Covid-19 tourism is booming outside the United States and putting communities at risk
January 28, 2021
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Part of The “New” Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

It feels like endless summer on the expanse of Seven Mile Beach, a milky-white crescent that skirts the western reaches of Grand Cayman. Azure waters mirror the sky to evoke the quintessential postcard panorama; at sunset, Seven Mile Beach makes for a prime perch to watch the sun gild the horizon as it dips into the ocean.

The Cayman Islands could be a prototype for a tropical paradise any time of year. In the thick of a global pandemic, the British territory in the Caribbean might as well be another planet, an otherworldly utopia where masks are optional, bars are full, and vaccines are being rolled out efficiently to locals.

None of this happened by accident. The Caymanian government curbed the virus through rigid lockdowns and closed borders, and, with no community spread since July, was able to relax social distancing and mask rules in the summer. There are currently 44 active cases in the islands, all detected within travelers in isolation. If life there has managed to retain a patina of pre-pandemic normalcy, it’s thanks to responsible citizens, a halted tourism industry, and strict testing and quarantine guidelines for preauthorized travelers.

This hard-won bubble was punctured with the arrival of Skylar Mack, the 18-year-old Georgia college student who landed in November to visit her Caymanian boyfriend and was arrested within two days for removing her geo-tracking bracelet and violating the island’s 14-day quarantine protocol. The government cracked down: “This was as flagrant a breach as could be imagined; it was borne of selfishness and arrogance,” Justice Roger Chappie was quoted as saying in the Cayman Compass as he handed down his sentence. After an uproar that saw then-Georgia senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and Eric Trump speaking out in her defense, Mack’s four-month sentence was cut in half.

Now, where you fall on the matter of brazen, Covid-dodging vacationers has become something of a litmus test for outsiders: “Once you agree that she should be in jail, they’re happy,” says Lynne Wester. Wester arrived in the Cayman Islands in December, just a few weeks after Mack, but with a completely different mindset: She’s one of the earliest participants in the islands’ Global Citizen Concierge program, which allows her to live and work there remotely — and she was happy to abide by the quarantine guidelines to the letter.

“There’s nothing to defend,” she continues, referring to the outcry Mack’s case triggered back home. “[Americans] have a reputation, and she just lived up to that reputation completely.”

Holidaymakers like Mack have been gaining notoriety throughout the pandemic, as they decamp from crowded cities to considerably more isolated oases in pursuit of wide-open spaces, pristine environs, and lower Covid-19 counts — essentially, freedom. After a few months of homebound solidarity, travelers began venturing out into the world again, though border closures and virus fears reined in the ambitions of many.

Planned summer sojourns in Bali, Peru, or Seychelles were scrapped as traipsing jet-setters instead crowded destinations closer to home, like Mexico, Wyoming, and Hawaii. The common denominator for most Covid-era holidays: majestic landscapes where social distancing is theoretically embedded in the DNA and where an American passport didn’t carry an invisible scarlet letter. In some cases, perhaps it should have: Corona-cationers wreaked havoc everywhere from Tahoe to Tulum last year, leaving trash-strewn beaches and spiking infection rates in their wake.

This influx of unfamiliar faces often places travelers at odds with locals, as many small towns and tourism-dependent economies grapple with a Faustian bargain: welcoming tourists flush with cash and, in the process, risking more peril to their communities.

Scarcely a decade ago, Tulum tended to float under the radar, with bucolic beaches etched out of lush jungles that primarily drew an eco-conscious, boho beach set. In recent years, it’s become the domain of tech bros and influencers; its popularity crescendoed with the masses over the fall, courtesy of planeloads of foreigners recklessly partying on and off the beach — likely passing around viral load as breezily as tequila shots.

Much of Mexico was shut down for the spring, decimating the tourist industry that accounts for 17 percent of its GDP. But relaxed borders — no testing or quarantine required — and accessible flights helped Mexico recover: Cancun’s international airport arrivals soared from only 1,000 in April to more than 290,000 in November. That number would have included travelers who descended on Tulum for its Art With Me festival, which drew outrage for its five days of unmasked, undistanced revelry that went, well, viral — and led to Tulum’s unwelcome rep as the capital of pandemic partying.

According to Aldo Barrera, a restaurateur and hotelier in Tulum, social media fueled much of what’s unfolding there today, “with some famous travelers promoting the destination as if it was completely free, open, and nothing happens.” In reality, he says, the government and local community has tried their best to enforce and adhere to strict mask and social distancing guidelines as have its long-term expat transplants.

But visitors for events like Art With Me have thrown caution, and masks, to the wind. “The huge group in November promoted the destination as, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, everything is fine; there’s no safety measures.’ More tourists were attracted with this mindset that nothing was happening, that you didn’t have to follow any rules,” says Barrera. “I live every single day [with] all these restrictions. I don’t know why we got this reputation.”

