What we risk when we rush back to travel
by JoAnna Haugen
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact.
originally published on Rooted
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), 174 million jobs hang in the balance as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the tourism industry as we know it. The WTTC, along with Airports Council International, the World Economic Forum, and the International Chamber of Commerce released a statement in December about the importance of “starting” travel again without waiting for the rollout of vaccinations across the world.
And, according to my social media feeds, travelers are — by and large — ready to pack their bags and go … if they haven’t already.
Throughout this past year, a lot of emphasis within the tourism industry has been placed on the importance of prioritizing local communities in the “new” version of tourism. Yet, in this rush of getting the industry back on its feet, I’m concerned we’re already turning our backs on that commitment. The industry is on the fast track back to a system built on suppression and oppression of those who are most vulnerable.
In its statement, the WTTC states it “has identified four key measures which need to be implemented to restore international travel safely, including globally recognized testing regimes before departure, common health and hygiene protocols that are aligned with globally-established standards (…) , a risk management regime, and internationally consistent and recognized travel passes.”
When those who want to travel out of a desire that’s been shaped and reinforced as a need, the tourism industry stands on a razor-sharp edge between the way it used to conduct business and how it claims it wants to build back better.
This all sounds good in theory, but the ability for and interest by countries to implement these procedures and people to take advantage is a mark of privilege. It requires financial resources, access, and commitment, which further widens the gap between those who have the capability to travel and the potentially vulnerable people living in the destinations where they’re traveling.
Out My Window
The walls of my one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building are closing in on me. But I am terrified to venture outside, which requires getting into an elevator with unmasked people in a country where fatalism and apathy are common characteristics.
Quite frankly, I can’t blame my neighbors at times, despite my frustration. My country of residence was among the worst with its COVID-19 response. The Ministry of Health has not been forthcoming on coronavirus information over the last several months, and though cases across the country have dropped, that seems to be a result of the fact that testing is a mere fraction of what it used to be.
Funds allocated to address the COVID-19 crisis largely funded road construction and infrastructure projects instead. And during our second hard lockdown in January, the president went skiing at the country’s most popular ski resort along with hordes of other holidaymakers, where he took unmasked selfies with dozens of people.
The Vaccine, the Quarantine, the Privilege of Access, and Nefarious Action
Many people are touting the vaccine as the savior for our “new normal,” but this perspective is only reserved for those with privilege. Again, my country of residence will receive its first 117,000 doses later this month. An additional 2.2 to 3.7 million will arrive sometime within the next six months. Many sources point to the less-than-effective Chinese vaccine being our best hope for vaccination access in the coming year. This barely begins to scratch the surface for what is needed in order to achieve herd immunity where I live.
It’s too little too late for a country already suspicious of the government and vaccinations in general. In an “explainer” in our English-language newspaper printed in January, a biophysicist and researcher provided little hope for the place I call home: Forty percent of locals do not want to be inoculated, even if it’s free. By the summer, half of the population will be infected with COVID-19. At least 100,000 people living in this country will die of coronavirus.
A chart published in The Economist clearly demonstrates this yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to vaccine access and coverage. The country I currently live in won’t have full coverage until 2023. The country I am moving to this summer faces a similar situation.
According to Gloria Guevara, WTTC president and CEO: “WTTC welcomes the incredible developments and hugely encouraging medical advances on COVID-19 vaccines which has seen the beginning of coronavirus vaccinations. The vaccines currently being rolled out are truly game-changers, and hopefully just the first of many which could transform the world, mark the beginning of our return to a more normal way of life and see the return of safe and confident international travel.”
Nonetheless, the WTTC recognizes not everyone will have access to vaccinations. The organization has stated that non-vaccinated travelers shouldn’t be discriminated against and that hotel quarantine measures would “destroy” the industry. Instead it has called on internationally recognized testing measures so that people can safely make their way around the world.
Again, the view out my window is troubling: Our international airport used to require arriving passengers to download and use a tracking app throughout the quarantine period or until they received a negative COVID-19 test. According to members of a local expatriate board I belong to, this process is now spotty at best. Whether people have to use the tracking app depends upon the mood of the immigration officer.
