Travel influencer Shakeemah Smith’s recent Instagram posts show off stunning resorts and crystal-blue water from destinations like Guatemala, Rio de Janeiro, and Tanzania. Smith runs “Travel Like A Bawse,” which teaches women how to master traveling solo. After initially halting all of her travel plans at the onset of the pandemic, Smith resumed her destination hopping last summer.
Smith noticed that her social media dispatches from exotic resorts and sunny beaches were met with negative comments and accusations she was being careless in the face of stay-at-home orders. Smith told Insider those who’ve criticized her for traveling — also referred to as travel shaming — since the onset of the pandemic appeared more concerned with where she was in the world rather than what she was doing while there.
“People are doing risky activities in the US like going to clubs, bars, and hookah lounges without wearing a mask or social distancing,” said Smith. “But people criticize me for traveling to countries that actually take precautions for international travelers.”
In November, the New York City Sheriff’s Office broke up an illegal sex party of over 80, mask-less attendees in Astoria, Queens for violating state COVID-19 regulations. In February, WNBC reported that the New York City Sheriff’s Office broke up two parties on a Sunday morning that gathered more than 350 people together.
Currently, the city of Miami Beach is under curfew until further notice from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. after thousands of people flocked to Miami this month to celebrate spring break.
Earlier this month, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan, as well as Chicago and San Francisco, all made announcements to ease restrictions. More than 35 US states have kept their mask-wearing rules in place, albeit with variable enforcement.
Several travel influencers told Insider that they’re frustrated with the travel shaming they face over photos and videos of their pandemic-era trips, describing the criticism as unfair and unwarranted.
Before the pandemic, Abiola B. traveled monthly for leisure and her own travel business, “The Rich Aunt, LLC Travel Concierge & Apparel.” In 2020, she only took 4 trips.
Her first trip since the pandemic was an August getaway to Mexico, where she told Insider she felt safer than in her hometown of New York City. At the time, COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York dropped to the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and the city established checkpoints at bridges and tunnels to enforce quarantine rules for out-of-state travelers. But Bishop said she still didn’t feel safe enough.
Most of her critics, she said, have been strangers who called her “inconsiderate” and “selfish” for traveling while the US grappled with over 30,000 new coronavirus cases daily.
Bishop argued that “anyone who isn’t staying inside 100% shouldn’t tell someone not to travel. People are still going to the gym, grocery store, malls, and interacting with people. Anytime you step outside, there’s a risk.”
“There were hand washing stations outside of places in Mexico that you must use before entering,” said Bishop. “In New York, there’s hand sanitizer, which is optional.”
Critics who shame travelers for taking trips may see it as holding people accountable during a global pandemic, but luxury traveler Michelle Gonzalez told Insider she thinks some of her critics are jealous.
Gonzalez, who has traveled to the Maldives, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Dubai during the pandemic, said people have an “all or nothing” mentality when making nasty comments about her globe-trotting.
“There are people who yell at me for traveling during the pandemic but there are also people who tell me that ‘COVID is a hoax’ and that I’m a ‘sheep’ for wearing a mask,” she said.
The CDC says it’s safest not to travel at all, but passengers can abide by international testing and mask guidelines
Even as ongoing vaccinations present a path towards a post-pandemic future, the Centers for Disease Control have maintained their warning against travel.
“Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19,” a CDC webpage on travel guidelines says. “Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, even if you are vaccinated.
If you “must” travel, the agency recommends getting tested 1-3 days before your trip and keeping a copy of your results. Wearing a mask, social distancing, and quarantining upon arrival are also encouraged.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, which represents the travel and tourism industries, 174 million global jobs related to the industries have been lost since the onset of the pandemic.
As of December, the council has argued that international travel can safely restart without waiting for mass vaccinations. “With appropriate testing and hygiene protocols,” the group said, travel can “already take place at minimal and acceptable risk.”
However, it’s unlikely that normal travel is soon to return, given a split between experts who urge Americans not to travel even if they’re vaccinated, experts who say health officials should teach people how to travel safely, and uneven vaccine distribution among minorities who have a higher risk of catching the virus.
Amid uneven guidelines across the US, travelers say they feel safer in other countries than in their hometowns
Travelers told Insider that the confusing and inconsistent guidance around preventative measures in the US made them more interested in booking trips.
