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Traveling During a Pandemic Is a Heart-Wrenching Dilemma

by Eben Diskin Aug 3, 2020

“Pandemic” and “leisure travel” are almost mutually exclusive terms. We’ve been hunkered down for five months now, many of us daydreaming about vacations that fell by the wayside. Our logical brain knows we’re in a global health crisis, and traveling comes with countless risks, but the restless part of our brain — the part that once impulsively booked a flight to Bali at 3:00 AM — tells us traveling is worth the risk. This tug-of-war creates more questions than answers. More than anything we want to feel normal again, to remember what it was like before the world changed. If done responsibly, a vacation with our friends or family can give us that jolt of normalcy we’ve been craving.

Deciding to travel during a pandemic is no easy choice, and there are several new considerations in play. If you choose your destination carefully, and abide by its health requirements, traveling can not only be a much-needed reprieve from lockdown life but also a great way to support the tourism industry and its workers.

Destinations need tourism

Right now, there’s a tendency to view traveling as a selfish endeavor. It’s something you can do, but maybe not something you should do. The reality is, your vacation isn’t just a personal “treat yo’ self” experience. Travel doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The money you spend on flights, accommodation, food, and excursions is integral to the functioning of the tourism industry. Right now, that industry needs all the help it can get.

Travel options for US citizens are limited. Much of the Caribbean is open to us, as well as some states in Mexico, but maybe you feel guilty chilling on an Aruban beach while your friends back home settle for Zoom calls and contactless UberEats dinners. Well, don’t. Caribbean islands rely on tourism — primarily US tourism — for their economic well being. In Aruba, nearly 80 percent of the island’s workforce is employed in the tourism industry. When travel grinds to a halt for five months, think about what that means for their livelihood. Hoteliers, restaurant workers, and tour operators find themselves unemployed or in limbo.

The same goes for European countries closed to international travel. Germany’s economy might be strong enough to skip tourism season this year, but countries like Portugal, Italy, and Greece rely heavily on tourism to keep their economies afloat. That’s why Portugal and Greece, earlier this summer, held firm in their intention to welcome US travelers. Although eventually deciding to abide by EU recommendations and close their borders, they did so reluctantly and at great peril to their economy.

As long as a destination has relatively low case numbers and appropriate sanitation measures in place that make you feel safe, there’s no reason to feel skittish. When you consider the thousands of workers relying on your tourism dollars to make ends meet, the ethical dilemma of travel assumes a more human face and becomes easier to answer.

If you’re gonna do it, do it responsibly

Like everything else during this pandemic, travel is perfectly acceptable as long as you do it responsibly. Even though our freedom of movement has been seriously curbed the past few months, you probably haven’t been a complete hermit or turned into an agoraphobic recluse that won’t even venture outside for the mail. Restaurants are open with outdoor seating, and most parks and beaches are open. If you’ve been taking advantage of the small freedoms we do enjoy, there’s no reason exploring another destination should be any different — as long as you follow the rules.

Getting tested for COVID-19 is always a good idea as it gives you some peace of mind before you travel. Many destinations, especially Caribbean islands, actually require a negative COVID-19 test before they’ll allow you to enter. If you do test negative, it’ll confirm that you’re not introducing the virus to your gracious hosts and should erase any feelings of guilt you may have when boarding the plane.

When you arrive, it’s important to follow all the safety protocols outlined by the destination. Wear a mask in public places, wash your hands as often as possible, take advantage of all the hand sanitizer stations, and social distance wherever possible. As long as you’re following the rules, and exercising the same precautions on vacation as you would at home, there’s no reason you shouldn’t travel.

Travel keeps us sane

The one thing we all need right now is a dose of sanity. Travel reminds us that a world exists beyond the confines of our self-isolation. For those who are stir crazy, burnt out by the work-from-home lifestyle, or who have gone months without seeing their family or friends, a vacation can keep you emotionally balanced.

There’s a lot of talk about physical health these days and the potential risks of going to your school, office, grandma’s house, and favorite restaurant. But the psychological effects of not going to those places is equally significant. Sure, staying home for five months guarantees the health of our immune system, but it also deals a serious blow to our mental health. As naturally social, curious animals, we lust for experiences that remind us the world isn’t a dreary shade of gray all the time.

When I traveled to Boston from Denver a few weeks ago — the first time I’d been on a plane in seven months — the airport felt like an oasis. Check-in, TSA, gate changes, crummy airport food, all of it was like a nostalgic tradition I’d given up for dead. Traveling is the perfect way to glimpse backward and forward at the same time — backward to a more normal existence and forward to a hopeful future. It’s the shot of adrenaline that reminds us we’re alive, and everyone could use that right now.

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