Last week, the European Union released a highly anticipated list: countries whose Covid-19 levels are low enough for their travelers to enter Europe now that borders have reopened to non-essential travel. The US is not on it.
Given the rising numbers of cases being reported around America, this is hardly surprising news. Still, it deals a blow to Americans who were holding on to the hope of somehow squeezing in a trip to Europe this summer. I include myself; had everything gone to plan, I would have been sunning on the beaches of Paros, Greece, with family and friends right now.
But you know what? I’m actually happy that Americans have been banned from the EU. It’s a good thing for us Americans, not just for the obvious public health reasons that will keep other regions safe from a resurgence of a virus they have worked diligently to contain. Being stuck on the sidelines while the rest of the world gets to experience the joy of European travel also provides us with a rare opportunity to think critically about the meaning of global citizenship. We shouldn’t waste it.
An awareness of and compassion for the kinds of challenges other people and communities face is a cornerstone of global citizenship
Americans are accustomed to thinking of our blue passports as keys to almost any country. Sure, we encounter visa requirements and fees here and there, but in general the barrier to access has largely boiled down to two questions: do I have the vacation time? And can I afford it? During the pre-pandemic era, the answer was a resounding yes. Thanks to rising numbers of paid days off and the lowest flight prices in commercial aviation history, more Americans were traveling than ever. In 2018, more than 83 million Americans traveled abroad, and the plurality – more than 16 million – went to Europe. May through September have historically been the most popular months for Americans to visit the continent, where our spending accounts for significant portions of many countries’ GDPs. In other words, the decision to ban Americans from the EU during prime travel season was not without its downsides, even for Europeans. But the costs of welcoming us ultimately outweighed the benefits.
This is a humiliating and humbling moment. The US has long had a reputation for leadership in coordinating responses to worldwide emergencies, including the 2008 economic meltdown and the 2014 Ebola crisis. In contrast, the current pandemic saw the US not only fail to lead on a global scale but fail to act on a domestic level. Other countries have led the way in terms of containment measures, while the US has been mired in politicized fights over the very existence or seriousness of the virus. The failures of American political leaders – and many of our citizens – to take the virus seriously have made the US the worst kind of world leader: we now have the highest number of confirmed cases and confirmed deaths from Covid-19.
This has not gone unnoticed by our neighbors, friends and foes around the world. Now ordinary Americans are being held collectively responsible for decisions and actions we may have had nothing to do with. So many of us did everything “right” in terms of following quarantine orders and wearing masks and keeping our distance while in public. And yet here we all are – on the outside, looking in. We now find ourselves in the uncomfortable position more familiar to the Syrian, Nigerian and Iranian citizens who are routinely, unilaterally denied entry to the US and other countries, no matter their individual actions, belief systems or political persuasions.
This is not to say that those bans are justified, especially considering their roots in anti-Muslim rhetoric, but rather to ask Americans to set aside feelings of self-pity in favor of empathy for those who have never been able to take being welcome on other shores for granted. In fact, an awareness of and compassion for the kinds of challenges other people and communities face is a cornerstone of global citizenship. It is what drives us to be forces of change.
One change might come in the form of working at all levels to make visitors to the US – from tourists to refugees – feel more welcome and accepted. Another change should involve never again taking our own sense of welcome and acceptance for granted, in Europe or anywhere else. After all, this sense of entitlement has often led to bad behaviors like insulting Spanish ticket sellers for not speaking English, carving names into Rome’s Colosseum, and bathing in the Trevi fountain. Such actions not only cast a negative light on Americans but result in penalties that affect all tourists, such as barricades around major attractions. They also exacerbate the ills of mass tourism, which is already harming housing markets (thanks to Airbnb) and putting a wedge between visitors and residents that threatens to cut off the kinds of cross-cultural exchanges that are such important elements of global citizenship. How can we build connections to other people when they – often rightly – believe we don’t respect their homes?
If and when EU borders reopen to US nationals, it will be tempting to make up for lost time and book flights landing on the first day we are welcome back. But it’s time to think more critically about global travel. We must acknowledge its costs in terms of both climate change and “overtourism”, which encompasses the diverse environmental, social and cultural impacts of tourism to already heavily trafficked areas. If we want to bequeath any elements of our current world to future generations, we must reduce our carbon footprints and overall impact on the locales we visit. This may mean forgoing trips to bucket-list destinations in favor of lesser-trod locales or simply exploring closer to home.
The idea of never going back to Europe or to other popular overseas destinations is a tough pill to swallow, particularly when we’re all nursing fantasies of a post-Covid-19 future. Unfortunately, that future might demand the same thing of us as the present: setting aside our own personal desires, appealing to our highest collective angels, and sacrificing for the sake of the greater good. Are we up to it?
Tamara J Walker is a professor, writer, and co-founder of The Wandering Scholar. She is currently at work on The Global Green Book, about African Americans and international travel, for Crown (Penguin Random House)