Cedric Wood, a 35-year-old, lives in Atlanta, which he said never shut down during the pandemic. A mask mandate was never required in Georgia – the state’s governor Brian Kemp even tried suing Atlanta’s mayor over a local mask mandate last July.
Wood told Insider the comments from his online critics misunderstand the guidelines he obeys when he travels.
“They think that we’re not protecting ourselves, wearing masks, or being reckless and that’s not it,” said Wood.
Wood posted an Instagram reel as a response to the criticism over his traveling in the pandemic. In the video, he had a simple message for his critics: “mind the business that pays you.”
Before the pandemic, Dominique Benoit traveled every month. Her last trips were to The Bahamas in March 2021, Guatemala in February 2021, Costa Rica in December 2020, and Hawaii in October 2020. She said she abides by travel guidelines, taking no issue with getting tested before, during, and after her trips.
“People are projecting their own fears onto others,” said Benoit about being traveled shamed when she posts content around her travels. “I’m taking precautionary measures – let me live my life.”
Benoit’s first trip during the pandemic was to Hawaii in October when the tropical state was recording less than 200 new cases a day. Her hometown of New York City had recorded almost 1,000 new cases at the time, surpassing over 400,000 cases for the state, according to the Daily News. As she continued to travel during the pandemic, she said she feels safer outside of the US.
During her trip to Costa Rica in December, Benoit said she was impressed by washing stations outside of airports and temperature checks at restaurants. On her trip to Guatemala in February, she noticed sanitizing stations on the side of the road.
“Other countries take precautions seriously,” Benoit said.
Travelers see themselves as keeping the tourism industry afloat
Mexico has always been a popular destination for visitors but especially now during the pandemic. To avoid COVID-19 restrictions back home, many Americans have traveled to Mexico to vacation or, in some instances, to settle down.
As one of the few countries that do not require a coronavirus test or mandatory quarantine to enter, thousands came to its popular cities such Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, and Tulum.
In November, more than half a million Americans traveled to Mexico, The New York Times reported. Quintana Roo – home to Cancun, the Rivera Maya, and Tulum, received 961,000 tourists at the close of 2020 and the start of this year, the AP reported.
According to the AP, tourism in Quintana Roo accounts for 87% of the state’s gross domestic product, according to state Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas Pérez. In the wake of the pandemic, the state lost some 90,000 tourism jobs — only 10,000 of which have come back — and countless others that depend on tourism.
“My JOB is travel and tourism,” Valerie Joy Wilson, a travel journalist said. “I think sometimes people forget that. They forget the tour guides and drivers need to work to feed their families. It’s been over a year. Everyone’s jobs are essential.”
Wilson, who responded to travel shaming in an Instagram post, told Insider that although many people have criticized her for traveling, many have reached out and thanked her for the information she gives on how to travel safely.
“If you feel the need to shame someone, take a good hard look at your friends, family, and yourself and your behavior at home,” Wilson said in a response to her critics. “Let’s not criticize those who are safely getting back to some type of normal, and just doing their job.”
Travel expert Nicole Sunderland has been working in luxury travel for six years and her business is centered on shooting content for brands at different destinations.
Sunderland told Insider the pandemic has changed the way she posts content for her 114,000 followers.
Instead of posting photos and videos from luxury hotels that people could see as “flaunting” or “bragging,” Sunderland informs her audience on what they can expect when they stay at a hotel she reviews.
“I changed my strategy from ‘Guess where I am?’ to a more educational approach like ‘Did you know?'” she said.
‘Traveling is a way for me to escape’
Not all travel is for leisure, as pointed out by Jonathan Curry who after losing his job in the hospitality industry and witnessing the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, bought a one-way ticket to Tulum with no intentions of coming back anytime soon.
“Traveling is a way for me to escape from the trauma of being a Black man in the US,” said Curry. “I felt safer as a Black man in Mexico. It’s that simple.”Curry told Insider that after being inside for months amid an unprecedented year, traveling felt therapeutic.
During the pandemic to co-found “Yacht Club Company” in Tulum which provides travelers with a fun and private yacht experience.
Traveling, Curry said, is “not just about content or photos. It’s about finding safe spaces for myself and other Black people.”
“If you’ve been locked up in the house for three months, four months, haven’t been able to see friends … and then you witness all the trauma that’s happening in the media and the racial tension with being a Black man in America, for me this was a no-brainer,” Curry said.