a person holding test tubes

The conversation around travel is shifting by the minute. Today, the EU laid out plans to safely, gradually reopen travel as soon as the 15th of June, 2020.

Countries are easing restrictions on populations, and in many parts of the world those livelihoods depend on the movement of people, from airlines to local tavernas, coffee shops and bike rentals. As the conversation shifts to “when” but not “if” we should travel, a sub set of people continue to bang the drum of no vaccine, no travel. It’s a novel, admirable thought – but also highly impractical for most of the world.

Without travel, there may not be much of a world left, if and when a vaccine ever comes.

Let me start by saying that I offer sincere wishes of health and safety for anyone reading this. For people with preexisting health conditions, or an age that puts them most at risk of coronavirus being both a serious and life threatening problem, rather than an asymptomatic annoyance, opening travel isn’t entirely fair.

Unfortunately, few things in the world have ever been fair, no matter how much we’d like them to be.

About that vaccine, it’s a lovely thought, but also one that could never come to fruition with all the money and effort in the world. Remember SARS, one of the last major pandemics that scared the living daylights out of the world? There’s still no vaccine more than a decade later, and not by a lack of effort.

That’s the fundamental issue: we all can want a vaccine, as I very much do, but even all the greatest minds in the world may not be able to create one, at least not within a decade or more.

a person holding test tubes

Covid-19 is yet another thing in life which “could” kill you, but that’s never stopped people from doing a variety of things, including smoking, which almost assuredly will kill you, at some point. It even says so on the label.

Still, people light up by the millions every day and life goes on. This matters because tourism employs nearly 10% of the entire global population – equating to circa 780,000,000 people. That’s seven-hundred-million people or more, and that’s not just pilots and hotel staff, but cafe workers, restaurants, transportation companies and so much more. One in ten people in any given community work in some form of tourism, or movement of people.

Covid-19 has tragically claimed 292,000 lives globally, and infected millions, but without employment opportunities, up to 780 million people face uncertainties which can absolutely lead to equal, or greater death tolls. In countries without universal health care, lack of employment can mean no access to medical treatment. Anywhere in the world, no money for food or shelter creates obvious problems too.

It’s not as if fantastic hiring prospects are all around at the moment for this workforce, either…

It’s also vital to understand how countries approached the handling of covid-19, and how it relates to a reopening of travel. Very few countries, like two hand fulls or less pursued eradication, where the goal was complete and total elimination. Everywhere else, such as the majority of Europe, North America and beyond simply attempted to slow the spread, so as not to overwhelm health care systems.

In other words, it’s not about never having covid-19, it’s about keeping it under extreme control, and there are already ways for countries to open borders and create economic opportunity, and re-connection for families without greatly changing the way that’s being enacted.

a road next to a body of waterFor those who are willing, wanting, or able, countries are exploring health certification before anyone would be allowed to board a flight. That may also be met with a cheek swab on arrival, and mandatory requirements to download an app, or provide contact details to trace movement, in case of a bad result. These measures are being approached with a crawl, then walk basis, trialing the measures between a select few chosen countries first, before wider tourism would be allowed to rejoin.

For New Zealand, a nation which pursued eradication of the coronavirus, borders won’t open any time soon, and when they do, all indication suggest they’ll only open to Australians, who have hinted at keeping their external border closed through 2020. The strategy has proven popular with a resounding percentage of people in each country, but was only possible because of extremely early action, and tact.

For everyone else, it’s about hoping that summer naturally slows the spread, that humanity embraces social distancing and hygiene measures to slow or curb transmission and for hospitality industry businesses to do their part.

I’ve laid out over 50 predictions for the future of travel.

There are positives that will come from covid-19, including appreciation for the simple joy of travel, for fellow humankind, and for the fragility of life. There’s also hope that these tragedies will forever improve the travel, dining and social existence, with better focus on cleaning standards.

If waiting for a vaccine is the only way forward, it’s important to realize that it may be 10 years before you can go anywhere. As long as there is domestic transmission within a country, going to a local bar is equally risky as boarding an airplane, or visiting another country with similar transmission rates.

