The U.S. is making great progress in tackling the pandemic with current vaccination and hospitalization rates. Keywords: The United States. Although it might seem like things are finally getting back to normalcy here, I urge Americans to remind themselves that we do not exist in a vacuum.
India is shattering records for COVID cases. Brazil has faced deadly consequences from the administrations’ virus mismanagement, with COVID causing one in three deaths just this year. This is a poignant reminder that countries with the means and political power are able to push the vaccine efforts further than the countries who don’t have the same resources. While much of the reopening discourse in the U.S. has centered around businesses and economic loss, we have to come to terms with our own privilege as U.S. citizens in the context of the global pandemic.
There is one sector which was pushed to the background and will soon find its way back into the forefront of our quotidian lives again, and that is, international travel.
The travel and hospitality sectors were some of the hardest-hit industries during COVID-19, as staycations became the only option during a worldwide crisis. An out-of-state or vacation abroad is already a luxury, budget and PTO permitting. Travel for pleasure, for those who are able to afford it, is something many enthusiastically look forward to.
However, the ways in which we travel have become ethically and ecologically unsustainable. What we deem as our modern-day tourism is rooted in colonialism and imperialist histories.
While that is a grim thought to grapple with, as travel can be a beautiful way to experience a different way of living, to get to know other cultures, and to meet people you wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise. I believe intentional travel unlocks spectacular new perspectives and ingrains a deeper sense of empathy for others around us.
But, how can we start to improve our approach to travel in the aftermath of the pandemic?
The Impact of Influencers
To start diving into this big question, we have to unearth the roots of our perspectives surrounding travel, namely the remnants of imperialism when it comes to U.S. travelers abroad. For the millennial and Gen Z populations, we can look to the impact that social media influencers have had on how we digitally consume and display our trips.
For one, the medium of these social media platforms is a surface-level look into curated lifestyles, whether that curation is intentional or not. A feed of visually appealing content is what Instagram thrives on and scrolling through our own feeds may seem like a mindless activity- but it’s consumption nonetheless. Social media, thus, becomes an increasingly flawed medium to absorb authentic information about other countries. We take in information from our insular social circles or from an influencer that is usually just visiting the country financed through paid promotions.
Case in point, social media influencers were labelled tone deaf as they continued to post their travel content while the masses were instructed to stay at home. The internet won’t be quick to forget the Kim Kardashian controversy when she hosted a private island getaway for her birthday to “pretend things were normal for a brief moment in time” as hundreds of thousands struggled with COVID infections.
Upon examining the pitfalls of this online phenomenon through an anthropological lens, I am reminded of Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. Essentially, Said noted that Western political ideologies made distinctions between the “Orient”, the East, and the West, in a way that depicts the East as “the other”. These depictions of the East as uncivil, violent, exotic, and highly sexualized, greatly influenced mainstream perceptions in Western imperialist countries.
‘Travel Instagram’ continues to perpetuate what Said calls ‘the other’. As a result, countries and cultures are reduced to pretty backdrops for influencers’ aesthetics. The visual ‘exoticism’ only serves the influencer, propping them up as high-class jet setters.
Why is this important? The images we consume affect our perceptions, whether unconscious or conscious. And these influencers do influence their followers’ decisions. They impact how consumers envision their own vacations, creating unrealistic expectations of a picture-perfect stay, Instagrammable meals, perfect outfits, and uncrowded attractions. There is real-life impact to these #travelgoals; people flock to destinations in order to capture a picture for themselves, often ignoring barriers or environmental consequences. In fact, photo opp hotspots in nature have environmental impacts that are seen in a matter of years. According to DW, a national park in south Germany is looking to close off areas in which many visitors trampled on vegetation and created separate footpaths after seeing them on popular posts.
If one chooses to follow these types of influencers, it is imperative that they train a critical eye when consuming these images. Influencers are actively marketing a specific lifestyle that is largely unattainable.
Besides, the beauty of social media is being able to follow people living in countries you’re interested in and learning about their culture through their experiences. There’s a plethora of people taking back the narratives created around their home countries on Instagram and Tik Tok. Learning directly from locals from a country is a better source of information rather than the visitors who are passerby on luxurious vacations. If you’re interested in sustainability and eco-tourism, there’s also plenty of influencers who educate their followers.
The Global South is Not Your Playground
COVID-19 has especially hit the Global South hard, as these countries are geopolitically marginalized due to a deep-rooted history of colonialism and neoliberalist policies.
Many of these countries do not have strong medical infrastructures and are not able to handle the potential influx of U.S. travelers during the pandemic. This is a complex issue, as many of these countries’ economies rely heavily on tourism and countries like the U.S. are sending out mixed messages surrounding travel.
With difficult decisions to reopen borders to international tourists, it seems as though governments in countries like those in the Caribbean, have their hands tied. According to the New Yorker, Jamaica was considered a successful model in combatting the spread of the virus because it had not only the advantage of being a smaller island in comparison to a large country, but also having officials effectively respond to the pandemic due to past SARS outbreaks.
