That is how vital travel can feel to those of us who let it. In an era in which spirituality has in many ways been supplanted by a quest for temporal experience, to venture abroad is to accumulate evidence that we are making the best of our short time on Earth. Bask in the afterglow of the last adventure. Count down to the next.
At least that’s how it used to be.
For the last few months, the borders have closed, and the skies have emptied. The cruise ships have all docked, the hotels have shuttered. Suddenly, those of us who love to travel have found ourselves living in a strange limbo, lavished with a surfeit of time, yet deprived of the liberty to take full advantage of it.
In the months since the coronavirus outbreak pushed much of the global population into quarantine, many of us have sought distraction, even enchantment, in photographs of the newly empty human world. Among these, tourist attractions can seem among the most poignant and uncanny, for it is rare that we get to see these places without the throngs of visitors that usually populate them. It is interesting to consider what our response to these images suggests about travel today.
Of course, there is longing. The sight of famous destinations, absent crowds and traffic, evoke a Sartre-like ideal — travel, without the hell of other people — that only accentuates their enticement. But alongside this desire, for me at least, there is also melancholy, for it is impossible to witness the serenity of the paused planet without feeling a tinge of regret for what travel has become. In the same way that some of us have found a misanthropic thrill in apocryphal tales of dolphins swimming up a Venice canal, or satellite images of pollution dissipating over China, the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.
Recently, I marked 10 years of travel writing feeling uneasy about the state of modern tourism. In part, my idea of foreign places had become infected by the unavoidable backdrop of an angrier, destabilizing world. And while millions still jumped on planes for leisure, I couldn’t shake the creeping sense that so much of what we call travel is extractive, the commodification of someone else’s sunshine, culture and photogenic views. In my most cynical moments, I had started to see travel as something monstrous, a vector of humanity’s infestation that has evolved out of all proportion with what the planet can sustain.
Last summer, I looked on, aghast and complicit, as the world’s most celebrated sights and cities were inundated like never before. Regions once off-limits to all but the most intrepid now teemed with rubberneckers from every corner of the world. Those tourists brought with them a litany of collateral issues, from environmental damage and consumer price inflation to cultural insensitivity and urban displacement. Lines snaked beneath the summit of Mount Everest. Behemoth cruise ships jostled for space at the Venice quayside.
Behind it all loomed the climate crisis, the subject that amplified my own disquiet into a relentless gnaw of guilt and self-interrogation. I discovered that tourism, along every stage of the supply chain, accounts for 8 percent of all global carbon emissions. I calculated that, over the past decade, my flights alone have melted a tennis-court-sized chunk of polar ice. And I came to understand that, in the absence of radical and discriminatory policies such as punitive flight taxes and a new age of cultural protectionism, all of these problems are destined to get worse. Before the coronavirus interrupted the trajectory, the United Nations forecast that global tourist arrivals will grow 30 percent, to around 2 billion per year, by the end of 2030.
A few months later, a global pandemic was supercharged by this same hypermobility, as a novel virus hitched a ride from China’s Hubei province and spread to every corner of the world. Inevitably, the travel industry was the first of our freedoms to feel the pinch, as governments scrambled to stifle viral transmission from overseas. In places where the first wave of infection has subsided, it looks as though a surreal shadow of the summer holiday season, enabled by so-called “travel bubbles,” will return. But if, as many have been tempted to postulate, this virus can be seen as a karmic distress signal — an envoy from the future betraying the fragility of our globalized society — the question lingers: Should we be preparing for a life less mobile?
During lockdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether a more sedentary life need necessarily be a more boring one. One of the curious things about spending a lot of time on the road is that you eventually reach a stage where the magic wears thin. You can only see your first equatorial sunset, first wild elephant or first Himalayan peak, once. After that, as you tend to push further afield in pursuit of that increasingly fugitive taste of awe and stimulation, it’s sometimes tempting to view travel as an act of diminishing returns. Profound questions begin to surface. Do we really need to cross the world to sate our curiosity? How can we justify regular trips abroad if those trips are contributing to the ruination of the planet we profess to covet?
In the weeks that I spent in isolation with my family, going out sparingly, leavening the boredom with books and home improvements, camping with the kids in the garden, I found myself wondering whether I have often turned to travel as a quick fix, a shortcut to intellectual and spiritual replenishment that I was now seeking, and finding, in quotidian things.
The buds on my roses swelled day by day. Blue tits could be seen nesting in the ivy smothering an adjacent wall. The tired smile on the face of the nurse next door when I mowed her lawn offered more self-validation than a dozen passport stamps. I won’t pretend that this longueur wasn’t punctuated with anxiety and frustration, or that I don’t rue the trips it compelled me to cancel and postpone. But I’m also grateful for the space it afforded, in which I found myself cherishing the home that, in my more itinerant pre-covid life, I so often took for granted or disdained.
My local woodland, once overlooked, has become a vital source of natural respite as, in my determination to uphold social distancing measures, I’ve found myself burrowing off-trail. Through dense stands and undisturbed glades, I explore, now, astounded by my past incuriosity. I can’t believe I’ve never appreciated how beautiful this place is before.
I keep thinking about that famous line from Proust’s “A Remembrance of Things Past” — “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Nowadays, you’re most likely to encounter these words superimposed onto a tropical sunset as an inspirational meme. But this YOLO rendering misses the intended meaning, which is that a thirst for novelty and beauty is as likely to be slaked in reassessing places you already know as in the objects of your most exotic hankerings.
In forcing us to stop moving, the pandemic has coerced us into a small taste of what ascetics have long asserted: that fulfillment does not depend on plenty and variety. Thoreau didn’t need to traverse the globe to enjoy “the tonic of wildness.” A waterhole two miles from his hometown served just as well. “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you,” he wrote in “Walden,” “opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
At this stage, it is impossible to forecast in what form or health the travel industry will rebound. It still seems likely that the lifting of travel restrictions will lead to an explosion of vacation bookings, as a giant, furloughed middle class, mad with cabin fever, celebrates its emancipation by booking a vacation. It is vital that they do. Travel is a load-bearing pillar of the global economy, and a priceless engine of cultural empathy and exchange. It remains my fervent hope that miraculous technological advances will mean that it can be part of a sustainable future.
However, those of us who emerge from this crisis unscathed, and desperate to reconnect with the wider world, would do well to remember what we learned during this sequestered spring. To crave and appreciate the freedom to travel, yes. But also to ask whether, in our restless pursuit of novelty for its own sake, maybe we’ve been doing this all wrong.