Travel Writing in the time of COVID.

Written by: Catherine Bouchard

The immense toll the COVID-19 crisis has exacted on the travel and tourism sectors cannot be understated, especially as so much of the industry is composed of small and medium enterprises (around 80% according to UNWTO estimates). Across the world, hotels lie empty, swimming pools drained and shutters drawn on sprawling streets of bars and restaurants. If this was any other year, resorts and retreats would be beginning to open and prepare for the influx of summer visitors seeking an escape from the toll of modern working life. Instead, staff are laid off and bookings cancelled. The seasonality and fickleness of tourism trends have always underlined how uncertain and fragile the industry is, but in recent memory, the tourism industry has never faced such universal uncertainty. Yet, there’s arguably never been a better time to focus on exploring the way we travel and reflecting on the future of the industry. These struggles (and opportunities) underline the resilience of travel, with organisations like the World Tourism Organisation leading efforts to promote solidarity and share experience and advice across the global sector. 

It’s not only hotels and attractions that are suffering in the midst of this crisis – travellers themselves have also been caught in the chaos of the pandemic. Across the world, nomadic travellers have been forced to pack up and return home. Bloggers who based their lifestyle and source of income around sharing their travel experiences have been forced to completely redesign and reshape the basis of their business models. The rise of social media and influencers has already threatened the dominance of established travel writers and agencies, with up to 50% of travel lovers using apps like Instagram to discover new local places to explore on their travels. The impact of the crisis might just be the final straw that breaks the back of travel behemoths like Lonely Planet who have had to close their London Office and Melbourne Production facility. Travel writing has never been in such a perilous position, and it is this desperation that has given rise to the spirit of adventure and innovation that defines the travel community.

Travel writers are currently faced with an unparalleled opportunity to lead the path to recovery and help give back to the industry that gives rise to the source of their inspiration. Providers of the travel experience are turning to new, innovative ways to sustain their livelihoods. Airbnb is offering ‘online experiences’ to allow their providers to continue to support themselves, with activities including online cooking classes, concerts and even meeting sheep remotely. Similarly, museums and safari parks are turning to virtual tours and live webcams to showcase themselves and provide relief from lockdown boredom. Travel writers still have a key role to play as the facilitator in helping people discover and explore these experiences.

Perhaps the most important role travel writers can play is to remind people to look towards the future. The UNWTO has started a campaign with the hashtag #TravelTomorrow to convey its message of solidarity and hope, by encouraging people to stay home today to allow travel in the future. Emerging from lockdown people will be cautious and wary. Travel could be slow to bounceback, especially given the fear and logistical difficulties travellers stranded abroad fell into as the world went into lockdown. Travel writers hence can play a special part in reminding people of the joys of travel, through continuing to showcase destinations to visit after lockdown and encourage people to find solace in planning future trips. As countries like Denmark and China begin to emerge from lockdown, the chance to focus on domestic travel and explore destinations closer to home becomes clearer. Perhaps more significantly, lockdown can present a time for us to reflect on our travel habits. Taking a break from travel can allow us to reflect on our privilege and freedom in being able to travel. Embracing the feeling of isolation and solitude lockdown breeds can also provide an increase in confidence for solo travellers. Moving forwards, we can also reflect on ways to make travel more sustainable, both through focusing on preserving local culture and reducing the environmental footprint of travel.  

Travel writing is poised at the precipice of a chasm and is faced with a choice – to give up and collapse under the strain of the current crisis or embrace the uncertainty and adapt to new travel paradigms. Travel writing allows us to celebrate and honour the ethos of travel through showcasing global efforts to promote cultural understanding and unity. We can remember the emotions of our favourite trips, the murmurs of stories by fellow travellers over a pint, the long hours spent on the road and the warmth of returning home after days away. We can help lead the recovery by continuing to tell stories from across the globe with our words and showcasing the efforts of the sector to promote travel through online experiences. Travel isn’t just about visiting new places, it can be as simple as trying out a new cuisine or listening to instrumental performances. And there’s never been a better time than now to remember this.

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