COVID-19 has obliterated the travel industry. In March 2020, hotels, museums, restaurants, airlines, cruise ships, and other travel entities turned upside down. Festivals and events were canceled, study abroad and student travel were scrapped, community gatherings were abandoned. Essentially, travel life as we know it halted.
Months later, governors restarted state economies and encouraged businesses to reopen—with limited capacities, additional safety precautions, and social distancing. Parts of the travel industry hesitantly resumed business. Would customers return? Would people feel safe flying, staying in a hotel, visiting a museum, traveling at all? What would the travel industry need to do to regain clients and their trust?
As the travel industry slowly reemerged, people worked hard to ensure patrons would feel safe and comfortable in this new environment. They adhered to government mandates—revamping and ramping up cleaning processes, placing social distance markers on floors, requiring masks, restricting the number of consumers in a space, even requiring health screening before entering a facility.
The diligent work paid off as people commenced traveling again. More recently, airlines increased available flights, hotels saw more guests, museums recorded an uptick in visitors, and some festivals and community events occurred. Campgrounds and local, state, and national parks saw an overwhelming rise in visits. People felt comfortable outdoors, where social distancing was easier.
More people began to travel, helping to revitalize the industry and creating a new challenge—travel shaming. An August 14 New York Times article addressed this topic: “Two-thirds of the nearly 4,000 Americans surveyed in June by a public relations agency, said they would judge others for traveling before it is considered safe.” Thus, some travelers have no plans to tell anyone about their trip, including on social media, and “let the tree fall in the forest, so to speak, without a single soul around to hear it.”
Where did travel shaming come from? An article in Scott’s Cheap Flights notes, “Given that most travel is discretionary, there’s a sense that it’s unethical to have fun in public when so many have had their lives upended.” Some feel travel is unsafe and believe two things could happen: 1. You put yourself at risk. 2. You could spread COVID-19 to others. Scott’s Cheap Flights said it best: “Travel is a combination of behaviors some of which are risker than others. And personal precautions—wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, washing hands, social distancing—can go a long way to mitigate that risk.”
I usually travel overseas for an extended summer vacation. As part of such, I lead students on an educational trip, work at an international Girl Scout camp or volunteer at an educational institution—not an option during a pandemic. I needed something to look forward to after a coronavirus-induced travel dry spell and landed on a 31-day driving trip across the United States, with Montana and Wyoming my ultimate destinations. I felt confident in my decisions to utilize proper health cautions, to protect myself and others.
I researched states I intended to visit, learning what their coronavirus restrictions were. Because I was headed to some large states with a small percentage of cases in relation to population, I felt my risks were lower. I packed my tent and sleeping bag, to camp as much as possible. I had no itinerary. My plan was to not have a plan; my goal was to visit many national parks and experience the outdoors as much as possible, for a safer environment. As I expected to visit museums, a rodeo, and an outdoor musical, I stocked up on face masks, hand sanitizers, and Clorox wipes.
When I told family and friends I planned to travel for a month, they asked: “Is it safe?” “Should you be traveling?” “Even if you take health precautions, will others?”
Some said: “You’re being selfish. Just because you want to travel doesn’t mean you should.” They tried to shame me for looking forward to and experiencing joy during this time. I realized many people are uncomfortable with the idea of traveling and will be for some time; I was careful to not react defensively to their questions and comments. I was taking the necessary precautions. I knew the risk.
My summer trip was amazing! I traveled 8,800 miles, visited 17 states, and experienced countless natural, educational, and historical sites. I visited family and friends and had safe interactions with other travelers. Tourists who typically adhered to face mask mandates filled Jackson Hole, Wyoming; hotels were at a 95% capacity. Most places I visited, I observed tourists practicing health precautions. In one sense, it was the best time to travel; it was less crowded than usual, and everything was cleaner than normal. Plus, I knew I was supporting the travel industry—spending money at small businesses, restaurants, museums, hotels and campgrounds, and tourist sites.
Ironically, the naysayers who questioned my sanity followed my adventures on Facebook. I owned my vacation and posted daily about my travels, and my adventures brought joy to many.
This leads us to ponder if and when travel will be safe for individuals, families or groups. There’s no universally agreed-upon consensus, according to that New York Times article. Many educators question if student travel will continue. Educator recognize the value of travel—but with liability and health risks, will schools and parents allow them to plan educational trips? Will teachers be shamed for trip planning, if given permission to travel? Will families be able to afford student travel, when so many suffered financial challenges due to the pandemic? Will student travel companies survive and thrive again?
This underscores the importance of working with SYTA member companies. SYTA “creates a culture of safety planning and crisis readiness by establishing safety standards, proving planning resources, and training and education for its members.” Members work with educators and student groups to provide the resources and information necessary to meet ever-changing safety and travel needs.
When will travel shaming stop? Scott’s Cheap Flights stated, “There is no shame in booking travel today and in the future. Stop thinking it is indulgent to travel when there are so many terrible things happening in the world right now.”
I believe now it’s time to book future trips, with ample discounts and flexibility plans available to entice travelers. Begin researching flights, tours, and hotels, for summer 2021 and beyond. Once you book the journey, you’ll have it to look forward to.
Written by Julie Beck, Contributing Writer for Teach & Travel.