Is it ethical to recommend travel while the world is in the grips of a second COVID-19 wave?

By Christopher Elliot for USA Today (Note: this article got Christopher into some trouble with ASTA, according to Travel Weekly)


The travel industry hopes two-for-one deals and deep discounts will get you back on the road now. But is it ethical to even recommend travel at a time like this?


We're deep inside a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prices are low, but the risks are high. And within the travel industry, a debate is raging about what to do.


I had a front-row seat to the conflict when one of my recent columns appeared on a Facebook page for travel agents. You might remember the holiday travel advice story where I suggested readers avoid traveling


The agents were so livid about my common-sense advice that they tried to have the person who posted my story fired. 


The controversy opened my eyes to a travel industry fighting for survival and willing to do almost anything to get you traveling again – including possibly exposing you to a deadly virus. As it turns out, both sides of this debate make valid points. But you have to decide who's right.


The case for recommending travel


For some people, the pandemic is yesterday's news, and it's time to get back out there. Travelers already know about the dangers. The greater tragedy would be not traveling.


"Yes, it is ethical to promote travel," says Katy Kassian, a business consultant and frequent traveler from Regan, North Dakota. "Without people like us traveling, there is no industry. There are no more roadside attractions. The diners will shutter, train and bus routes will be dramatically altered and ultimately, we will become even more disconnected from ourselves, our friends and family and all the fabulous places in our country."


A complete travel ban doesn't make sense, say travel professionals. Sangeeta Sadarangani, CEO of Crossing, a multinational travel agency headquartered in London, says some travel is safe.


"There are hotels that are safe and places that are safe for travel right now," she says. She's comfortable recommending travel to her clients, as long as they follow all the COVID-19 procedures – including wearing a mask, sanitizing and practicing social distancing. Sadarangani says it all comes down to trust – knowing your travel adviser is looking out for your best interests. 

But for her, "profit or transactions are not the motive." 


The case against recommending travel


But ethicists say this is the wrong time to tell anyone to travel.


"With both infections and hospitalizations increasing in many countries, including the U.S.,  it's worth remembering the most fundamental ethical principle of all: do no harm," says Bruce Weinstein, an author and ethics expert. "With that in mind, it is ethically unintelligent to travel now – especially for leisure."


Consumer advocates agree.


"I do not think it is ethical for companies to be recommending travel," says Emily Waddell, who publishes a blog called The Honest Consumer. "The travel companies are just looking out for their own best interest in regards to sales. They're not taking into consideration the seriousness of the pandemic and how more people traveling could increase the spread of the virus."


It's not safe to travel, but it's safe to plan


The correct answer to the question, "Is it ethical to recommend travel now?" is no. Telling people it's OK to take an all-inclusive vacation to Mexico during a spike in COVID-19 cases is clearly wrong. 


"We should heed the recommendations of public health experts such as epidemiologists to make scientifically and ethically sound recommendations about when and under what conditions it may be safe to resume nonessential travel," says Sarah Hull, the associate director for the Yale School of Medicine's program for biomedical ethics.


That's a hard reality for travel companies and advisers to accept. But these companies need to weigh the damage to their business against the potential harm they can cause customers by encouraging them to travel, says Robert Foehl, professor of business law and ethics at Ohio University. 


"We have an ethical duty to prevent harm to others," he says.


That said, recent changes in the travel industry may make it OK to plan a spring break or summer trip now.


Most travel companies are offering favorable cancellation terms. For example, many airlines have eliminated change and cancellation fees. That allows passengers to plan a trip without the stress of paying extra fees if they have to cancel.


"Even if your next trip is quite a ways off, it's a good time to plan a discounted trip for some point in the future," says Jeff Klee, CEO of Qtrip. "With this extra layer of flexibility built-in, it's nice to know that even if you're not comfortable flying at the moment, you won't lose the money."

Bottom line: Don't buy travel from anyone selling you a leisure trip in the near future. Travel companies must put their customers before commissions – and wait until it's safe. The good ones already are doing that. 


Is your travel adviser giving you dangerous advice?


Here's how to tell:


They lie. If your travel adviser tells you something that contradicts a public safety guideline or suggests a way to "get around" a mandatory quarantine, you might be talking to the wrong person.


"Omitting, downplaying, or outright lying about recent data that would affect someone’s decision to travel to a particular destination is unethical," says Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, a business consultant.


They tell you not to worry. If your travel adviser dismisses your questions about travel safety, quarantines, or travel, that could be a sign of trouble. People rely on travel advisers "for an honest and complete assessment of travel situations, with full disclosure of risks," says John Thomas, a law professor at Florida International University's school of hospitality and tourism management.


They fail to mention COVID-19. If your travel agent fails to mention the risk of a coronavirus infection or discusses the risks of travel, don't walk away – run! Travel is always risky, but now more than ever. Advisers who are not talking about COVID-19 are probably just thinking about their commissions.


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