The Waimea Canyon on the Hawaiian island of Kauai is so beautiful that the coronavirus outbreak was happily out of mind during a hike a couple of weeks ago — right up until I distinctly heard Italian being spoken by a group up the trail.
We weren’t so unplugged on vacation to have missed news that week of an emerging outbreak of the disease now called COVID-19 in northern Italy, nearly 8,000 miles away by airliner.
My first thought was, “They’re a long way from home.” My second thought was, “Why wouldn’t Italians also want to visit Hawaii?”
Right then, it was clear how a novel virus could have made its way around the globe in just two months.
There are a lot of people around the world on the move all the time.
Except for a dip in the Great Recession year of 2009, international tourism traffic has increased year by year as far back as World Bank data go. There were roughly 92 million American departures for 2018. Much of that travel was here in North America, to Mexico or Canada, but Europe and Asia remained popular destinations as well.
That figure from 2018 is nearly double the number of annual U.S. departures for an international trip compared with the late 1990s, according to the same data. Meanwhile, the United States, as of the last report, remained the third most popular destination for foreign travelers, with 80 million visits in 2018, and no country collected more money from tourism than the U.S.
Travel for people throughout the rest of the globe has shot up even faster than it has for Americans since the 1990s, and as of the latest data there were more than 1.5 billion departures in a year. International travel grew a lot for other wealthy countries, too, like South Korea, but nothing like what’s happened with China.
International travel by the Chinese has exploded since the mid-1990s, up more than 30-fold as China became integrated into the global economy and its middle class bloomed. With growing affluence they had growing desires, including wanting to visit nice places abroad.
When people get richer and businesses grow and expand their networks, people travel more. As recently as 1995 the gross domestic product per person here in the United States was more than 40 times higher than that of China’s. That ratio has come down dramatically as China’s economy developed.
There may be a little bit of a misunderstanding that what’s now called globalization is a recent phenomenon, a booming success in recent years that has allowed both businesses and tourists to get complacent about relying on people thousands of miles from their hometowns.
The current round of expanding globalization really goes back to the late 1940s. And those very big numbers for tourist trips include people traveling for work.
The case for increased trade, by the way, is an easy one to make. It’s the same as doing business with another American firm, only becoming globalized when the customer or supplier instead lies on the other side of a national border.
In trade, all people are doing is taking something they are good at or have a lot of and then trading some of it for something they really want that might not be cheap or plentiful where they live. Both sides of the trade are better off.
Even leisure travel can be thought of that way. In Minnesota, we are long on lakes and Northwoods experiences and will happily “trade” some of them for destinations where the weather is warm and sunny in February.
Experts will eventually measure how trade and easy travel contributed to the spread of COVID-19, but there’s something interesting to be observed from past experiences with pandemics.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is new to humans and the disease appears to have a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu. Yet humans have had to deal with the flu for a long time, including new variations that test human immune systems.
The outstanding example of a tragic pandemic remains the Spanish flu near the end of World War I, a brutal killer that took place when health care practices were crude by today’s standards. A bunch of factors made that pandemic even worse, though, like a global war that had lots of people living in close quarters and on the move while governments, including our own, decided to not tell their people the truth about the flu.
But there’s an even more interesting one, maybe the first historically confirmed influenza pandemic. It took place in 1580, before William Shakespeare had a hit play or the young Italian Galileo had made his first contributions to modern science.
And that disease appeared to follow traditional trade routes, spreading from Asia and Africa and then up into Europe. From there, it crossed the Atlantic to the Americas.
This was well before the machine age, and the capability to rapidly move people and stuff around the globe. The disease spread without Travelocity or United Airlines, fast steamships, railroads or maybe even any notion of traveling for fun like tourists do now. But people still traded.
It’s impossible at the moment to speculate how the COVID-19 outbreak eventually plays out, here and around the world.
Yet when the outbreak subsides, it’s safe to assume that people are still going to want to travel and they are still going to want to trade for the goods and services they want.