A year after the pandemic first shut down borders around the world, the question I’m most often asked these days, especially by those who know that I am now vaccinated, is, “Got any international travel plans?” I’m a travel blogger and freelance writer, and in the before times, I traveled several times a year on assignment, extending my work trips by weeks or months to seek out verdant forests, remote islands, Arctic landscapes, and lush trails halfway across the world, so I could escape the sameness of city life in my hometown of Dubai.
Yet, I hear this question so often now, not only because people know that I travel a lot, or all this talk about vaccine passports, but because it’s a reflection of society’s collective push, both impatient and optimistic, to return to life as it was in the before times, thanks to many countries being in the process of getting their populations vaccinated.
When I admit that I have nothing planned for the next few months, I’m sometimes met with mildly quizzical looks that say, “What are you waiting for?” After all, while travel may be nowhere next to pre-pandemic levels, an increasing number of people and plenty of travel influencers are now traveling, even for what, in my opinion, falls under the categories of non-essential leisure travel.
In the first quarter of 2021, more countries such as Iceland, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Cyprus, Georgia, and Sri Lanka have started welcoming back international tourists, many allowing vaccinated travelers to skip tests and/or quarantine restrictions on arrival. As an industry that contributed to 10.3% of global GDP in 2019 and 1 in every 10 jobs around the world, travel and tourism is vital to the survival of many economies affecting hundreds of millions of livelihoods, including my own and those of my dearest friends.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that years of deliberate decisions, some well-planned and others spontaneous bordering on reckless, have led to travel now defining my life, identity, and work. I can’t pinpoint exactly when travel began to seep into the holes left behind by past traumas and fill them with hope and optimism, but I can confirm that the freedom to pack my bags and get on a flight to someplace I’ve never been before is absolutely essential to the state of my mental health.
In a world without travel, I do not know who I am or the point of my existence. That’s probably unhealthy but it is what it is. I’m not exaggerating when I say, I absolutely cannot wait to travel abroad again.
So now armed with proof of vaccination, why haven’t I booked my next flight yet? Maybe it has something to do with that pesky inner voice that whispers “Vaccine inequity” .
What is Vaccine Inequity?
I’m talking about the fact that three months after vaccines first became available, just 2.37% of worldwide population has been vaccinated with just 0.86% of it having been fully vaccinated (Source: covidvax.live).
It should not be surprising to anyone that most of the vaccines have been procured and administered by wealthy nations that account for a majority of global GDP. According to reports, in late 2020, high-income countries representing just 16% of the world’s population made bilateral deals to procure 70% of vaccines available in 2021.
Some countries such as the UK and US and the European Union have arranged to procure enough doses to fully vaccinate their populations many times over, even as middle and low-income countries and many African nations, also those seriously affected by the South African variant of the virus, are waiting to get enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations. The dynamics of vaccine distribution are not quite straightforward or need-based; international relationships, cooperation agreements, donations, and vaccine negotiations are all part of the equation.
Wealthy nations have the financial resources and capacity to transport, store, distribute, and administer vaccines, which is not something low-income countries might have. Many such countries might be waiting for vaccines until 2022 or 2023, and many might become potential breeding grounds for variants while they wait, rendering existing vaccines ineffective.
But What About Traveling Influencers and Bloggers?
I can’t deny it- every time I see photos or videos of influencers, often from richer, more privileged countries, where vaccines are readily available, posing in front of tourist sites in countries like Mexico and Egypt (which has just begun vaccinating its elderly and high-risk populations), with a high number of COVID-19 cases and case fatality rates, where hospitals are still lacking resources, and locals still don’t have access to vaccines (because the leadership decided it wasn’t needed like in Zanzibar), I feel a massive sense of disappointment.
I curiously glance at the captions and they read like those from the before times, sometimes with inspirational commentary about courage and climbing mountains and living in the present, and at other times with details about how to visit on the cheap, why you should go, and how to get there. Advice from these tourist influencers about “beating the crowds” referring to locals in the country where they themselves are guests always ticks me off, especially right now. More often than not, there’s no mention of the COVID-19 situation, safety measures for locals, or their access to vaccines.
It feels like they’re influencing from a parallel universe where the pandemic never happened, or one where it has somehow, magically disappeared from the face of the planet.
Listen, I’m privileged and deeply, deeply grateful to live in Dubai, in a wealthy country that has the means to secure vaccines for its population, and the means to provide healthcare to those who need it. The vaccination rates in the UAE are among the highest in the world, because of an outstanding leadership that cares about its people. But I recognize that privilege and respect it- I don’t use it to feign ignorance of countries that don’t enjoy the same privileges and the people who live in them.
Who Does Vaccination Protect?
There is no evidence that being vaccinated prevents someone from contracting and spreading Covid, it seems like it is entirely possible that vaccines only protect the person who is vaccinated from developing severe symptoms.
