You may not leave the country
Is the State Department's shift an international travel ban?
The U.S. State Department's announcement last week that it added more than 100 countries to its “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory list seemed almost routine.
The government adjusted its classifications to "better reflect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) science-based Travel Health Notices that outline current issues affecting travelers’ health."
But it wasn't routine.
Has COVID-19 gotten worse in 100 more countries? No, it has not.
Let me put this into perspective: More than 80 percent of the world is now technically off-limits to Americans. It feels like an international travel ban.
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I know a thing or two about international travel bans. I grew up in Austria in the 1980s, about a 45-minute drive from the Iron Curtain. On the other side, people were locked behind barbed wire fences under totalitarian rule.
And when I saw the announcement, I admit I had a flashback to the pre-glasnost days in Eastern Europe.
Of course, one pronouncement from the State Department doesn't mean we're living in a police state. But it does have repercussions beyond the upcoming travel season that you absolutely must take into consideration — whether you're traveling or not.
There's no place like home
The latest research shows Americans are ready to travel again. Fully 43 percent of those surveyed by Morning Consult/Expedia say they're more comfortable traveling now. A majority of those trips will be domestic road trips. The breathless headlines about car rental shortages come from the elite coastal media outlets whose audience takes fly/drive vacations.
But some travelers want to leave the country. I had an exclusive story in Forbes yesterday about the most popular international destinations. Those travelers don't care what the State Department says. They're heading to Greece, Turkey, Iceland and other countries currently open to Americans.
Maybe it makes sense to stay closer to home during these unpredictable times. But there's something deeply troubling about an international travel ban. And make no mistake, having 80 percent of the world off-limits is almost an international travel ban.
For example, the State Department does not distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers. Why? That may have been a political consideration. Vaccines and vaccine passports are a political hand grenade.
Perhaps this administration does not want to offend anyone. But as someone who is fully vaccinated, I wouldn't have any issues with visiting the U.K., Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, or Germany — all countries that now remarkably have a “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory.
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Why international travel is important
Why is an international travel ban such a terrible idea? Because of what crossing the border does.
Travel experts like to talk about the transformative power of travel. Getting out of your comfort zone works on a smaller scale when you're spending a week in Ocean City, Md., but it works on a much larger scale when you fly to Paris.
Nothing broadens your horizons like an international trip. Nothing exposes you to alternative perspectives like people speaking a different language, eating different food, or doing different things.
When you go abroad, you come back more curious, tolerant and open to new ideas.
Cutting off international travel to everyone — no matter their vaccine status — doesn't just seem shortsighted. It can make us more closed-minded and ignorant. After a year of staying in, Americans desperately need to get out and see the world.
Got a vaccination? Get a passport and travel
I agree and disagree with the State Department's actions. Certainly, if you're unvaccinated, you should heed the "Do Not Travel" warnings and stay home.
But if you're vaccinated, the Level Four advisory shouldn't apply to you. Europe plans to roll out a vaccine passport in June. Several countries have already opened to American visitors, as I noted in yesterday's Forbes story. Just make sure to check your travel insurance if you go; it might not cover a Level Four country.
There's no time like the present to leave the comfort of our shores and experience something new.
It's not just a self-improvement thing. Many international destinations have slashed their prices to attract much-needed tourism. Countries like Greece, Turkey and Croatia are offering terrific deals for anyone willing to visit. Much of the Caribbean and Mexico is still on sale. And these are all places where you can have an authentic cross-cultural experience, as long as you get away from the touristy areas.
When I was growing up in Austria, I would spend my summers roaming around Vienna. It was a great place to hang out — it was safe, culturally rich and had a terrific mass transit system. We'd take a break from walking and hang out in a Kaffeehaus. We recognized the languages spoken by the other visitors — English, French, Spanish. Occasionally, we'd hear Czech, Russian or Plattdeutsch that suggested the speaker came from East Germany. That was unusual.
When I think about it, those brave contrarians who traveled from Eastern Europe overcame great odds to visit Austria during the Cold War. They returned to their countries with a different perspective and shared it with others. Reform eventually came, leading to the end of one-party rule. That's the power of travel.
I'm afraid that the summer of 2021 could be the one where we got a little too comfortable and stayed in our caves. We could feel the effects for years to come, particularly during the next election when insular ideology might translate into odd behavior at the ballot box.
Are you planning to defy America's international travel advisory this summer? If so, where are you going? Do you agree with the latest Level Four advisories? Why or why not? The comments are open. Please be nice to each other.