If you want a vaccine, you’ve just gotta get real about the possibility that one may not ever be produced, and if you can’t handle that fact, you need to get real about what other possibilities mitigate risk, while protecting the livelihoods of more than a billion people.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I love your blog Gilbert, but you’re wrong on this one. And we’re getting a little tired of hearing the same stuff on every post – that it’s “impractical” -as you say here – to not travel

    1. Thank you, Tim. I guess my only question in response, if I am wrong, which I may be in some eyes… why is the world reopening? Why is Europe planning to preserve the summer travel season. Why is Iceland allowing Americans from June 15th? I just don’t think all those countries with all the access to the most brilliant minds in health can all be getting it so wrong.

      1. I don’t think “the most brilliant minds in health” have recommended reopening almost anywhere; in cases where “the world is reopening,” it’s almost universally in spite of those brilliant minds, not because of them.

        And many of the countries that have tried reopening measures– China, Iran, Germany, South Korea, Lebanon, etc.– have had to swiftly (and sometimes decisively) reverse course.

        As to why “the world is reopening,” it’s because staying the course is unimaginable, both economically and psychologically. Unfortunately, the alternative is something that’s even worse economically and psychologically (and comes with a corpse count in the tens of millions).

        Humans aren’t great at dealing with situations where the only options are the unlikely and the unthinkable. We’re hardwired to think there must be some “solution.” That’s why smart people with serious illnesses spend money on quack cures, even when they know said “cures” will only make things worse. That’s “reopening” for you, except on a grand scale.

    1. Obviously not. Massive testing accompanied by fervent contact tracing and requiring – not requesting – face masks in many circumstances would make travel viable in a hurry. Better treatments would also help a lot. An actual cure seems unlikely in the near future if at all.

  2. This one seems a little offbeat for you, more in a manner of feel than content, and your points are sensible enough overall except for the smoking part. As someone who smoked for 30 years, I can assure you that there’s no proof anywhere that smoking *will* kill you although it will certainly make dying of certain forms of cancer more likely. In fact, VFTW even listed a reputable report that smoking seems to inhibit getting the coronavirus, although that’s not enough to get me to start again. Anyway, you’re right that everyone can’t just plant themselves in one spot for a decade while waiting for a vaccine.

  3. Cripes, cannot believe I am actually cheering for one of your posts Gilbert. But here I am. Kudos, and bravo. Absolutely friggen spot on and exactly the kind of sensible opinion piece the world needs right now.

    Now, if you can post a mea culpa about how wrong it was to support Greta Thunburg (the Antifa terrorist and her Antifa terrorist family- “Antifa All Stars” they proudly call themselves) I can see myself coming around to a lot of your posts. You can’t be for her and against total and complete lockdowns.

  4. Well, things change, maybe we will have years of limited travels until the vaccine is available. Maybe people in hospitality industry will learn and move to a different industry. I am not saying this will happen but I feel like you are biased because of your status quo: people need to travel. We didn’t have this much travel before and people were as happy as we are. We are now so used to traveling (let me say this, I want to travel, in that regard I am with you) that we take it as granted so we always think in that framework.

    I also didn’t like your comparison between smoking vs coronavirus because it is a bad one. Smoking may increase your chance of dying but not at the rate of covid-19. Plus, smoking vs asymptomatic transmitters are not in the same level of danger to the public. Covid-19 is a social dilemma issue: for many it is a low risk so their selfishness urges them to do fun things but if they do that, they will eventually kill many people…

  5. Excellent point and one that I have been echoing for awhile now. People need to get this vaccine nonsense out of their head. There isn’t a vaccine for the common cold or the flu, although they are less severe and powerful than the coronavirus. So in the past decade or more, the best we have is a flu shot? Gimme a break. And if a vaccine were to develop, who the heck would take it? The FDA is making all sort of emergency approvals to get this thing out as quickly as possible. I can’t imagine proper human testing would be done. The FDA has proved time and time again not to be trusted. Y’all can line up for it, but you would never see me in line. Determine whether it is safe for yourself and your family to get out and travel, but don’t sit around waiting for something as crazy as a vaccine. Get out and enjoy the world.