Destinations like Tulum are inordinately dependent on tourists: “I will say 95 percent of the income in Tulum is all tourism, and 70 percent of the people in Mexico in general live day by day — and in Tulum, I will say even 85 percent,” says Barrera. Quintana Roo, the state where Tulum is located, declared tourism an essential service. Shuttering tourism until the pandemic passes — as did the Cayman Islands, where borders remain closed to most tourists and cruises aren’t likely to return this year — isn’t feasible everywhere. (How Mack slipped through isn’t entirely clear.) This leaves struggling tourist hubs worldwide to make a difficult choice between economy and health, despite the grim risk of superspreader events and overburdened local hospitals.

While poorly behaved tourists draw most of the attention these days, the rise of the work-from-home phenomenon across industries is in part spurring sojourns, either permanent or for extended periods, to new, usually more scenic, locales. With sheer emerald cliffs and pristine beaches unmarred by footprints, the tiny Hawaiian island of Molokai (population: 7,400) is the kind of Eden travelers have long pursued: an unspoiled, tranquil isle seemingly at the edge of the world.

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Community activist Walter Ritte is concerned about keeping it that way. “Outsiders are going to be coming in — and they are coming in — they’re looking for a safe haven. On Molokai, we don’t have too much Covid-19 problems. We’re always worried as local people that our future generations will not be able to afford to buy houses in Hawaii because prices will keep going up.”

Like Tulum, Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy has struggled during the pandemic — the state currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country — but many Hawaiians are welcoming the pause as a chance to rethink their oversaturated tourism industry and reinvent it in a more mindful, sustainable way. But in Molokai, says Ritte, it’s not the standard seven-day tourist they’re worried about: It’s the would-be transplants. “On Molokai, what we’re really afraid of is not the tourists; it’s people who want to come and live here now,” says Ritte, who, along with dozens of residents, went to the airport last March to picket arriving passengers.

But other destinations are more open to expats. In Puerto Vallarta, real estate agent Jorgé Guillen made several condo sales virtually in 2020. “It was a very challenging year and lots of changes, but we still managed to have a very, very good year,” he says. “In the past, [work] was an objection or an excuse for not being able to be somewhere else where you really like it better. Now that’s no longer an excuse, so why wouldn’t you do it?”

It’s not a rhetorical question. Trapped in a hazy blur of Zoom calls and breadmaking and Netflix benders, many people across America have asked themselves the same thing. Some with the means have even packed their bags. The result: “Zoom towns,” small communities across the US where urban professionals have decamped in droves as well as a dizzying array of international destinations offering long-term remote work visas and incentives. That includes the Cayman Islands’ program Wester is a part of as well as similar enticements in destinations as varied as Barbados, Iceland, and Mauritius. In this socially distant era, all you need is internet access and a view.

Sure, the possibility of escaping the homes where we’ve been cloistered and the anxieties that consume us for wide-open spaces with new landscapes — and lower numbers of Covid-19 cases — is appealing in theory, even as some find it appalling in practice. But we can blame at least some of this impulse on our human instincts, says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. “It’s who we are as primitive human beings: We would search for greener pastures; we would search to discover better food, more temperate weather,” she says. “That is part of human nature on an evolutionary level, that we would search for situations that were more conducive for farming, for physical health.”

These days, we just swap fertile farmland for reliable wifi.

Even as overtourism became a crisis, revealing its dark side everywhere from Bali to Barcelona, many of us continued, in pre-pandemic years, to seek the next adventure, the next undiscovered paradise, the next Shangri-La. But why do people continue to travel during a pandemic, whether for long weekends or long-term relocations? After all, this is a disease that followed heavily trafficked flight routes like a most unwelcome piece of cabin luggage. Surely that would check the impulse a little?

Those who are likely to make these travel impulses a reality are usually seasoned travelers, says social psychologist Michael Brein, who specializes in travel. They are people who have come to view travel as a vital component of their identity. “If you’ve experienced the wonderful rewards of your travel lives and what that has meant for you in your life, one wonders if you’re not possibly being a little bit unrealistic in terms of the draw, the lure of it” during an international health crisis, he says. “If they’re not really careful in trying to be grounded in reality, [they] might come to bite off more than they can chew.”

Meaning: risks to themselves, risks to the communities they’re relocating to, and the rude awakening of what it means to travel now — tracking byzantine and constantly changing guidelines, finding fewer meaningful interpersonal connections, and no longer experiencing the insouciance many frequent fliers have grown used to. Gone, for now, are the days of melting effortlessly into a conversation at a dive bar or spontaneous road trips in pursuit of the next Tulum. Instead, look forward to frequent testing, lots of paperwork and authorizations, and, in particularly vigilant countries, up to 14 days of extreme isolation with tracking bracelets or apps.

It’s the modern work-from-home reality that’s created a legion of new expats who, under normal circumstances, never would have contemplated such an itinerant lifestyle for themselves. “Pre-pandemic, when you talked about remote working, it was very much tied to the idea of the digital nomad: Either you worked for yourself, or you were a consultant, or it was very independent,” says Katalina Mayorga, founder and CEO of El Camino Travel. “Where it’s shifted is that people working across all industries now have this option to work abroad. Lawyers, people in tech — they want a change of scenery, but they also are very much accountable to their organization.”

