As millions of travel and tourism workers now find themselves out of jobs, furloughed or, as in the case of some cruise ship employees, stuck indefinitely at sea, the industries involved seem to be gearing up for some future "recovery," insinuating a return to the baseline of pre-coronavirus. That simply cannot happen because the pre-coronavirus travel and tourist industries will not function in a post-coronavirus world.
Everything must change: the way we fly, the way we dine, how we wait in line — even how we go to the beach. Our very concept of vacation may have to change.
Wildlife specials and glossy travel ads once led us to believe that there is some untouched “wild” that remained ready to visit, one worth flying to and paying for. When we finally reached our dream destination, the marketers assured us, there would be no crowds and no crime, the beaches would be trash-free, the air quality excellent, the toilets clean and the cheerful locals would benefit directly from our generous tourist dollars.
The truth, though, was that unbridled global capitalism drove travel and mass tourism in a race to the bottom.
Take the Sistine Chapel: When I saw it in real life, it literally took my breath away. I stood there, gazing overhead, feeling reverent beneath the monumental work of art. Yet for all it took to get there — a transatlantic flight, the hotel in Rome, thousands of dollars — I was allowed only a minute of that reverence (while a Swiss guard slowly and repeatedly droned, “No flash please”) before being shoved to the back of the room and bustled out the exit, straining my eyes for one last glimpse of Michelangelo’s “Adam.” Yes, I have seen the Sistine Chapel... for about 200 seconds.
Or there was the time I sat in the back of a jeep in Bandhavgarh National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, India. “Tiger,” echoed from my guide’s radio and we were off, tearing through the jungle towards a flash of orange beyond the trees. We then arrived to a circle of 23 similar jeeps, each packed with loud tourists who were standing up and clamoring for a decent picture of the lone tiger, now startled by flashing cameras. Yes, I have seen a tiger in the wild, and it terrified me — not because I felt threatened, but rather because that’s when I realized our natural world was gone.
I have written that “nature, silence, and solitude” are the last remaining luxuries in travel; the coronavirus has underscored the pros and cons of all three. To escape the madding crowd, to find balance in nature, to de-stress, to soak up the joy of new places, to share beauty and wonder with loved ones — these are all reasons why we travel.
Sadly, none of that is how we travel. Most of us are subjected to the whims of an airline industry that has commodified every aspect of our humanity down to the size of our butts. Once we arrive — cranky and delirious — we discover the paradise we paid to visit is in fact, adjacent to a 12-lane freeway, or hidden for two years by scaffolding, or splattered with non-biodegradable litter. Or we find the elephants have been poached, the orangutans’ habitat destroyed, the local cuisine displaced by global chains and the artisanal crafts replaced by plastic junk manufactured elsewhere.
Tourism can show us the magic of the world, and it can teach us the truth of staggering human inequality and a planet in peril. Tourism has taught me that riding elephants in Asia or shark-cage diving in South Africa contributes to widespread animal cruelty, that the poles are melting because we fly too much, and that how I spend my vacation has permanent repercussions.
Good travel opens our minds and helps us reject prejudice and respect different cultures. It erases manmade borders and boundaries and connects us through our common humanity. But 96 percent of the globe is under some form of travel restriction at the moment, and at least 90 countries have sealed their borders. The world is frozen because of the coronavirus and the systems that supported such travel are flailing.
Slowly, our world will reconnect — border by border — and open up. And yet, returning to baseline should not be our metric for success, because mass global tourism had a very sordid underbelly. We must stop looking to “recover” the tourist industry but rather, work to transition travel and tourism to a truly sustainable level.
The pandemic can thus become a time of reckoning, allowing us to consider how to solve problems that have become endemic to the industry, like overdevelopment and overtourism, indiscriminate pollution, environmental destruction, unfair labor conditions, wildlife abuse, the exploitation of women and children, sex trafficking, marginalization of indigenous peoples, and corruption. The business of travel and tourism must now use this pause to face its ugliest realities, be they the excesses of the cruise ship industry, or how a passing trend in Los Angeles might cause an elite hotel franchise to dynamite a coral reef for a row of overwater bungalows in Polynesia.
The travel and tourism industry must, first and foremost, drop the mantra of “bigger is better.” America’s national parks cannot absorb unlimited crowds. Launching ever-larger cruise ships will not bring back the nostalgic Caribbean. Corporatizing a destination will end authenticity and cheat the locals.
Global standards for fair and sustainable practices must be established and enforced. In the United States, the recent $2 trillion bailout should be attached to sustainability criteria and long-term accountability. We must be humble enough to adopt best practices from other countries and cultures. We must seek out renewable energy. We must treat workers better.
After all of the industry’s lip service to "sustainability" we now have a chance to implement a truly "sustainable" travel industry. Broad global standards and protocols must be put in place, and a different travel industry built with them in mind. Travel and tourism need to accept their role in climate change, global economic impact, environmental sustainability, wildlife conservation and social justice.
Above all, we as travelers — and especially those of us blessed with the extra income and leisure time to be tourists — have to make better decisions. We must ask, “Who/What/Which resource am I exploiting? How can I make sure my adventure benefits the individuals, communities, cultures, and natural spaces I encounter? How can I support small and medium social enterprises? How can I help empower women around the world? How can I help protect the wildest bits of our planet and make sure they survive this century?”
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted so many unsustainable aspects of our globalized world, and everyone — hotels, airlines, amusement parks, resorts, destinations, cruise ships and travelers — must take stock of our role in this. Governments must be accountable to us, and we must be accountable to the greater good. We must become a sustainably connected world, or else, like the nursery rhyme says, “We all fall down.”
We must expect a more sustainable standard — and some of us will have to change our dreams. We might have to look away from the crowded Sistine Chapel and seek out a lesser-known fresco in Ravenna, and forgo seeing that tiger “in the wild” in favor of volunteering for a conservation organization in Borneo. It will still be an adventure — it’ll just be a different one than the photos we’d been jealous of before.
We have never been so connected as a world, and we have never been more isolated than most of us are right now. We will get back to traveling, but when we do, we have to do it right.