But even the app doesn’t matter: For months, people have been able to buy counterfeit negative COVID-19 test results here, which are cheaper and quicker than actual tests. I know people who have photoshopped their own negative test results.
Out my window, life seems to be fairly normal around here. In fact, there’s a travel and tourism convention scheduled for the end of March, which, according to its website, is expected to draw nearly 20,000 people. This is all to say that, to a traveler coming into my home country, the picture looks merry: Our coronavirus numbers are low, entry is easy, and we appear to be welcoming visitors back to our “new normal.”
Yet, the outlook is grim: Our cases are skyrocketing, our government has mismanaged the rollout and funding, the black market is booming, vaccinations are a distant distraction, and tens of thousands of more people will die before this whole thing is over.
Travelers as “Saviors” … and a Dangerous Return to the Tourism Model of Yesterday
In order for tourism to pick up again, it requires travelers. On a Facebook exchange I recently witnessed, one commenter noted there are “no hurdles” to traveling and that her family had criss-crossed the United States by plane and been to the Caribbean several times over the last year. She noted she “takes precautions” when traveling: “I am not afraid to get on a plane because I know I have done my part and I will wear a mask if they ask me to.”
Why is she traveling? According to her: “People that rely on tourism need us in their lives. I would hate to think that a year from now if this is all over, the tourism industry is crushed.” Another commenter noted: “The travel industry is going to great lengths to reduce risk (there is no way to eliminate it though) and as long as folks are taking all precautions seriously and complying, then I think the economic benefit can outweigh the risk. Folks who are in a high risk group should definitely not travel.”
If high-risk people shouldn’t travel, shouldn’t we also take care not to endanger high-risk people living in the destinations we travel to? Further, the idea that tourism “need(s) us” is the epitome of privilege, and it’s a story the tourism industry is perpetuating. The WTTC seems to indicate that putting a few international safety protocols in place can save the tourism industry, but what it’s really saying is that travelers are the saviors.
Leading travelers to believe they are the answer to this industry’s survival perpetuates a dangerous and destructive history of white supremacy and colonialism. Further, it feeds right into the myth that tourism should be traveler-focused.
A small handful of people need to travel right now. When those who want to travel out of a desire that’s been shaped and reinforced as a need, the tourism industry stands on a razor-sharp edge between the way it used to conduct business and how it claims it wants to build back better.
Support From a Distance to Put People First
A lot can happen in a year, and it has been a very difficult year. I do not in any way want to downplay the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the tourism industry. However, I also don’t want to downplay the severity of the coronavirus, which has killed millions of people, left millions of others with chronic illnesses, and will claim millions more lives before this is all over.
If the tourism industry is serious about putting people first, then now is not the time to get on an airplane and take a trip. Nor is it the time to suggest travelers do so.
Now is the time to double down on supporting local businesses safely. Invest the time and energy you would give to local businesses while traveling to your own neighborhood establishments.
Now is the time to pressure local governments to financially support the tourism companies in our own communities. Resiliency is born at the community level. Continue to work on diversifying income streams and support microfinance programs, if possible. Turn the focus inward to develop and strengthen domestic tourism. This is not easy, especially in low-income economies, but think creatively about what this could look like for the local market. It may take on a different form.
Now is the time to think about and understand the intersectionality and integration within and among the systems that our world is built upon. A more equitable, more resilient future for the tourism industry is only possible if it is created with a regenerative mindset. Every aspect of our ecosystem is interconnected; pushing travel forward without thinking about and addressing other aspects – diversity and inclusion, gender-related issues, global health, etc. – does a disservice to the industry’s future and the world as a whole.
Now is the time to support tourism initiatives from afar. If you have the financial means, make monthly donations to organizations like Planeterra, which have diligently been funding communities hit hardest by the loss of tourism. Book virtual experiences through social enterprises like Local Purse to keep guides in business. (FYI tour companies: Local Purse is actively looking for partners!)
Finally, now is the time to take care of ourselves through mask-wearing, vaccinating, and all other precautions available. Science says that minimizing exposure to other humans is how we all stay safe. The sooner we are willing to make a greater collective sacrifice to do this, the sooner we can all pack our bags and start traveling – safer, healthier, and better – again.