Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

One of my favorite quotes attributed to baseball great Yogi Berra came in his analysis of why fans weren't showing up for Kansas City Athletics games in the early 1960s: "If the people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's gonna stop 'em."

This is, perhaps, applicable to the current situation the travel industry finds itself in. Cruise lines, hotel brands, tour operators, car rental companies and airlines are going to extraordinary lengths to find credible partners (United's CleanPlus program is guided by the Cleveland Clinic and Clorox), hire trusted experts (Norwegian Cruise Line's consulting agreement with former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb), deploy high-tech sanitizing protocols (Marriott's electrostatic sprayers), reduce capacity to allow for social distancing (G Adventures' "Travel with Confidence Plus Collection") and even add personnel to enforce health protocols while traveling (the Travel Corporation's "wellbeing directors" on its tours). 

Almost all well-known travel brands are broadcasting what they're doing to instill confidence in consumers that, once they're comfortable to travel again, they'll be in a safe environment.

Additionally, comprehensive best-practice guidelines have been publicized by industry associations, such as the USTOA (TourCare), the U.S. Travel Association (Travel in the New Normal), the World Travel & Tourism Council (Safe Travels), CLIA and the Adventure Travel Trade Association

And yet ...

The (potentially) traveling public is much more likely to have read about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield scolding American Airlines before Congress for selling middle seats.

Or that the governors of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey declared that visitors from states where Covid-19 rates are rising must self-isolate upon arrival in the tristate area.

Or heard Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warn that the virus is not under control and that new cases may more than double, to 100,000 every day in the U.S.

Or seen stories about states that have rolled back or delayed business reopenings.

So, during a week when optimism about a quick recovery had suffered several blows -- a week when the U.S. saw a 34% increase in the number of Covid-19 cases, with Texas leading the way with an astounding 80% jump -- should anyone have been surprised that the EU announced that U.S. citizens are not yet welcome to visit?

Well, apparently some were. U.S. Travel, ASTA and the European Tourism Association (ETOA) all publicly questioned the decision.

ASTA said that "punishing American travelers is shortsighted and economically irresponsible." U.S. Travel declared it was "a step in the wrong direction as we seek to rebuild our global economy." ETOA CEO Tom Jenkins called it "a highly problematic proposal."

All expressed hope that the ban, which will be under review again in two weeks, will be reversed.

I thought the industry had taken a very sensible approach in coalescing around the message "dream now, travel later." It seemed to recognize that while there was risk in remaining shut down, there is also risk to opening up too soon.

Clearly, patience is wearing thin, but that it would be expressed as it was by some of the industry's professional associations at this particular moment struck me as tone deaf, a mistimed pivot.

There has been speculation that Europe's move was, at least in part, politically motivated. The U.S. does not allow Europeans in, so Europe's ban of American visitors could be a bargaining chip to open the U.S. to European visitors.

That may be, but the groups didn't take the opportunity to also criticize U.S. inbound travel bans. In the context of rising infection rates in the U.S., it does not seem a stretch to believe that Europe is sincerely queasy about welcoming citizens from a country that is divided even about whether or not to wear masks.

The only way to shorten the economic pain is to be guided by evidence-based health measures. The protocols we have all become so familiar with -- hand-washing, social distancing, face coverings -- are known to be effective in bringing numbers down once infection has reached a country.

But the single most effective strategy to keep the disease at bay seems to be travel restrictions. The country that sealed its borders first was Vietnam. Population: 96 million. Current deaths from Covid-19: zero.

We can't turn back the clock and seal our borders earlier than we did, but we, too, continue to institute cross-border bans with countries where the virus is uncontrolled.

In light of all of the above, I worry that criticizing Europe for extending a not-unreasonable travel ban could undermine the credibility of the industry and its focused messaging that "your safety comes first."

Perhaps consumers' pent-up demand for travel overseas is rising in parallel with industry impatience to meet that demand, and health considerations are secondary.

But perhaps not. And if consumers are not yet ready for international travel, nothing anyone says or does is gonna stop 'em. 


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