COVID-19 Will Change Travel Forever

COVID-19 Will Change Travel Forever

So here I am across the Puget Sound from Seattle – an “epicentre” for COVID-19. A travel writer in lockdown. Schools, libraries, bars, malls, and public places in general are closed. Non-essential personnel are working from home if they can – or simply not working. Grocery stores and supermarkets are open – but shelves of staples are sparsely stocked. Sure – a shortage of N-95 face masks, surgical masks, scrubs and even latex gloves was to be expected, I guess. But who would have thought that noodles, rice, beans, and flour would be in such high demand? Or that there’d ever be a run on paper products from toilet paper to paper towels to sanitary wipes?

What is a travel writer to do? Well, travel is certainly out for now (although I fully expect to be back on the world’s roads, railroads, air routes, and waterways as soon as possible). The standby “grist for the mill when at home” – restaurants, watering holes, distilleries, breweries, parks, galleries, and even cemeteries – aren’t necessarily “out” – but they’ll all need a special hook. Restaurants with skeleton crews packing brownbag lunches for parking lot pickup; distilleries discontinuing vodka and gin production in favor of alcohol for hand sanitizers; or the environmental recovery of popular beaches, parks, and trails came to mind.

Without leaving my house, I’ve pitched concepts to distilleries and restaurants electronically, and interviewed subjects by email, text, virtual meetings and good old fashioned phone calls. I’ve done some drive-by photo-shoots and accepted more “staged” photos from sources than would have been considered ethical pre-COVID-19.  I’ve even managed my first (Zoom) podcast interviews – my second was better than my first, and my third better than my second (each becoming sequentially less spontaneous and more scripted). I’ve reached out to overseas friends and colleagues to proof-check and update details for timeliness, and even provide fresh quotes and photos for locations I haven’t been able to visit for a while.

Of course, getting creative for local inspiration and creation is just the front-end challenge. Pitching the stories to travel magazines with five-month lead-times, or to online publications who have all-but shut down destination pieces, listicles and budget travel tips, offers unique back-end challenges.

The entire travel industry is about to be reset in a big way. Travel agents, hoteliers, booking sites, tour guides and everyone in between have done their jobs too well. Travel has never before been so accessible, or affordable – up to now. In fact, just a few months back, some of the more popular sites were becoming downright inhospitable.

Italy enacted punitive DASPO Urbano legislation that targeted unsuspecting tourists with fines, taxes, and escalating per capita fees. The Faroe Islands were experimenting with discouraging conventional tourism in favor of “voluntourism” programs that allowed paying travellers to help clean up and refurbish high-traffic destinations. A number of western European and Scandinavian countries began publishing tourist rules of conduct to reduce disruption to domestic economies and lifestyles.

But all that is over. Flights have been cancelled, cruise ships have been taken offline and an increasing number of destinations are imposing two-week quarantines for new arrivals. The streets of Rome, Venice, Florence, are empty – ditto with New York City, New Orleans and San Francisco. From Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the Arctic Circle, to Patagonia and the Falkland Islands off of Antarctica, visitors are kindly but firmly discouraged – or quarantined.

COVID-19 has actually stepped in and killed the golden goose – staying the hands of government-appointed executioners that were working toward those very ends. Communities in lockdown that were cheering on efforts to punish tourists are having second thoughts. Tourists in lockdown have been forced to reconsider bucket list destinations, modes of travel, accommodations and degree of cultural immersion. And that’s actually the silver lining.

COVID-19 vaccines have been fast-tracked for human trials, and an array of antiviral medications are seeing widespread applications. The turn-around for positive COVID-19 testing has been reduced to less than 15 minutes. Local medical infrastructures are being supplemented with hospital ships and military field hospitals. Eventually, mortality rates will drop, and the numbers of new cases will stabilise and drop, leaving medical facilities to scratch their heads over what to do with warehouses filled full of N-95 masks, surgical gloves, scrubs, hand sanitizer and ventilators.

Travel will resume – but travel will never be the same. Responsible governments will have used the shutdown to develop and implement plans and policies that preserve and ancient landmarks. Smart governments will coordinate with local universities and trade schools to incorporate hospitality, tourism, and marketing into course curriculums, and return economic incentives to local residents. The days when three or four or five cruise ships doubled and tripled local populations with tens of thousands of marauding day-trippers are probably over.

Social distancing habits learned so painfully or the last four months will probably be gradually relaxed – but scenes of people packed like sardines into vaparetto water taxis, bistros, theaters, ticket lines and waiting lobbies will likely be viewed with suspicion – and avoided. Shaking hands will likely give way to smiles, nods and bows. Masks will probably still be seen in public places, but will no longer be viewed with fear-inducing suspicion. Hand sanitiser stations will no longer be a novelty – but a simple fact of travel. And wouldn’t it be nice if airlines re-thought and reversed their pre-COVID-19 jamming-together of passengers in favor of increased safety (and comfort)?

All good news.

Air routes may take a while to return to their mind-boggling plethora of options, but on the other hand, incentives will probably reverse the “unfriendly skies” trends of over-crowding and price-gouging for meals, connectivity, and entertainment.  Hotels, hostels, even B&Bs and Airbnbs will offer bargain prices well into the next few years. Cruise ships will ply the seas with previously unthought-of state-of-the-art contagion-suppression policies.

And that’s even better.

In the meantime, now is the time for travel journalists, food and drink writers, and photographers to begin fine-tuning their bucket lists, and reaching out to travel agents, booking sites and hoteliers for discounted prices a month or two down the line.

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