month, where we have rented a cabin with my in-laws who are in our “bubble.” We’ll hit the beach as long as we can maintain social distance, go hiking and biking in the great outdoors, and order takeout from some restaurants. All of this seems as safe as possible for ourselves as well as for the local community we would like to support with our tourism dollars.
As sad as it makes me, I won’t be hopping on an airplane for the foreseeable future. I won’t be headed to a theme park. I won’t be doing much of anything indoors with other people. I’ll be wearing a mask when anywhere near anyone else. I’ll be avoiding destinations that I have heard or suspect have larger compliance problems with mask wearing. I’ll not travel to destinations that ask me or travelers from my area to stay away to keep their communities safe. I also won’t take paid or hosted travel campaigns right now, as those necessarily require me to “promote” travel.
It’s a lot to navigate. But if more of us talk about what’s responsible and possible and if we collectively model and make smarter choices, I’m hopeful a real and full travel comeback is in our future. Let’s just beat COVID first.