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May I travel again? Part 0

This is a multi-part series by Evan Tzeng on the broken promises of tourism before the pandemic, the moral compromises of hospitality as the pandemic unfolds, and the future of travel in a post-pandemic world.
What if your wanderlust was a deadly weapon? Etsy

What does it mean to be a “traveler” when the vast majority of countries are closed to foreigners? Is being a “traveler” even ethical if you could unknowingly be a superspreader? Was identifying as a “traveler” ever an ethical identity in the first place?

And what does this mean for the travel, tourism, and hospitality industries – both the giants such as Airbnb and Carnival as well as the tiny independents like Song of Travel Hostel and StayAltered?
Preface

What you are about to read may make you uncomfortable.

I certainly gained no comfort in writing this. If anything – after re-reading and re-writing for the hundredth time – I feel worse. Sharing this does not absolve me of my guilt.

When I point my finger in other directions, I also point my finger at different facets of my self – the slow traveler and the frequent flyer, the neo-colonial voluntourist and the capacity-building host, the rude foreigner and the rude local, the luxury-envying backpacker and the privileged globetrotter – altogether me.

Consider this my mirror monologue à la Edward Norton as Montgomery Brogan in “The 25th Hour”.

– Evan, May 5, 2020

Part 0
No more beating around the bush.

Hello world, forever-changed yet forever-changing.

Last week, I updated my LinkedIn headline to “Founder of StayAltered, a Purposeful Hospitality company.” A few likes and comments aside (thank you, by the way, for those tiny hits of dopamine), most of you probably thought: “Damn Evan, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a hospitality company.”

Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, if my headline read “Founder of BusinessAsUsual, an Industrial Hospitality company,” I’d probably agree. But StayAltered is not business as usual (more on that later). Still, you’re probably thinking: “Are you sure you want to be an entrepreneur right now?”

I rarely refer to myself as an “entrepreneur”. The label makes me itchy, but it doesn’t make me break out in hives the way being labeled a “traveler” does. I never call myself a “traveler”. Yet inevitably, when a mutual friend introduces me to a stranger, it happens: “And this is Evan. He’s a world traveler.”

“Well…” – I stammer, desperately trying to gracefully correct my technically-correct friend – “I don’t know if I’m a traveler…” – now I’m grasping for words while scratching my imaginary hives before an increasingly uninterested stranger and my well-intentioned, now-embarassed friend – “I guess… I’ve traveled a little…”

Why am I allergic to “traveler” while others proudly wear the label around their neck? Would I settle for “tourist”? (Uh, no.) Am I old-school hip enough to be a “jetsetter”? (I wish, but no.) How about “global citizen”? (Ugh, fuck no.)

The ultimate question.

Up until January 2020, identifying as a “traveler” was at best an enviable, sometimes admirable status, and at worst an odorous, but not offensive choice. This was the month that started with WHO announcing a “pneumonia outbreak of unknown cause” in Wuhan and ended with Trump denying entry to all foreigners entering from China.

In just under two months, “travelers” had become the most rightly feared and wrongly vilified people in the world – especially Chinese travelers (more on that later as well). By April, 95% of all flights globally and 100% of all cruise ships were shut down.

What does it mean to be a “traveler” when the vast majority of countries are closed to foreigners? Is being a “traveler” even ethical if you could unknowingly be a superspreader? Was identifying as a “traveler” ever an ethical identity in the first place?

And what does all this mean for the travel, tourism, and hospitality industries – which employs 10% of the global population, generates over 10% of the world’s GDP, and created 25% of all new jobs in the past five years – both the giants such as Airbnb and Carnival as well as the tiny independents like Song of Travel Hostel and StayAltered? All of these inquiries could answer the ultimate question on every “traveler’s” mind:

May I travel again?

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge some of the writers who influenced how I spent the last few weeks molding several months of scribblings, notes, and one-liners into a more cohesive narrative.

Skift published several epics, including the Oral History of Boutique Hotels by Deanna Ting and the Oral History of Online Travel by Dennis Schaal. Both were immensely valuable in the development of this as well as the research and development of StayAltered.

Shoshi Parks admirably described “7 Ways Travel MUST Change After Coronavirus” for Fodor’s. Her action-oriented ideas offer a much more optimistic read than my bleak, multi-part boredom.

Gabrielle Hamilton’s raw and honest piece in The New York Times Magazine convinced me to trash the previous final draft and re-write everything from a first-person narrative.

In the climax of “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing”, Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic: “It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.” You nailed it, Ed.

I would also like to acknowledge all of the locals, workers, hosts, and “travelers”, guests, passengers who shared their stories, ideas, dreams, and worries with me. Thank you.

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