  6. Maybe we will have a vaccine within 5 years, maybe we won’t. How have we treated most viruses? We let it run it’s course. That’s what most epidemiologists have recommended, not stopping life and being in fear, increasing stress levels, increasing desperation, poverty, so many other bad things have happened just from not being able to get out and live life. Old vulnerable people should be protected and an overwhelming majority of losses have been the old and vulnerable. Let’s all take a deep breath and recognize that it’s all going to be ok. If you feel more comfortable staying at home for the next 5 years, by all means…do it. The rest of us, we are going to adjust to these new “social distancing” rules and enjoy our vacations stateside or abroad as much as we can. Because that’s life. Thank you.

  7. When I travel it will when I feel ready. You can say I’m just looking out for myself, but my giving economic support to those in the travel industry will NOT be a factor. I can see how the economic impact of the travel industry pressures governments to open up things, but it doesn’t pressure my travel habits. Likewise I have never listened to the government encouraging me to spend more of my money to support the GNP. I felt the same about that. People that spent too much to help the GNP now find themselves in dire straights.

    I am 65, retired a little over a year ago, and in pretty good health. II have lots of travel time ahead, and will likely minimize risks for a while (not 10 years). and take the long term view. First I may go with some lower risk driving trips, visiting Nation Parks, etc. Perhaps a cross country trip.

    I’ll watch things for a while before seriously looking at flying. That seems to be the portion of travel where I have the least control.

  8. Booked 4 more domestic trips today for travel next month (June).
    Had another friend book her first flight with boyfriend for next month.

    It’s happening everyone. Like it or not (I can’t imagine why anyone would NOT like it…). It’s opening up.

    I’m flying every week, and it’s getting busier and busier. It’s wonderful.
    Getting back to normal quickly seems more and more likely each passing day.

  9. About that vaccine for SARS. There were two candidates which were developed, tested and proven effective. The were never sent on for approval because SARS basically vanished. The vaccines are ready to go to market should SARS appear again. Unfortunately, it appears that Covid-19 will not just disappear the way the first SARS did.

  10. “Remember SARS, one of the last major pandemics that scared the living daylights out of the world? There’s still no vaccine more than a decade later, and not by a lack of effort”

    …It is, actually, about a lack of effort. There hasn’t been a case of SARS in over 15 years. The disease died out on its own. There’s no need for a vaccine of a disease that no longer exists.

  11. Gilbert, I agree with your assessment. However I think we should follow a two track approach. Yes, let’s open air travel because if we don’t many airlines will cease to exist. And let’s limit vulnerable people. I’m 66 and although very physically fit I’m in that vulnerable group and I will take more precautions than others. The last thing I want to do is endanger others. But we also have to realize that air travel will change. Businesses are very happy with zoom and other virtual ways to connect. So there may be fewer business travelers and they’ll only fly for essential meetings. Being in lockdown in New York, I do lots of zoom meetings. In the past we had smoking sections on planes. what if there was an economy section that cost more but gave flyers more distance from others? I’m sure airlines will figure something out once they see new trends and demands emerging. And we will adjust. Back to vaccines. In 1954 Jonas Salk had a vaccine to eradicate Polio. Other doctors said it wasn’t a good vaccine and shouldn’t be used. They wanted to wait another ten years to develop a perfect vaccine. But Salk’s vaccine was deployed in 1954 and millions of children were spared the horror of getting Polio. It wasn’t perfect but it helped. Ten years later the better vaccines arrived and Polio was finally eradicated. This is a crazy time. We may need to follow multiple paths to get to a working society again. Those of us who fly for the sheer enjoyment of travel can’t wait to get back in the air. And people who fly for the convenience but really hate the ordeal can have other options.

  12. Agreed Gilbert. Vaccine or not we will not be able to live in a world of permanent limbo. We have to keep moving.

  13. Yeah. I also think that we need to do everything in order to resume flights, otherwise airlines will have to redesign. I really hope that the trend will go towards giving people more comfort and personal space. And airplanes will have more space for themselves, although this will be a variant of a small airplane, which will not always be cost-effective to use. I already see the headlines “a man came up with a flat plane so that passengers had more space and less opportunity to get infected.”, Haha.

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