What can the coronavirus teach us about the way we travel?
If there’s anything disenchanting about travel it’s people’s facial expressions at airports.
Nonchalant and bored, they carry neck pillows and reusable water bottles, answer emails on slick tablets and Facetime in the middle of Heathrow as comfortably as in their living room. They have done this before. They’re frequent flyers with air miles and apps that tip them off about duty free sales.
There’s little excitement at airports. Few eyes (except children’s) fill with wonder. Few groups of excited friends chat over guidebooks, few love-struck couples embark on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Travel is commonplace, routine.
I don’t know if the golden age was different, but I’ve read people used to dress up to fly. It was a special occasion that called for champagne. It was loaded with glamour and excitement.
And while 80 percent of the world’s population have still never been on an airplane, it seems the remaining 20 percent are seasoned travellers.
And like much of the world’s resources, the few have this privilege in abundance while the rest have little hope those plane tickets will trickle down to them.
So we seasoned travellers nap at airports and complain about a half-hour delay when just a generation ago flight itself seemed miraculous.
Coronavirus and overtourism
Travel is so ingrained in our lives that it’s a shock when it’s disrupted.
And when the coronavirus means cities under quarantines and airports closed, the sudden impossibility of travel is surreal and nightmarish.
Have any of us grown up without the possibility of zipping across the world on a trans-Atlantic flight?
The corona virus epidemic makes us realize how we’ve taken travel for granted as an inalienable right and a modern day convenience. The inability to dash off anywhere in the world feels, as it must in Gaza, like an open-air prison.
Budget airlines have made travel accessible to more tourists than ever before. Travel agents in every neighbourhood mean a sunny vacation is as easily purchased as a kitchen sink.
The commodification of travel, along with the bucket lists and Instagrammable places, mean that more people than ever are travelling to more destinations than ever before.
This has made the world a smaller place. And it’s shattered stereotypes and shown travellers worlds their grandparents could hardly imagine.
But that hasn’t come without a cost.
Travel is now yet another throw-away commodity that’s sucked up, consumed and discarded.
Budget airlines and packaged holiday tours have become the equivalent of a fast-food meal: easily available and cheap, but not exactly nutritious.
The price of overtourism
People now travel for photo opps. They fill cruise ships and land in strange cities to buy a few souvenirs and return aboard for dinner.
Locals in Barcelona are exhausted by the constant influx of tourists that turn affordable housing into AirBnBs. Venice is literally sinking because officials haven’t done enough to curb overtourism and the massive ships the Venetians have long protested against.
Travel in inherently good and humans should explore different cultures.
But can there be too much of a good thing?
The environmental impacts and damage of overtourism are often dully ignored for the sake of the almighty profit.
So if there’s anything we can learn from the coronavirus’ impact on travel, perhaps it’s this: we’ve taken travel for granted.
And we haven’t often made the best of it.
Companies spend so much money on business travel because it’s assumed the more interconnected we are, the better.
But in the times of this pandemic, will companies consider if jetting their employees off for a meeting that could have been an email is the best use of their budget?
I’ve been on many business trips that could have been summed up in a Skype call. And while I can’t complain about the free travel, it did make me wonder if travel – like any other resource – is really infinite. If it’s a product that’s always there and can be dipped into with abandonment.
Just because something is easy doesn’t mean it’s without consequence.
While travel grows as a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s harder than ever to have an authentic experience as most of the world’s major cities turn into tourist maps.
We can see half the world and still remain close-minded and bigoted, perhaps only richer for the photos that fill our smartphones.
We can visit countries in the double-digits. But ultimately fast-travel only harms the environment and leaves cities ravaged as they become amusement parks for tourists.
When this pandemic passes, and when airports open again and we don’t have to worry about constantly sterilizing our hands, maybe there will be a moment of gratitude we should have felt all along.
When this pandemic passes, maybe we’ll return to the airports with bright eyes and wonder on our faces.
If we’re the CEO, maybe we’ll think before flying around tired employees for more nonessential meetings.
And if we’re travellers maybe we’ll tread lighter and stay longer. We’ll take fewer yet more meaningful steps. We’ll take time to plan out our travels, to savour the experience and to reflect back on what we’ve seen.
The fish and clear water in the canals of Venice will show us how quickly nature recovers without us.
Maybe we’ll put more effort into planning a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Maybe we’ll opt for a sunny lunch on a terrace instead of a fast food delivery.
When this pandemic passes, maybe airports will be special again.