So if you really think about it (even when you’re so damn sick and tired of thinking about it), in the absence of evidence from trials and studies proving otherwise, a vaccinated traveler could still contract the virus at an airport or on a flight and bring yet another case of it to the country they’re visiting.
They might not even know it- they are not likely to show any or severe symptoms because they’re vaccinated and are therefore reasonably protected. But they could still spread it to a waiter, tour guide, or their guesthouse host, who might spread it to a family member who is immunocompromised or old.
Worse still, none of these people in the destination might be vaccinated because, well, they don’t have access to vaccines yet. Maybe their country isn’t rich and powerful enough. Maybe they’re still on the waiting list.
Do you see how this can be unethical on the traveler’s part in this situation?
You could say that this traveler is going to be careful- they’re not going to take their mask off, they’re going to wash their hands repeatedly, they’re going to sanitize every surface.
Even so, they can’t control the behavior or hygiene habits of other people around them who might not act responsibly. Or they might travel to a destination which does not have COVID-19 restrictions in place, like Zanzibar where remote workers and bankers are partying and enjoying no-lockdown life.
They can’t claim to definitely, absolutely, most certainly be able to prevent the possibility of catching COVID-19 at the airport or on a flight. Then there’s the very real danger of catching it at home, at some point between getting a negative test result and getting on the flight (grocery run, gym, or café). Or worse catching it at the destination and then passing it along.
With a few but increasing number of countries allowing vaccinated travelers to enter their borders without a negative PCR test, without the requirement to take another test on arrival, and without the need to quarantine after their incoming flight, this poses a substantial risk.
Let’s Talk About Virus Variants
And what about variants of the virus, such as the Brazil, UK, and South African variants, some that might be more easily transmissible, are infecting people who have already recovered from COVID-19, and are slowly but surely making their way around the world? The worrying Brazil variant hitched a ride from Brazil to Japan on tourists returning home and has now spread to 24 other countries.
The fact is that as long as a vast majority of people on the planet remain unvaccinated, the virus and its variants are going to bounce from country to country bringing new waves of infection. We’re not really safe until everyone is vaccinated.
We don’t even know for certain how effective current vaccines are against the variants. But not enough people are talking about that- maybe because we’re all so tired and secretly hoping that if we don’t talk about them, they will go away?
So, should we never travel abroad for vacation again until every single person on the planet is vaccinated?
Probably not. But knowing that it will take years for that to happen, here’s a realistic alternative that involves the vaccinated traveler taking at least a bit of responsibility.
Can We Travel (At Least A Little) Ethically After We’re Vaccinated?
Vaccinated travelers can choose to travel to destinations that:
- Have managed to bring COVID-19 cases in their local populations under control and do not have high case fatality rates.
- Have made a fair bit of progress with vaccinating their populations- i.e. are at least in the late stages of vaccinating their frontline workers, healthcare staff, high-risk, immunocompromised, and elderly populations.
- Have robust healthcare systems that are not still struggling under the weight of COVID-19 infections.
- Have rules in place to protect locals working in tourism, F&B, and hospitality, as well as tourists, by implementing social distancing and mask-wearing regulations. Rules that you as a tourist should follow as if your life depended on it (because someone else’s just might).
- Travelers should still wear masks, wash their hands, and choose to do socially-distanced and outdoor activities while traveling.
One such example of a country that depends heavily on tourism and has taken steps to protect locals while welcoming back tourists is the Seychelles that is close to reaching herd immunity and will have vaccinated 70% of its population by mid-March.
Technicalities Versus Moral Responsibility
One argument is that as long as a country has opened its borders to international tourists, they’re doing nothing wrong by visiting, even if vaccinations aren’t still available there. But if you as a traveler, don’t realize that this could be the complicated result of how deeply politics and economics are intertwined in countries around the world, even more so at such a difficult time in recent history, then you’re either naïve or choosing to be blissfully ignorant.
Take for example, these strange times in which tourists and influencers alike are flocking to Mexico, which is open but is facing one of the highest case fatality rates in the world with hospitals being short on resources. While vaccinations began in December 2020, the country is facing many challenges including a lack of organization and vaccine doses.
Or take the case of Zanzibar, where remote workers and corporate professionals have descended to party and live without masks, social distancing and restrictions, while still pretending to work from home in the UK or elsewhere, and there is hardly any solid implementation of COVID testing or rules for travelers.
Then there are countries like Mauritius, that is already vaccinating its elderly, and taking swift action to halt international flights for a week to contain the spread after six local cases were reported.
Do Your Research
A simple Google search and local news websites from your intended destination should be able to give you enough information to make a reasonable, ethical decision about whether or not you should visit.
Our World In Data offers statistics about COVID-19 fatality and vaccination rates, among other information. These are conservative, given that they’re based on confirmed cases- undetected, unreported cases exist everywhere, so really, the extent is bigger than it seems. It takes some effort to do the research, but given that you’ve got the privilege to be able to travel even during a pandemic, that hardly seems like any effort.
