Skift Take

The travel industry's pandemic interregnum period is over. We have gained so much in what we lost.

581 days ago, I wrote this essay on how March 14, 2020 will forever be remembered in history books as the day the world stopped traveling.

Now, 581 days later, as the United States last Friday announced November 8 as the date when anyone in the vaccinated world is welcome to come through our borders, it is safe to say the travel industry’s pandemic interregnum period is over. As countries and tourist destinations across the board open up — even the fortress Australia is starting the reopening process and sclerotic Singapore is finally giving in and opening up with its typically on-brand bureaucratic “vaccinated travel lanes” — the vaccinated world is ready and able to travel again in the coming weeks and months.

The long global nightmare of a grounded planet is now going to be confined to introspections and dissections for years to come, but not as a continuing reality. The travel industry’s existential times, at least for this pandemic, are over.

It feels good to breathe out after this long, long pause. It feels good to have survived, to have lived through this pain and come out on the other side cognizant and humbled by what we lost and what we learned.

And yes, it is important to pause and appreciate what we have gained in the great lockdown.

What we have gained is a new appreciation of travel as a privilege, not an uninhibited right. The hubris is gone, and what has emerged instead is that travel is indeed a privilege we have to balance with the complex, intertwined lived realties of the planet.

What we have also gained in the rebound of travel in sporadic spurts in the last year is that travel is indeed a human need, that connection that is fostered through traveling and meeting people is indeed the default human condition. The desperation to travel speaks to the desperation of connection in our incredibly atomized lives.

What we have also gained is a renewed understanding of the immediate neighborhoods we live in. Early on in the pandemic, I wrote about how my big hope for the next five years would be the rise of radical localism. “Mine would be about how radical localism became the way travel industry came back, people began to appreciate their rural areas around cities and local small businesses in tourism/hospitality thrived as a result,” I wrote. And indeed that is how the travel industry, even if hobbled, survived through these last 581 days, with a huge resurgence in domestic travel around the world, and some sectors like the short term rentals and outdoors, thrived.

What we also gained is an appreciation of our stationary lives in the great lockdown of the planet. We, the global citizens of the world, had always assumed constant movement is better. This stationary life we have lived should make us reconsider that maybe stillness is better, maybe silence is better, maybe listening is better. That we gained so much in what we lost.

By being still, we also saw in stark contrast travel’s extractive effects on the planet, and we gained some understanding of what sustainable travel really means beyond the buzzwords in midst of a planet throwing up all sorts of climate calamities all around us. We gained some realization, by being locked in our own communities, that the communities we travel through are the biggest stakeholders that matter most in the conscious return of travel. That climate change and overtourism — and indeed tourism itself — have already converged.

What we gained is an understanding of travel’s new geopolitical power, its use as a weapon that politicians and leaders all over the world use to assert their power, and no one has really figured out how to channel it the right way, everyone’s stumbling through it. It is important for our industry leaders to continue to be engaged at the policy level because if we have learned anything in this pandemic, it is that travel –and the lack of it — doesn’t exist in a bubble away from all the messy imperfections of the planet.

Arundhati Roy wrote a remarkable essay in the FT early on in the pandemic, and it is worth re-reading it as we are coming out on the other side of this portal, as described it:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

This pandemic has indeed been a portal for the travel industry, and how we choose to use what we have gained as we are coming out of it on the other side of this will determine travel’s weight on the world.

It’s finally time to travel, again.

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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery

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