Travel and COVID-19
After a mere quarter of a year, these two words, these two things have become synonymous with one another, as one’s ability to move freely has become severely curbed worldwide.
And yet, variations do exist between the different forms, the different styles of travel. And the extent to which they have been or will likely continue to be influenced by the longer-term implications of the coronavirus.
Eventually, conventional, mainstream travel will restart, as the global economy attempts to reignite – though changes will be introduced, ranging from ‘digital health passports’ or automation and biometrics.
But what of other forms like sustainable or more responsible travel?
COVID-19 could be the very opportunity to make them and their principles the norm.
Understanding the impact of COVID-19
The impact of the coronavirus upon travel is unprecedented, much like the use of that word nowadays.
Jokes aside, it is difficult to accurately depict the impact COVID-19 is having on transport, most notably on international travel. Numerous airlines have either collapsed or are seeking bailouts from their governments to ensure they do not do so.
The effects from COVID-19 are worse than two of the worst previous events on aviation combined –9/11 and the 2010 Icelandic volcanic eruption.
Comparatively, the growth of remote working and telecommuting has meant users of public transport are at an all-time low – New York subway passengers are down by 90%. And that is in the entirety of its history of existence.
Indeed, it is reasonable to think that over the summer, aspects of travel as we know them will normalise. But airports will be heavily monitored. Train and bus stations will remain affected by the current social distancing measures found in any public forum.
Things will only reach relative normalisation levels once a remedy; a vaccine can not only be established but consistently mass-produced.
However, when concerning sustainable travel, ecotourism, or related industries, predicting how resilient and adaptable they will be is very uncertain.
Additionally, when considering environmentalism more broadly, the most apparent transformation has been with people’s reliance upon nature and their desire to seek solace within it during these times of hardship.
But its this seemingly minor attitude adjustment that could yield far-reaching effects.
How might COVID-19 reframe attitudes to travel?
Before COVID-19, a National Geographic survey found that around 53% of interviewees would not be able to incorporate methods or options to make their travels less environmentally impactful.
And why? One simple reason: cost.
Often enough, sustainable travel, as it is currently perceived, is nearly universally correlated with higher costs. Indeed, this is something this writer appreciates, as trying to live as an ex-pat and work internationally.
That said, it doesn’t have to be.
Increasingly, as technology advances and people develop innovative products or services, they are giving people greater autonomy over their travel, which in turn, enables them to be more responsible. And, often enough, the most straightforward steps don’t involve anything specific at all, only needing to apply more significant awareness.
Yet, it’s precisely due to COVID-19 that the most prominent outcome could be increased awareness among individual travellers. Simply because, with more tourists taking steps to be aware of their hygiene or interaction in public, this is will more likely then translate into all areas of decision-making.
Decisions which then include their behaviour surrounding their frequency or style of travel.
As mentioned, people’s appreciation for nature has exploded under COVID-19 alongside enjoying their local environments. So, as lockdown measures gradually ease, travellers will prioritise their own native countries as destinations to explore and holiday.
And this means a twofold advantage:
- It will help to advance the importance of responsible travel among tourists since they are holidaying with a newfound awareness.
- It will promote the concept of ‘slow travel’, whereby people take trips that last longer, explore deeper into destinations, and provide more of a cultural or heritage immersion.
And that is without even mentioning the reduction in carbon emissions which will also occur, as travellers emphasise local destinations because of a stronger connection to them.
Why this is more about adaptation than transformation
What that fancy subtitle means is that the COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t need to mean a complete and ‘scary’ transformation of our lives when we travel.
Inevitably, accommodating changes to how one travels for leisure or work will be necessary, perhaps resulting from other major global events such as terrorism.
However, gradually these changes have become less severe as innovations have appeared, and people collectively adapt.
The goes for sustainable travel post-COVID-19.
Being able to travel freely temporarily, but sharply restricted has come as a shock. The pandemic has served a reminder of how much of a luxury travel can be, while also highlighting the importance of getting as much out from each experience as possible.
But it has also emphasised the availability of options travellers actually have, including with making simple, conscious choices to when, where or how they travel.
Indeed, both the UNWTO and WHO are using COVID-19 as the opportunity to redefine how tourism should be approached.
To ensure an adequate lasting response to the coronavirus, they are treating this to promote responsible travel and that it will merely, benefit the wellbeing of individuals or their fellow travellers, but the broader climate and environment.
Travel has the potential to benefit everyone. The travellers themselves, the recipients, and the whole environment, because of the ability to develop intercultural understandings of the globe’s diversity. It also means we are all more empathetic, which ensures we take care of each other and our surroundings.
So, ironically, COVID-19 could be the very wakeup call we have needed to start living greener lives, travelling more responsibly and make more conscious, informed decisions.
As by being more informed, we all become more empowered, resulting in a truly comprehensive change for sustainable travel.
Pyotr Kurzin is a British-Russian expat who lives in Washington DC and graduated from Johns Hopkins Univesity. Working in international development, Pyotr focuses on human rights, humanitarian affairs and the environment, currently as a specialist for Amnesty International and researcher for the International Rescue Committee. Pyotr academic and professional interests are reflected in his passion as an avid traveller, visiting 80+ countries and desire to reach 100 before he’s 30. His love for travel coupled with diving and sustainability propelled him to start My Global Muse where he shares his efforts to live and travel eco-consciously while making sustainability more accessible and appealing to all.