One year into the coronavirus pandemic, after months of gaining weight and feeling groggy, Mayra Ramirez stopped drinking. And this summer, she’ll mark a new milestone for her sobriety: a completely alcohol-free vacation.
Ms. Ramirez, 32, spent the first 12 months of the pandemic working remotely from a tiny Brooklyn apartment, drinking every weekend and many weekday evenings as well. In March, like many others during this hard year, she realized her drinking was spiraling beyond the merely social kind. She has now been sober for three months. So when she began scouting locations for a break with a few non-sober friends, she suggested Sedona, Ariz., where they all will hike and wake up early, and she will avoid potential pitfalls like nightclubs and beachfront bars.
Many Americans turned to alcohol to blunt the stress, isolation and fear of the past 15 months: An October study in JAMA Network Open, the journal of the American Medical Association, found that Americans were drinking 14 percent more than in the previous year. Now, as vaccination levels rise and Americans head back to the roads and skies, sober travel, a subset of vacations once relegated only to 12-steppers and recovering addicts, is going mainstream.
Ditching the drinks
In a June poll of more than 23,000 people by Branded Research, 29 percent of respondents said they planned to take an alcohol-free trip after the pandemic. Forty-seven percent of the respondents to American Express’s Global Travel Trends Report in March said that wellness and mental health were among their top motivators for travel in 2021, and an analysis of social media chatter from Hootsuite, a social-media management platform, showed mentions of the term “sober vacation” jumping more than 100 percent over Memorial Day weekend. Even airlines are going dry: After banning booze in the cabin in 2020, several airlines are postponing a return to serving alcohol thanks to unruly passengers.
“If you had asked me a year ago, it would have been impossible for me to think that I was going to stop drinking for good,” Ms. Ramirez said. “But the pandemic, being at home and just sitting with my thoughts made me flip a switch and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
For the September trip with her girlfriends, Ms. Ramirez will stock the Airbnb fridge with nonalcoholic beer and act as designated driver of the rental car. To complement a new meditation practice that has helped with her sobriety, she has planned visits to Sedona’s supposed energy vortexes, which are said to help with meditation and healing.
“I had anxiety about planning the trip, because I’m newly sober and I knew it was going to be an obstacle to travel sober with other people who are not sober,” she said. “But my friends have been so supportive.”
Ruby Warrington, who published the book “Sober Curious” in 2018, has been fielding regular questions about sober travel in her eponymous Facebook group, where membership has swelled in the last year. She followed that book up in December 2020 with “The Sober Curious Reset,” a 100-day guide to rethinking your relationship with alcohol. Both of Ms. Warrington’s books have tapped into the global movement of “sometimes sobriety” that has been marked by trends like Dry January and #mindfuldrinking.
“The pandemic really shone a light on our drinking habits,” Ms. Warrington said. She herself quit drinking in 2016, and found travel to be the last and most daunting hurdle.
“Vacation drinking is definitely the drinking that I held on to the longest. It was the one hall pass I gave myself,” she said. “A lot of people have looked at their drinking habits during the pandemic and don’t want to go back to what they were. And they don’t want a vacation to get in the way of their progress.”
Close cousin to wellness tourism
Alcohol-free travel companies, like Travel Sober, We Love Lucid and Sober Outside, were organizing completely dry trips long before the pandemic. Now they’re seeing spikes in popularity: Steve Abrams, who founded Sober Vacations International in 1987, said trips for next year are nearly sold out. “I think we’re going to bust loose,” he said.
The Art of Living Retreat Center, a vegan wellness retreat in North Carolina that doesn’t serve alcohol, reports a 50 percent increase in visitors specifically seeking out a sober vacation. Their ranks have also grown at Rancho La Puerta, a fitness and spa resort in Tecate, Mexico, where no alcohol is served in the dining room. “Many guests have shared that through the challenging year, mostly at home, they found themselves drinking more than they ever had before,” said the director of guest relations, Barry Shingle, in an email.
Sober travel is a close cousin of wellness tourism, a sector currently valued at nearly $736 billion and expected to grow by $315 billion by 2024, as the pandemic has amplified our desire to optimize our health.
“Wellness travel, and sober travel being part of it, will become more compelling for individuals who want to keep their immune systems strong,” said Dr. Wendy Bazilian, an exercise physiologist in San Diego. “Post-pandemic, we will be craving a lot of different resets.”
Fay Zenoff, an addiction recovery strategist, will lead a workshop for the sober curious in Mexico this September. She calls sobriety “a new tenet of wellness,” and her workshop offers strategies for evaluating one’s relationship with alcohol. “We are all recovering from something and you don’t have to be sober to benefit from recovery practices,” Ms. Zenoff said.
The weight (literally) of booze in the great outdoors
The pandemic also pushed travelers toward the great outdoors, which also compelled many to ditch the drinks.
Carlos Grider, 37, who runs the travel blog A Brother Abroad, said that with cities on lockdown, he’d seen his readers shift their priorities as they planned trips to national parks and campgrounds.
Mr. Grider has been doing sober travel stints for four years, all corresponding with intense adventures: a motorbike tour through the rice paddies of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam; a meditation training at a monastery in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
“If you’re going to go on a trek or a hike, you’d have to take the booze with you, and nobody wants to carry that extra weight,” he said. “It’s a positive outcome of the pandemic that has made travel much richer.”
Sarah Fay, 29, agrees. She quit drinking two years ago, and her desire to hike the volcanoes at Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán helped keep her sober through the pandemic.
“I kept telling myself, when the world opens up again, this is the thing I want to do,” she said. “It was a health goal to be able to climb at that elevation.” Ms. Fay made it to the volcanoes in late April. She has shared her sobriety journey on her travel blog, where several readers have reached out for sober travel advice. For women, she said, sobriety is especially important.
“As a female solo traveler, it’s safer,” she said.
The allure of the mocktail
In cities, too, options for alcohol-free fun are expanding. Spire 73, the open-air bar atop the Intercontinental Los Angeles Downtown, has responded to a demand for virgin drinks by adding nonalcoholic wines to its bottle-service menu; at Regent Singapore, mocktails at the acclaimed Manhattan Bar are being concocted with freshly squeezed juice and steeped tea infusions.
Alcohol-free morning raves, like Daybreaker and Morning Gloryville, had to go virtual during the pandemic, widening their global audience. As in-person parties return, organizers say, more travelers are arriving on the drug-free dance floor.
Eli Clark-Davis, a Daybreaker co-founder, says out-of-town guests have tripled since in-person dance parties resumed in May.
“Instead of just activating in 28 cities, we were in 112 countries. Now they want to visit the real thing,” he said.
Newly sober or sober-curious travelers should plan ahead, said Holly Sprague, the co-founder of Dry Together, an alcohol-free online community for midlife moms, by scouting out sites for mocktails and rethinking habits like drinking at airports.
Ms. Sprague, 46, has been dry for nearly three years. Megan Barnes Zesati, her co-founder, is also 46 and on her fourth year dry. Vacationing sober, Ms. Zesati said, has completely changed her travel experience.
“During my vacations these days, I’m as likely to enjoy a sunrise as a sunset,” she said. “On past vacations I rarely took advantage of mornings. Now they are my favorite times.”