Back in March of 2020, Jamaica had successfully kept COVID infections low. However, when they reopened to tourists in June, the “arrival of more than thirty-five thousand people” led to more than a hundred new COVID cases. Similarly, Mexico was amongst the top visited countries in 2020, despite the pandemic. Who made up most of the visitors? That’s right- tourists from the U.S. and Canada. It’s easy to see why many traveled to these tropical getaways despite a global pandemic, as media outlets began to tout them as safe destinations for travelers, not giving much thought to the locals affected. In this manner, travel to places like Jamaica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, became justified by the media as ‘helpful’ for the countries’ economies and viable for interested Americans.
A friend from Cancun told me a frustration that many Mexicans share- “I’ll either die of COVID or I’ll die of starvation if I don’t work.” This placement of economy over people from the government is not new, and it’s prevalent within capitalist structures. By reopening to tourists, these governments have also placed affluent foreigners’ recreation over their citizens’ health. Real people live in the cities we visit. Real people work in the resorts that serve us. This is modern-day colonialism masked as a getaway.
Goodbye Cruise Lines
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, let’s say good riddance to mega cruise lines. Huge corporation cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruiselines, and MSC Cruises are a reflection of the U.S.’ soft imperialism, in which throngs of cruise tourists barely interact with locals in each location before quickly moving on to the next.
A massive ship equipped with pools, spas, movie theaters, and even rock climbing are marketed towards the public as the entire package on water, however they lessen the incentive to venture out and support local businesses in smaller coastal cities. And why would you support local businesses when you have everything at your disposal, which you’ve already paid for?
In terms of labor, cruise ships employ those they are able to exploit for low wages and long hours. Although life working on a cruise ship might seem appealing, staff and crew have little time to actually explore the port cities they arrive in, working upwards of 70 hours a week. Not to mention these cruise lines deter crew members from protesting against low wages and mistreatment. Overworking crew is common on these cruise lines, which is allowed due to not having to comply with U.S. labor laws as many are incorporated in foreign countries.
Not only are they terrible to local economies and workers, cruises are notoriously awful for marine life, namely coral reefs. In the Dutch island of Bonaire, which has some of the most pristine coral reefs, the NY Times reported that animal behavior has changed since the amount of divers went from the thousands to single digits.
Overtourism is greatly impacting our environment. Sven Lindblad, the chief executive of Lindblad Expeditions, a small, environmentally-conscious cruiseline, noted that this period of time “won’t be led by businesses who are, and by and large, too fat and happy with the way it is.” We need to demand better ecological practices from tourism companies and stop providing our business to those who do not improve their protocols and values.
This re-imagination of the travel sector might seem like a daunting task, but our generation can take steps to correct and reframe it.
Of course, impactful change can be generated on a wide-scale corporate level, but tourism companies run for profit. The majority of these businesses do not care about the communities their tourism impacts, nor do they deem themselves responsible for the public health of the areas they bring tourists to. If you’re politically inclined, starting campaigns and grassroots organizing towards demanding better practices can target this branch of the larger problem.
On an individual level, there is so much reflection to take on when we’re gearing up for travel again.The CDC advises against non-essential travel and taking precautions while traveling, but this is a gray area of mixed messaging which leaves many to find loopholes. If you choose to travel abroad after getting vaccinated, masking up and properly socially distancing from others is the bare minimum. Correctly adhering to the country’s rules is a great way to represent your country well. Remember that being able to feel that ‘travel itch’ is a privilege as travel a non-essential activity and something that is done for pleasure to escape daily life.
Evaluating our own online circles is also something we can do to examine what we consume on a frequent basis. Setting your boundaries online is essential to digital consumption. I’ve unfollowed people who I don’t align with throughout the pandemic, those who’ve posted bar excursions and trips to Cabo. (Why Cabo? There is more to Mexico than Cabo!) I grew tired of seeing the maskless flock to island getaways when vaccines were not publicly available, so I took the time to reevaluate my social feeds. What kinds of images do I encounter on a daily basis during my scroll? Is that something that brings me joy? Is it something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth? Forming these boundaries will create a more intentional way in which we engage on social media.
We need to start refocusing tourism again on forging strong relationships with others and learning about our world at large. This past year alone has shown us that even though we come from different walks of life, we share a common thread of humanity. Why not treat others with respect when we finally get the chance to step foot in their country?
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Kincaid explores the post-colonial realities of Antigua through tourism and corruption.
Orientalism by Edward W. Said
Said establishes the concept of Orientalism as narratives about the East portrayed by the West.
Una Maquila en Altamar (Sweatshop on the High Seas)- Univision Noticias & Columbia Journalism School
A look into what life is like on the sea, with sections in the larger study “Vacaciones en Aguas de Nadie” (Vacation in No Man’s Waters) on environmental impact as well as lobbying in Washington.