By Bryony Rule, Travel and Culture Online sub-Editor
It is undeniable that the coronavirus pandemic, and the virtual overnight shut down of industries which it entailed, have caused incredible hardship, loss and challenge for countless people and businesses. However, this unprecedented and forced halt to life as we know it, has presented us with a unique opportunity to reassess the trajectory of the world around us. What has become increasingly clear, is that we cannot return to ‘business as usual’.
One industry where this lesson is particularly pertinent is tourism and travel. To many of us in western society, being able to travel has come to be seen as a given; we spend the year looking forward to our summer holiday, are constantly on the lookout for cheap beach breaks, and each have an endless bucket list of destinations to visit. Travel has become so normalised, that the negative impacts we cause through our obsession with exploration, are often obscured. If we continue in this way, the rate at which we are harming our planet will only intensify. If we can take anything from global travel restrictions and the ceasing of jets roaring through the sky, it is the opportunity to rebuild the travel industry in a way which is sustainable, thoughtful and rewarding to all who are involved, compared to the highly inequitable model which dominated most of our lives pre-Covid-19.
Despite efforts towards sustainable tourism, the industry remains dominated by a paradigm which prioritises profit, at the expense of local communities, the environment and preservation of tourist sites. Another agent of capitalist consumerism, the tourism industry extracts profit from assets which do not belong to it. The views, beaches, wildlife, reefs, historical and cultural sites marketed as ‘must-see’ are public goods, exploited by the industry and often mistreated and damaged beyond repair. Popular destinations are viewed as business opportunities, rather than people’s homes. Many of these locations are oversaturated with tourists, making them intolerable for their inhabitants.
What is often overlooked by us in western society is that the ability to travel is a luxury and a privilege, not a right. The pandemic has served to make the discussion on privilege even more crucial; those who are privileged enough to travel, are the same people who have spread the virus around the globe. And yet, those who are less privileged have faced the most devastating impact. The effects of the coronavirus emulate the unequal world order which has existed for as long as international travel has taken place. Suffering from a colonial hangover, the tourism industry frames it as our right to visit foreign destinations, exploiting the destination in order to satisfy our own enjoyment and fulfilment. We return home full of stories to tell and photos to share, often without a thought for the contribution we have made to our holiday destination. Having our ability to travel taken away from us in the form of lockdown offers us the chance to reflect on our privilege. Though it is a painful realisation for many to come to, we must understand that by partaking in the dominant model of tourism, which is fast-paced, profit-centric and heavily dependent on air travel, that we are complicit in the suffering of the planet, people and cultures. This does not mean that we must stop travelling – for traveling is an activity which undeniably offers a multitude of positive attributes- but it does mean we must learn how to reframe and rebuild the industry, in order to travel more consciously.
One of the most damaging effects of tourism is its impact on the environment. Between 2009 and 2013, tourism’s global carbon footprint contributed to an increase of around 8% of global greenhouse emissions. As one would be right to assume, people from high income countries are largely responsible for this footprint. Air travel accounts for the majority of these emissions and it is indisputably damaging our planet at an alarming rate. Continuing on this trajectory would make reaching the 2016 Paris Agreement targets entirely infeasible. The profound impact it has was demonstrated by the almost instantaneous improvements to air quality, pollution and the environment which resulted from (among other factors) the cease of flights in March. This raises a crucial question: is it possible for tourism to thrive without dependency on air travel?
The answer to this is yes, if we embrace a shift in how we view travelling. Going forward, quality over quantity is a key principle which must be integrated into how we travel. In the era of social media and influencers, it is all too easy to be swept into the notion that you must constantly be on an amazing trip on the other side of the world, sharing an (often unrealistic) highlight reel with your followers. Our competitive capitalist culture has generated a need to HAVE to visit a certain destination, to get the perfect photograph that you see all over Instagram. This results in the dangerous oversaturation of many iconic tourist destinations, pushing these places beyond their carrying capacity. It is imperative that we learn to travel more mindfully.
Instead of choosing a location based on your social media feed, do some in-depth research, and select a destination that is not already teeming with tourists. Opt to travel slowly rather than racing through countries and carelessly flying from one continent to another in order to tick off a bucket list of destinations. The key point is this: get to know fewer places on a deeper level. Not only does this offer the chance for you to fully immerse yourself in the culture and promote cross-cultural exchange, it can also help to broaden your perspective on life and enable you to make meaningful connections with people you meet along the way. It is likely to cultivate a much more enriching travel experience, than if you were seeing the inside of a different airport every other day.
Another way we can adopt a more conscious way to see the world is to consider alternative transport methods. Whilst catching a flight may be the quickest route from A to B, what we are doing here is avoiding many cheaper and more sustainable modes of travel, in the form of the train, bus, and ferry. These methods of transport also offer far greater immersion within the environment that you have opted to visit. While flying 38,000 feet above land might mean a spectacular bird’s eye view of the land stretched out below you, this only means that you miss out on a myriad of landscapes, cultures, people and experiences that might have been available on the ground.
Better still, take a staycation. Lockdown has certainly led us, or rather forced us, to appreciate what is around us far more. As we are unable to stimulate ourselves with travelling further afield, many have begun to recognise the beauty that is already on our doorsteps. This learning to appreciate what we already have is so valuable, and can help to reframe our attitudes toward tourism, while at the same time, lessening our thirst to be constantly on the move. Explore more of your local area, visit somewhere new, and perceive it through a new lens.
This is not a call to end travel. Rather, it is a call to shake off previous harmful habits. A suggestion only that we become more vigilant, more aware of our impact on the world around us. For example, this can come through simply spending your money more consciously, ensuring you are supporting local people and businesses. Being mindful of the impact that you are having on the environment, in the things that you buy, activities you do, and places that you visit. If something is cheap, question why; the temptation of a budget packet holiday can be all too enticing, but if we want to see positive change within the industry, we must stop and consider the impacts. The cheaper a deal, the greater the likelihood of exploitation and negative, unsustainable consequences on people and/or place.
Coronavirus has been devastating. However, we must take from it the lessons that we can as we go forward into shaping a post-Covid world. Tourism is an industry which simultaneously offers great opportunity, and inflicts inexcusable damage. Looking to the future, there must be significant revisions in how the industry operates, in order to build a more sustainable, equitable and meaningful model. Tourists should not be at the centre of the travel experience, as they always have been. The needs and wishes of local people and environments must be prioritised, above all else.