Rebecca Tucker is a writer based in Toronto.
In the 2018 song Tenderness, Andrew Savage of American indie band Parquet Courts sings: “Travel where you are, tourism is sin.” If you wanted to set a target for the lyric before 2020, there was plenty of room for interpretation. Mr. Savage could have been taking on the environmental ills of the global tourism complex, or campaigning for the grassroots benefits of supporting local business. Now, in the midst of a pandemic the words feel eerily, sharply prophetic: Stay put, or become part of the problem.
Travel and tourism has been one of the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus: Globally, the industry was projected to lose up to US$1.2-trillion. That number could hit US$3.3-trillion if travel restrictions persist until March of this year. Before COVID-19 effectively shut it down, tourism was extraordinarily lucrative: In 2019, the industry generated roughly $104.9-billion in Canada alone; in the United States, that number was closer to US$1.1-trillion. According to the Canada Association of Tourism Employees, in 2019 more than 1.8 million people were employed by the industry; globally, that number was 330 million.
But for all its economic benefits, tourism – the way it was right before COVID-19 – was indeed characterized, in many ways, by sin. It was an industry marked by gluttony: Travel was marketed as a proposition of how many places a person can go, how much they can see and how many likes they can get on Instagram, rather than how they might be nourished by an experience abroad. Consumers were driven by envy, watching the cottage industry of influencers globetrot for a fee; marketers then preyed on that envy to sell experiences. Travellers lusted after cheap flights and last-minute getaways, while the industry lusted after a fatter bottom line, whatever the cost.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, when the proliferation of consumer air travel opened up the world to middle-class consumers, travel was democratized. And this was good. The ability to engage in leisure, and to see a bit more of the world than the blocks surrounding one’s home, should not be rarefied, or exclusive. But democratization quickly gave way to cheapening. Now, with the flood of “digital nomads” and sell-off-vacation travellers – that is to say, those who adopted travel as a personality, rather than engage in it as an infrequent respite – became a plague of a different kind. And the damage has been substantial.
On a macro level, the global travel industry is now responsible for 8 per cent of global emissions. On a micro level, travel influencers, to get the most off-the-beaten-path shot, have threatened natural ecosystems by traipsing into areas that are off-limits to humans, all in the name of saleable content (an Instagram account called Public Lands Hate You, dedicated to calling out this behaviour, launched in 2019). The problem is socioeconomic as well as environmental: In some developing countries, locals have been displaced from their homes as more tourist infrastructure is constructed. The proliferation of short-term rental company Airbnb has resulted in the removal of 31,000 homes from the rental market in Canada alone, largely in urban centres, likely contributing to the housing affordability crisis.
Some travel firms have tried to compensate for these environmental and social ills by purchasing carbon credits or engaging in social enterprise. The travel company where I used to work, G Adventures, has a non-profit wing, Planeterra, that works to empower communities by bringing travellers to visit (and patronize) restaurants, craftspeople and other small businesses. But in the absence of tourists, those businesses suffer; Planeterra has run two fundraisers since the start of the pandemic to continue supporting its partner projects. It is now difficult not to see these efforts, while well-intentioned, as near-sighted. Rather than empowering locals, they have created a dependency on Western tourism dollars among small businesses that now may not survive.
So where do we go from here?
When I think about what’s next for the travel industry, postcoronavirus, I think about industrial food. Around the turn of the millennium, food producers, thinkers and theorists began to interrogate the industrialization of food production, and asked a question similar to the one I’m asking here: Can we fix this? One solution was to move forward by looking back – to return to nose-to-tail, farm-to-table, and to reconnect with what we’re eating. Many of these ideas and practices fit under the banner of a term coined in Italy in 1986: “slow food.” So, why not slow travel?
The idea is not new, but its definition is unclear. Some consider slow travel to be a practice that emphasizes living like a local over checking out tourist must-sees; others say it is literally moving slowly once you reach your destination. In 2019, British online newspaper the Independent ran a feature on slow travel; in it, Justin Francis, chief executive of holiday company Responsible Travel, defined the trend as “more mindset than velocity … connecting to the soul of a place through its history, food, language and people becomes more important than chasing bucket list ticks and Instagram photos.”
I say we take it a step further. We can use the pause in global jet-setting brought on by COVID-19 to rethink and reset our habits as tourists, moving toward travel that is thoughtful, intentional and, most importantly, infrequent. Travel should be viewed as a privilege, not insofar as it should be prohibitively expensive, but rather in that people should consider the social and environmental costs of their trips, and act accordingly.
Travel, in short, should not be a hobby.
This will result in tourism that is not only more economically and socially responsible, but more personally impactful. Taking the time to plan a trip can be an exercise in mindfulness, as we consider how it will fulfill our personal priorities while mitigating any negative repercussions on others. Travel can be used as an extension of our values and result in a feeling of personal growth – the type that doesn’t come from amassing frequent flyer miles or from constantly being on the road simply for the sake of it.
We will find ourselves most poignantly affected by the substantial privilege of being abroad if we treat leisure travel as an anomaly, as a break and as an opportunity for betterment. Mr. Savage has a point here, too: “Travel where you are” doesn’t have to mean circling the blocks around your home, or road tripping in your province (though those are absolutely worthy pursuits). It can – and should – mean exploring your chosen destination with a fine-toothed comb, getting to the true core of where you are, beyond the hotspots and bucket-list locales. Once you get there – wherever there might be – put in the effort to truly be there.
This all sounds a little self-help guru, and I think that’s fine. This year, the world will open up again, and once it does, the travel industry at large, and travellers as individuals, should face an increased pressure to engage with the world in ways that reverse the trajectory of industrial tourism. In 2007, Michael Pollan set down what would effectively become the credo of the slow-food movement: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. I suggest a remix for 2021: Take trips, not too many, always with purpose.
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