It’s been just over a year since I began traveling again after lockdown. In September 2020, I returned to JFK to fly to Kenya before any airport restaurants or shops had reopened. Vast empty halls, shuttered kiosks and departures screens with only five or six flights gave the once-bustling hub a dystopian atmosphere. The few passengers carried negative PCR-test results and digital health forms and wore KN95 masks and face shields. My carry-on bulged with wipes, immunity boosters and extra masks. It was a new travel landscape—one that required bravery to enter. A year later, we know more about plane HEPA filters and avoiding contact points at crowded airports; many more borders are open; the majority of international travelers are vaccinated; and yet a great deal of travel anxiety remains.
On that first return trip to Kenya and subsequent ones to Rwanda, Kenya (again) and the American West (also pre-vaccine), I experienced the flood of joy that came with joining a wider world, but I also saw the damage that occurred in communities that had become dependent on foreign tourism. Rwanda, which after a horrific genocide used tourism as a tool for not only preserving its endangered mountain gorillas but also for economic empowerment, set early standards on contact tracing and testing; but many rangers I met had gone from working five days a week to three days a month. The Indagare members who traveled with me last November were seen as ambassadors of hope, the first glimmer that travel might resume and with it their livelihoods.
In those early days post-lockdown, travel was a highly charged topic. Some travelers said they’d wait until Covid was over to leave home. Others felt anyone boarding a plane posed a global health risk. Others couldn’t wait to explore. As a travel professional, I felt a duty to support our partners and provide firsthand intelligence to our community. I also felt I could follow measures to protect myself and others—at home and abroad—and, thankfully, have not contracted Covid-19. Last winter, we hoped that vaccines would return the world—and travel—to the way it was. Today, new variants and spikes have shown us that we must accept that just as 9/11 forever changed travel, so has Covid-19.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"] Melissa and our Insider Journey attendees on one of two Insider Journey trips to the Italian Dolomites in 2021[/caption]
Some changes are for the better. I hope that we won’t take the incredible privilege of travel for granted, and we’ll be more conscious of the impact of our travels on the environment and on communities. Places like Florence and Venice that had been overrun with crowds are passing regulations to limit tourist numbers and ban cruise ships. This past June, when I arrived in France the day after it opened its borders to Americans, I discovered a spirit of celebration. After months of curfew, Parisians literally danced in squares and beside the Seine. “Foreigners used to annoy us,” one shopkeeper said. “Now, we’re thrilled to see visitors and what they represent.” And Paris continues to froth with revived energy and innovation as new hotels, exhibitions and restaurants teem with joyous French celebrating l'art de vivre.
But some changes will make travel more challenging and require a new way of thinking. Predictability—or the belief that well-laid plans will go according to preparations—is a concept we must relinquish. Much of what we could once expect is out of our control, which is why I have gone from rarely buying travel insurance to regularly buying a cancel-for-any-reason policy. With fewer flights, minimal corporate travel and reduced crews, airlines cannot provide the capacity nor the service we once assumed we would receive, which is why cancellations are now common. Borders can open and close overnight. Entry requirements can change. Testing rules vary and can be confusing. And the media’s penchant for alarming news means that panic often drowns out facts.
If you think of travel as a muscle that, prior to Covid, got lots of exercise, but that now seems to have lost some of its strength, it might be because most people have not yet realized that the workout has changed. A new flexibility, plus courage and compassion, are required to go back into the world. More information and context are required, as is a backup plan, because false positives and breakthrough cases can happen; hotels can close due to an outbreak. Disruptions are more likely, and travel now means anticipating those potential risks. (The rewards that await are different—but often enormous.) This summer, I was practically alone in the Uffizi. There were so few boats in Capri’s Blue Grotto that one could swim in it. We ran a dozen Insider Journeys this fall, and at Petra and the Pyramids, vendors outnumbered visitors for the first time that I can remember. Yes, in some places the check-in lines were longer and the service slower, yet that seemed to matter less, and being part of a collective human experience—just being there again—mattered more. The pandemic has bruised almost every community, and sharing stories and compassion across cultures is one of the things I missed most during Covid.
The way that travelers represent bridges between cultures and perspectives, to me, is the greatest lesson of travel, and right now we need the walls put up by our differences to be breached. On our recent Insider Journey to Jordan, the site director at Bethany Beyond the Jordan (considered the site of the baptism of Jesus) told me that when Pope Benedict XVI visited, he said, “What we have in common is far more than what we disagree on. Let’s make this a better world.” I couldn’t agree more.
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