COVID-19 transformed the anatomy of the world as we knew it. As airplanes in the sky dwindled, roads emptied and pollution levels dropped, mother nature was given a welcome intermission. For myself and people who call themselves travellers, wanderers or “strangers”, lockdown was an undesired pause from globetrotting and exploring. It was an unsettling grounded feeling that many of us mitigated by dreaming of our next destination, reflecting on past journeys, or bombarding our friends and family with one too many “throwback” posts of old trips on social media.
For so many cities and travel hubs around the world, typically plagued by bustling crowds and overtourism, lockdown was a refreshing break. For the first time, children in Dubrovnik could play football in the streets of The Old Town. With the absence of boats and cruise ships the water in Venice cleared and became a thriving home for wildlife. Romans were able to quietly reflect at Fontana di Trevi. Locals in tourist hubs had an opportunity to fall in love with their cities in ways they were never able to before.
But this seemingly positive byproduct came with devastating repercussions. With the lack of tourism revenue and halting of safaris in Kenya, the now empty land once patrolled by rangers and keen camera saddled tourists has led to a dangerous increase in poaching. Kenya isn’t alone, local economies around the world face the same problem, lack of tourism revenue means less money to preserve the landmarks and ecoscapes valued by locals and tourists alike. In 2019, Tourism accounted for 1 in 10 jobs in Europe (according to the World Travel & Tourism Council), leaving so many countries and small businesses now in critical condition.
Overtourism and poorly managed tourism can be detrimental to small communities. In cities like Venice, overtourism is physically damaging the infrastructure and eroding the very beauty that makes it so special for visitors to see. But when engaging in responsible, ethical and sustainable practices, tourism can be a mutually beneficial relationship. It can provide employment and revenue for locals in areas with limited job opportunities while celebrating local craft and traditional culture that is integral and unique to communities around the world. It has the ability to function for the very purpose so many of us fell in love with travel to begin with, by building bridges between cultures and expanding people’s worldview.
While we are all itching to hop on a plane and begin exploring again, it’s important to be mindful of the place tourism holds in a post-pandemic world. The world needs travellers, but more importantly it needs a new kind of traveller to survive. Author and sustainability advocate Anna Lappé said it best; ‘Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’
Seeking out smaller locally owned accommodation, restaurants and shops is a small and easy step travellers can take to help rebuild tourism reliant destinations. Instead of buying souvenirs in airport shops, look for local vendors or artisans. Become a proactive traveller, research and utilize ethical and responsible tour operators or social enterprises that support local traditions and people and function not only for profit but to give back to the community they serve. Destinations that offer community based tourism projects, or eco tourism can also offer a new kind of sustainable and mutually beneficial travel experience.
Being a traveller now needs to mean more than just a desire to explore but also an intent to travel mindfully and sustainably. In a post-pandemic world, travellers carry power and privilege to actively improve and protect the world we are so fortunate to call our playground.