The real terror behind the Ebola scare has nothing to do with the virus, and everything to do with the risk that unchecked hysteria poses to the vitality of the travel industry, not only in our global economy, but also in the American psyche.
I have worked in the travel industry for more than three decades, and time and again, I have stood resolute in the face of presumed threats. In 2003, it was SARS that threatened to ground airline fleets, empty hotels, and dock cruise ships. Then bird flu triggered the same concerns. Those incidents were accompanied by round after round of terrorist acts, from Lockerbie to the London bombings. Each is a tragedy in its own right, but none are capable of bringing down, or even slowing, international travel -- and with good reason.
In 2014, travel is more than a luxury; it is perhaps our most important tool in broadening horizons and gaining deep and meaningful acceptance of other cultures and people. Nothing opens the mind more than travel, and I am proud to have helped hundreds of thousands of people gain the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that only travel can afford.
So my response is simple. This week, I plan to take a flight to San Diego. It won't be without the same precautions I take every time I fly: a bottle of hand sanitizer and a couple of bleach wipes.
Will they ward off Ebola? Probably not. But they will ward off the bigger threat -- any residual hysteria or concern that travel is somehow more unsafe today than it was a month ago. That very notion is ridiculous. We all know that the greatest risk we take when flying is the car ride to the airport. With three reported cases of Ebola here in the U.S., and a single, unfortunate death, the odds remain the same: Air travel is the safest means of travel in the history of mankind.
So my travel this week will be more symbolic than anything else. It echoes the simple statement that we all should keep calm and carry on. But underneath it all, I will fly steadfast in my knowledge that:
Travel should never be politicized. This newest fear comes on the eve of our national elections, and it's being manipulated as a tool for political fear mongering. It's coming from both sides. It's shameful and it's irresponsible. The livelihood of many good people -- people that I have worked with throughout my career -- stand to suffer if we permit politics to feed travel fears.
Closing down air travel shuts off the world, making it a far more dangerous place. The single, most effective way to promote a safer, more peaceful global community is to bring people together through simple acts, such as sharing lunch with a Cuban artist, visiting the neighborhoods of Soweto, or bearing witness to the transformation of Dubai. This is how we learn about the world. This is how we open ourselves to others. Isolation only promotes intolerance, and is worth defeating at every turn.
Travel and tourism transforms and improves the lives of the world's most needy. In many places, tourism offers one of the few opportunities to earn a livable wage. From my desk at Friendly Planet Travel, I am blessed to work with some of the most dedicated and committed travel professionals from around the word. They love their work and take immense pride in sharing their cultures with others. Yes. They value our dollars, which they earn serving as tour guides, cooks, pilots, drivers, hotel managers, maids, and others, because those dollars lift lives, support families, and build businesses. As it stands now, shutting down air travel to West Africa is an overreach that will undermine already frail economies and only serve to create a more chaotic world.
So join me, won't you? Fly somewhere this week. Plan that vacation of a lifetime. Make plans to see the world. Don't fall prey to hysteria. So much more is resting on us and our ability to overcome fear. After all, the real tragedy isn't Ebola, SARS, bird flu, or terrorism. The real tragedy is all that we lose if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear, and fail to embrace all that travel can do to open our hearts and minds to others.