Where the nomad culture evoked images of young, single travelers logging in between surf breaks and yoga asanas, entire families are now swapping cities for scenery, thanks to the combination of parents working remotely and children attending virtual school. “We saw a pattern start toward the end of the summer,” says Julie Danziger, a managing partner at luxury travel advisory group Embark Beyond, which counts long-term stays among the top travel trends expected for 2021.

Mini-leases was the company’s fastest-growing segment in 2020. “Someone in August called and said, ‘My kids are going to be Zoom learning anyway, I’m remote, my office is closed, we’d like to go away somewhere for six weeks.’ That family ended up on a ranch in Wyoming. (Another household that opted to ride out some of the pandemic in the state that’s among the nation’s least-populated: the Kardashian-Wests.) The family Danziger worked with, she says, “got this great American experience and the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors.”

It was this sense of psychic freedom that drew Sulma Escobar to Samara, Costa Rica, in December: She transplanted her husband and two children from California to Costa Rica to “be in contact with nature and give my kids a place that we can freely walk around and not feel like we are stressed over being too close to people.” Life back home in California was becoming a daily battle, she remembers: “I felt like we were fighting over who wears a mask and who doesn’t wear a mask, and you’re better than me. It was beginning to get to a point where it was more like a war than to get through this together.”

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As the crisis has dragged along for nearly a year, mental health has been a major driver for people in pursuit of a new view: “Sometimes having space, having a fresh environment, does allow us to focus better,” says Manly. “In a world where we live in more urban environments, the constant stress of remembering a mask, remembering to sanitize your hands, having people scowl at you if you’re within 6 feet — that sort of thing really wears on people.”

Mental well-being drew Wester to the Cayman Islands. While she normally travels 300 days a year for work, she spent the first three months of the pandemic in strict isolation in her 700-square-foot apartment in a high-rise in Austin, Texas, feeling like “Rapunzel trapped in a tower” — without grocery shopping, traveling, or seeing friends. “It was very difficult for an extrovert who lives alone to go from everything to nothing.”

Wester has an anxiety disorder, which was compounded by the stress surrounding the pandemic. Her friends in the Cayman Islands were living a “normal, mask-free, non-lockdown life”; when the Global Citizen initiative was unveiled, they suggested she apply. (There are incentives to be found stateside as well: Hawaii’s’ Movers and Shakas program — “Don’t work from home. Work from Hawaii” — drew tens of thousands of applicants; Savannah’s Creative Technologies Incentives covers relocation expenses for tech workers.)

In December, Wester became the 13th arrival on the Cayman Islands program: After a detailed application process, multiple Covid-19 tests, and a two-week quarantine in her new apartment with a patio overlooking the water, Wester found herself celebrating at a packed bar with 150 people. “It was surreal,” she remembers. “My favorite thing is everybody greets me with a hug because they know for 10 months I haven’t gotten hugs.”

Much of our travel behavior has been shaped by what we’re seeing on social media, and Manly traces some of this copycat syndrome back to our primal conditioning, too. “It’s that idea that people like to follow what another person is doing,” she says. “In primitive days, we would see one adventurer go off, and the tribe would decide, ‘Hmm, well, he came back and he’s fatter and he has more meat, so we’ll follow him.’” Today, she says, pandemic travelers still lead the way, “and these people are not coming back with Covid — or some of them aren’t — so other people think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”

But why are some travelers behaving like the pandemic doesn’t exist in the first place, endangering both themselves and the communities they visit? Manly says it all comes down to emotional maturity. “Some people,” she says, “confuse being free with not being accountable.”

It’s similar to the mindset of the kind of people who maintain their own homes beautifully but trash hotel rooms when they travel. “For some people, they like to have an excuse to shirk personal responsibility — and unfortunately, often when we do that, we are impacting other people.”

Americans have long had such a reputation, treating other countries as their personal playgrounds, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that. In Costa Rica, Escobar says, she’s heard of Americans taking it a step further, traveling there to work under the table in the hospitality industry — stealing Costa Rican jobs, if you will. “This was an issue before, but right now it’s even worse because there are no jobs,” she says. “They’re very upset — the locals are hurt by all of this. They think that because we have money we act like we own the place.”

As a short-term expat, Wester was cognizant of American travelers’ notoriety; it was important to her to look out for the best interests of the community she’d be joining for the foreseeable future. “That was very big for me, that I not bring anything to the island and that the island be pristine and that I not harm it in any way,” she says. “I think people need to understand what an expat lifestyle is: You’re still a guest in someone’s country.”

After all, one person’s romanticized escape is another person’s hometown. A traveler’s pandemic utopia can all too quickly devolve into someone else’s dystopia with irresponsible behavior and thoughtless attitudes.

If Skylar Mack thought a two-week quarantine in Grand Cayman was too stifling, her two-month prison sentence might be a revelation.

Sarah Khan is a travel and culture reporter whose work has appeared in the Highlight, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur, and Food & Wine.

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