On a flight to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this past weekend, the busiest in terms of passenger traffic in the world, a flight attendant walked along the aisle with a tablet in hand, informing every connecting passenger of the gate for their next flight. They read out destinations across North and South America, as well as Europe. St. Paul, Paris, Munich, Guatemala a few times, and others. I can’t remember a single Asian destination being called, at least after I took out my earbuds to listen and strike up a conversation with the traveler next to me, a German woman returning home to Stuttgart. We shared a little bit of small talk about our personal travels and political situations across the West before landing, when she quickly deplaned with an anxious parting quip: “hopefully I don’t catch corona!”
That was just the first reference I encountered over the following weekend to a topic on every traveler’s mind right now, and I must admit wondering if I should travel through another major airport any time soon. But despite the sweeping cancellations of flights to China and South Korea between three major U.S. airlines (Delta, United, and American Airlines), the foot traffic in Atlanta seemed on par with all my previous trips there, something that provided a small comfort amidst a lot of uncertainty. The shock to the international travel industry’s system, though, is undeniable: the stock of Sabre, a company that runs reservation systems for many airlines, fell 16%, while one UK-based airline collapsed entirely, leaving thousands of staff and travelers in limbo. Marriott International said at the same time that it would miss out on $25 million in monthly booking fees should the downturn in hotel reservations for Southeast Asia continue.
NYMag’s Josh Barro put the developing story’s effect on the world economy in even sharper relief. “Declining travel is both a symptom and a cause of broader economic problems: less travel means canceled business trips, meetings foregone, and conferences postponed. It means fewer people dining in restaurants.” These knock-on consequences for the travel trade are already being felt, perhaps most notably with this week’s cancellation of ITB Berlin, the year’s most significant trade show for representatives of destinations in Europe and beyond. To give you an idea of this cancellation’s collateral damage: “In 2019 a total of 10,000 companies and organisations from 181 countries exhibited their products and services to around 160,000 visitors, including 113.500 trade visitors.”
In times of so much political and social turmoil, the added complication of an epidemic might seem like the last thing we need, especially if it limits the opportunities for mental and physical recuperation that travel so often provides us. Those with a rigorous work or family schedule may understandably fret that their one chance to travel meaningfully this year may now pass them by. Even if travels to Asia are not in your plans, the effects of decreased demand for air travel in general are already taking a toll: British Airways has announced that it will cancel flights from New York to London, its flagship route, while Delta Air Lines is making an effort to limit cancellations by waiving change fees for international flights booked to take place in March.
Where does that leave the average traveler? If you have plans for international travel that absolutely must go ahead, check the status of and recommendations for every step of your journey. Investigate the U.S. Department of State’s list of travel advisories, updated regularly, to see if your destination is considered safe for travel, for reasons related to COVID-19 or otherwise. If you do decide to go, remember that the biggest risk is not that you’ll contract something, but face difficulties returning home that could range from flight cancellation to quarantine. If the nature of your travel is non-essential, it may be worth looking into potential refunds or waived change fees for reservations if your schedule is more flexible and you plan on completing the trip some time this year. Recouping some funds to save for traveling with more confidence in the future is a possible silver lining in this situation.
Whether you decide to follow through with your travel plans or not, there are steps we can all take during this time to remain responsible and sustainable travelers and citizens. Healthy reactions to this situation manifest both in our physical habits and social awareness. As the Surgeon General said yesterday, be cautious, but not afraid of Coronavirus. That mentality entails everything from washing your hands thoroughly to combating stigma surrounding the disease, which is arguably a greater opponent — and yet one easier to fight — than the disease itself. The CDC sums it up eloquently in their prognosis: “stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger towards ordinary people instead of the disease that is causing the problem. We can fight stigma and help not hurt others by providing social support.”
For us, social support in this instance means increasing awareness of the facts around not just the disease, but the way that contemporary travel shapes (and is shaped by) our relationship with the Earth and with each other. Just as it shouldn’t require the threat of an impending epidemic for us to be vigilant about washing our hands, this shouldn’t be the one time that we pause and really consider the worth, implications, and consequences of our decisions to travel across the world: should I travel right now? If there are any opportunities for positive growth in the face of a threat to human society, whether that’s climate change or Coronavirus, those opportunities look like coming together to get smarter and create the kind of awesome and unique solutions that are possible when we realize that we are greater than the sum of our parts.
In my personal life, I think about the quote, “work smarter, not harder,” at least once a day. Around this time last year, Passion Passport founder Zach Houghton penned an essay in which he asked our readers to consider travelling less in 2019 — not because he’d lost any belief in the transformative nature of travel, but because the commodification of destinations and experiences can leave us traveling for the sake of it if we’re not careful. It can be thoroughly upsetting when a trip falls through and plans have to be cancelled, but the dangers posed by unchecked commerce and careless consumption of resources, whether plastic straws or another country’s culture, are devastating in comparison. Some of you may still be living the “travel harder” episode of your journey, which is legitimate, but let this be a chance for us all to embrace traveling smarter.
Here are some helpful resources worth your attention as the story around Coronavirus develops:
Healthy habits to prevent the flu, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control
Expedia on traveling during the coronavirus
Everything you need to know if going ahead with your travels
A doctor and public health expert describe the situation for travelers