Listen, I know it’s not always so black or white. I’m sure different people in the industry will have different opinions, and I don’t claim to be speaking for anyone- I’m just sharing my own opinion.
I don’t have all the answers. But I will take into account what people who are smarter than me are saying about the risk of transmitting COVID-19 after you’ve been vaccinated.
Supporting Economies Through Tourism, But At What Cost?
Then there’s the argument about supporting local economies, small businesses, and livelihoods that need international tourists to return. I’m well aware of the struggles and challenges of tour operators and guides and other industry professionals.
But here’s a thought: if that country is struggling with COVID-19 cases and most of the population most at risk isn’t vaccinated yet, then at what cost is the money from tourism going to help? Would a spike in cases, coming from tourists, or worse, a new variant of the virus brought in by a tourist be worth it?
It isn’t unusual for travelers to behave irresponsibly abroad- something about them thinking that a vacation gives them a free pass to act like idiots, as many tourists are doing in Mexico, much to the dismay of those working in tourism or restaurants and cafés, who are both afraid of catching COVID-19 and desperate not to lose their incomes. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
If you’re looking for ways to support the tourism industry, here are two solid alternatives, including tours and initiatives, that don’t involve getting on a flight.
- Join Walks for their Tours From Home to take a traditional Greek Cooking Class in Athens, learn about Italian Wine, or immerse yourself in Spanish culture in Madrid.
- Join a live video shopping experience with local guides and buy from local artisans with Local Purse. Browse Berber rugs or aromatic spices in the souks of Marrakech and have your purchases delivered to your home.
And to the influencers traveling to such countries, saying that they need to be able to create inspiring content, and the freedom to do that affects their livelihoods, I’m not buying it. Neither are many of their followers.
If anything, content creators are in a better position than many other professionals, to pivot or use their skills to find alternatives. I have travel creator friends who launched food blogs and local city blogs, and those that started freelancing as photographers, video editors, and social media managers during the pandemic.
Travel creators are also almost always sitting on a bunch of old content from previous trips. Videos and photos and stories they never had the time to tell. Now’s a good time to use that content.
There’s so much lesser-known local content to focus on. Road trips, glamping, under-the-radar gems, day hikes, staycations, and what not.
For those who really care about being ethical, there are many ways to inspire audiences to travel locally or somewhere that isn’t struggling with COVID-19.
Responsibility and The Burden of Influence Some Didn’t Sign Up For
I have too many feelings, some might say. No one cares- everyone does what they want to do anyway. Except, it’s not true.
All of us have at least some influence. Social media has made it easy for our friends, families, colleagues, and acquaintances to know what we’re doing. We’re setting an example even when we don’t intend to.
When we post a story from a flight, we’re saying, “It’s okay to fly again.” When we travel abroad and post photos, we’re saying, “It’s reasonably safe and ethical to travel here now.” So it better be true, because someone looking at that post is probably going to say, “I think it’s time we started planning our next trip. It seems okay now.”
Of course, the reach of this influence is several times more for creators, influencers, and travel writers, and therefore, so is the responsibility for telling the absolute, unfiltered truth of the situation on the ground.
Remember how in pre-pandemic times, so many cities and tourist spots in popular cities were struggling with mass tourism, thanks to influencers? While some destinations like New Zealand used this downtime to share creative content suggesting less popular alternatives that were equally stunning, others like Venice, almost unrecognizable without the crowds, took a moment to breathe. Now when the pandemic is still going on, we can’t let that happen again with irresponsible influencing that will hurt, instead of help destinations trying to recover.
As a travel blogger and writer, I’m deeply aware of my privilege and my influence. I also need to be able to sleep soundly at night knowing that I haven’t, by words or actions, caused someone to believe a lie or a half-truth about what it means to travel abroad right now.
What Does Normal Mean Right Now?
I understand the push for normalcy but wanting it so bad does not mean that we’re oblivious to the fact that we’ve got to live with a new normal. Masks, social distancing, washing our hands repeatedly, and sanitizing surfaces are part of that new normal. So is responsible, ethical decision-making when it comes to travel.
This isn’t easy, but a pandemic isn’t supposed to be easy.
That does not mean it can’t be an opportunity to recognize our privilege and its impact on the world around us.
That does not mean it can’t be an opportunity to develop maturity, empathy, and patience.
Like everyone else, I need to believe that we will return to times when travel meant serendipitous conversations with strangers, sleeping soundly in hostels, accepting invitations for tea and home-cooked meals in new cities, swing dancing with someone I just met, and not being terrified of mask-free faces next to me on flights, trains, and on roadtrips. And I do- I absolutely believe that day will come. Just don’t ask me when.
For now, hold hands with me, virtually of course, and let’s wait this out together.
Don’t just listen to what I have to say. Here are some interesting reads from around the internet by people way smarter than me. And if you have something to add or an opinion to share, you’re welcome to comment on this post.