Travel Warnings: What’s So ‘Non-Essential’ About Travel?

Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

05.06.09 | 11:14 AM ET

Mexico City airport. REUTERS/Jorge Dan

Scrolling through the breathless coverage of the swine flu outbreak one term popped out at me, as jarring as a surgical mask: “non-essential travel.” It’s everywhere, this non-essential travel, a virtual pandemic in itself. The U.S. government advises against non-essential travel to Mexico while, meanwhile, Europe warns against non-essential travel to the U.S., and so on.

Yet no one, including the State Department, bothers to clearly define non-essential travel or, for that matter, its presumed opposite: essential travel. When I asked, a State Department spokesman told me the difference between essential and non-essential travel “is a personal decision based on his or her circumstances.” Canada’s foreign ministry concurs, adding that how travelers define “non-essential” should be “based on each individual’s family or business requirements, knowledge of a country or region, and other issues.”

In other words, non-essential travel is one of those terms that sounds good, authoritative, but upon further inspection means very little—or, more precisely, means different things to different people.

One person’s “non-essential travel” is another person’s necessary journey. For most of us a trip to the beaches of Cancun sounds decidedly non-essential, but for a frazzled office worker, teetering on the verge of a breakdown, that same trip might be very essential indeed. And what about the archeologist who was planning to dig in Mayan ruins? Is that essential travel? Or, say, a group of human rights lawyers due to meet in Mexico City. They’re engaged in important work but is the meeting essential? I suppose visiting a sick relative in Acapulco counts as essential travel but, really, it depends on the illness and, for that matter, the relative.

The State Department, of course, could simply advise against all travel to Mexico, period, but that sounds Draconian, so they’ve attached the “non-essential” modifier. Perhaps that’s to soften the blow, for nations take these travel advisories personally—much more personally than, say, the latest tiff over farm subsidies. When the U.S advises its citizens not to travel south of the border, Mexico gets indignant, but when the EU issues a similar warning for the United States we bristle. How dare those Europeans suggest that we are contaminated, that we are—and this is really what this is about—dirty. Travel warnings, particularly those involving disease, touch an ancient, raw nerve about cleanliness. Mexico is now an untouchable nation. No wonder they are upset. 

The fact that we even use a term like non-essential travel speaks volumes about how much the travel experience has evolved over the centuries. For most of human history,  all travel was essential. You traveled to seek food, to fight a war (or flee one), to go on pilgrimage. It’s no accident that the words travel and travail share a similar root. In years past, you did not travel in order to chill out or “find yourself” (with a few notable exceptions) or go on holiday. It wasn’t until 1841 when a Baptist minister named Thomas Cook arranged an 11-mile excursion in England that package tourism—and so-called non-essential travel—was born. 

Sometimes, though, we can’t distinguish essential from non-essential travel until after we’re back home. The trip that seemed essential at the time often turns out, in retrospect, to be wholly unnecessary. One time I thought it was very important that I travel to Vietnam for a meeting of foreign correspondents. We ate and drank fulsomely but very little business was conducted. Likewise, I can think of some trips I’ve taken that began frivolously but turned out to be surprisingly essential. The point is we’re constantly revising our rankings of trips in terms of their importance, their essential-ness. Nothing is set in stone.

Actually, it occurs to me that I consider all travel essential. A good trip, even a bad one, makes me feel alive, fires my imagination. I could no more live without travel than I could without a good cup of coffee or a reliable broadband connection. So, if the opportunity arises I will gladly hop on a plane for Mexico City. Of course I’d pack a supply of surgical masks. Those are essential.

3 Comments for Travel Warnings: What’s So ‘Non-Essential’ About Travel?

05.06.09 | 1:49 PM ET

While I think that the current flu “pandemic” has been completely blown out of proportions, I think your piece is too utopic. Sure, all travel is essential for the soul. That’s not saying much concerning real life.

Is a walk in the park essential? Sure, we could argue that it is essential “for the imagination”, for good health, for renewed spirit. Would you go walk in the park if there was a zombie outside your window waiting to eat your brains?

I agree that the phrase non-essential travel depends on the person: visiting a dying relative may be essential to you and not to me. But the other factor which I believe you failed to address is the gravity of the situation, the risk factor.

Maybe you (like me) have realized that the flu threat has been overblown. But if Mexico City was invaded by zombies tomorrow, I’m sure many countries would issue a travel warning, and I doubt you’d “gladly hop on a plane for Mexico City”.

1002things 05.06.09 | 2:58 PM ET

You raise some excellent points about essential travel and then you go the extra mile and talk about zombies. Bravo!
I think basically all travel is “non-essential”. To me “essential” means necessary to continue living, like food, clean water, shelter and so forth. So unless you need to travel to get clean (which people in some areas do), I’d argue pretty much all travel is non-essential. Really it comes down to personal risk-weighing, much like the government agencies seemed to be saying. 05.11.09 | 12:51 PM ET

You make interesting points between essential and non-essential travel.  The one can make that decision is you.  Like you said, if you’re a frazzled office worker who may lose then chilling out on a beach may be what you need.  I think all of this hoopla about the “swine flu” is a good way to boost local tourism (not a bad idea) and to take peoples minds off of the economy..just my opinion.

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