Travel during a pandemic: Responsible or reckless?

Travel during a pandemic: Responsible or reckless?

woman thinking

Posted January 14, 2021

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My last trip was in February 2020, just a month before the coronavirus pandemic shut much of the world down for months on end. And then the government warning came: avoid all non-essential travel. So I did—for nearly a year.

But as the cold weather arrived, I started to get antsy. And when I saw a super flight deal to Mexico, I booked it with barely a second thought. That was weeks ago… and I’ve told exactly 4 people about my travel plans. 

Throughout that time, I’ve been asking myself whether what I’m doing is right. Is it selfish to travel abroad at a time like this? It is irresponsible? Am I part of the problem? I’m bringing some rescue dogs back with me for the rescue I volunteer with—so does that make it better? More justified?

Jessica Barrett with Tiegan
Jessica Barrett with Tiegan

The travel shaming trend of 2020

The truth is that I haven’t told many people about my upcoming trip because I don’t want to deal with the shamers. I see the social media comments whenever the subject of travel is mentioned:

  • “Travel? We’re in a pandemic. Stay home.”
  • “People are dying and you want to travel?”
  • “Obviously you only care about yourself.”
  • “People like you are the reason we keep having lockdowns.”
  • “If everyone would just stay home we can go back to normal again.”

We’re 11 months into the pandemic and I hate to break it to you, but this is the new normal. We’ll be wearing masks and limiting the size of social gatherings for the foreseeable future. But does that mean that no one should travel? I don’t think so.

Those who shame others for traveling often do so without any context. And perhaps they’re upset that they canceled plans and others haven’t done the same. 

But traveling without taking any precautions and disregarding the rules and regulations of a given country is different than traveling responsibly and with regard for the health and safety of others. 

And shaming others for their decisions isn’t helpful or effective, so can we all agree to stop that?

Making responsible decisions

From my perspective, traveling responsibly during a global pandemic is about making responsible choices. So let’s talk about what that means. 

Getting a COVID-19 test is probably a good idea. Some countries mandate a negative test for entry, while others (like Mexico) don’t. But we know that it’s possible to have COVID and be asymptomatic, so getting a test before you even step foot in the airport helps ensure your safety and the safety of those around you.

A negative COVID test is not an excuse to become careless, though. Wear your damn mask. In no way do I advocate traveling to ‘escape’ pandemic restrictions. If you’re inside or can’t maintain a reasonable distance from others, put your mask on. I’m in disbelief when I see videos of people arguing with flight attendants about wearing a mask on the plane. If you’re choosing to be on an airlane during this time, be willing to wear a mask (and wear it properly) or stay home.

Traveling responsibly during this time also means respecting the rules and regulations of the place you’re visiting. Some places, like Jamaica, are asking tourists to stay in specific areas or ‘resilient corridors’ for the duration of their time in the country. And just because you might not get caught, doesn’t mean that it’s ok to disregard those rules and venture further.

Even where travel within a region isn’t limited, stay away from large gatherings. A November festival in Tulum saw hundreds of maskless tourists cram dancefloors, tents, and beaches. The multi-day festival resulted in dozens of cases, many of which weren’t even diagnosed until after the individuals returned home. American tourism to the Riviera Maya is up 23% over 2019, and unfortunately, the parties continue despite the efforts of authorities.

And the responsible decisions don’t stop once you leave. Many countries mandate a quarantine period for travelers returning home from international destinations. I booked my flight with the full understanding that I will have to quarantine for 14 days back in Canada—and while I don’t love it, I will respect it.

  • tulum-mexico crowds
  • Cancun crowded beach

Rebuilding struggling economies

When we talk about whether traveling during a pandemic is responsible or reckless, we also have to consider that there are many economies around the world that rely on tourism to survive. 

In Mexico, tourism generates about 17% of the country’s GDP. But during the first few months of the pandemicQuintana Roo lost more than 100,000 jobs in the tourism sector, which makes up more than 80% of revenue in the state. Hotel occupancy rates in Tulum were 10% in April—and dropping. Unemployment there hit 50% in May. 

It’s a similar story around the globe. A report from the UN suggests that up to 120 million tourism jobs are at risk, with economic damage likely to exceed $1 trillion in 2020 alone. 

Certainly, it’s going to take time for global tourism to rebound. And we’re not talking months, but years—maybe even decades. Whether you’re traveling locally, domestically, or internationally, remember that it matters where you spend your money. 

Help small businesses and bolster the local economy by choosing local hotels, shops, and restaurants over multinational chains whenever possible. It’s not the big corporations that are suffering the most, it’s the ‘mom-and-pop’ shops, the family-run restaurants, the individuals who make their living by offering tours or experiences to travelers.

So as I prepare to spend a week enjoying the sun, I’m feeling ok about my choice. I won’t travel if I’m feeling unwell, I’ll wear my mask when appropriate, I’ll stay away from gatherings, and I’ll frequent local businesses that need my support. And to top it off, I’ll escort a handful of rescue pups to their new homes in Canada. 

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