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A traveller waits in queue at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on March 8, 2013.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Pico Iyer is the author of 15 books, including The Art of Stillness and two books about his long-time home, Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.

Walking around Buenos Aires at the end of January, my wife and I kept bumping into cheery elderly couples from across North America on their way to cruise ships. The elegant hotels of the Recoleta district were filled with sleek foreign businesspeople trying to keep up with the Martinezes, the local colleagues who seemed the last word in style. A student of mine had just arrived from New York to accompany his 91-year-old grandfather around his boyhood neighbourhood and to a soccer game three blocks from where the old man had grown up. Reports were emerging of a virus in Wuhan, but the 77 passengers from China who’d boarded our cruise ship four hours after we disembarked from a trip around the Antarctic Peninsula didn’t seem fazed.

To many, such images, from only a season ago, suggest a vanished Golden Age. Air carriers are likely to see their profits halved this year, because of COVID-19, and it will take years for them to recover. My son, who works for Japan Airlines, is surely experiencing turbulence of a kind he’s never known before. Every industry has been devastated by the pandemic, but in the case of air travel, it’s the consumers as well as the producers who are rethinking their futures. Even as our funds are depleted, the price of airfares is likely to increase. And who wants to breathe the air of 150 strangers for 15 hours? The flights my wife took only four months ago – from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires to Houston to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to San Francisco to Osaka, in quick succession – seem to belong to a different planet.

But nothing convinces me that our families, our economies – our imaginations – can function in the absence of travel. And for all the terrible portents, I’m not sure that recovering from a months-long lockdown will prove as difficult as recovering from years of warfare. We live in a global neighbourhood, a reality that Canada has embraced with more prescience and generosity than almost anywhere. For most of us, cocooning ourselves is not an option. Soon after the virus upended East Asia, I had to fly from my tiny apartment in Japan to California for a day to do a public event; I couldn’t break a contract just because I didn’t want to fly. Six weeks later, in mid-April, I took three flights back to California again, because my 88-year-old mother had just emerged from the ICU (for nothing related to the virus) and, as her only living relative, I knew I ought to be with her. Most of the planes I took were by no means uncrowded, as others had to help loved ones or do their jobs.

The Royal Caribbean cruise ship Empress of the Seas heads out of Port Miami, in Miami Beach, Fla., on June 20, 2016.Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press

Of course, stepping onto an aircraft may be unnerving to many right now, as it wasn’t three months ago. But I always remember how the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, democratized danger. Suddenly, New York looked no safer than Baghdad or Kabul (and subsequent terrorist attacks have made Paris and London seem as perilous). The coronavirus has intensified that sense of unease: Your corner store could be as deadly as a shopping mall in Hubei. But it’s also democratized every activity: Simply hugging a loved one can prove as fatal as stepping onto a cruise ship. Are we going to forsake the City of Light forever in response?

I’ve long believed that one blessing of the Age of Movement is that you don’t have to go far to encounter all the cultures of the world. You can see the remotest corners of Bhutan – or Antarctica – online, without leaving the comfort of your home. You can taste the spices of Vietnam and Ethiopia and Mexico without leaving your hometown, especially if you live in Toronto or Vancouver or San Francisco. Yet anyone who’s been to Lhasa (or Paris) knows that it’s everything essential about a place – its smells, its rhythm, its silences – that can’t be savoured at a distance. As a stranger wrote to me this month, “Meeting the unknown is the most exciting thing in the world.”

I’m also someone who published a book six years ago on the excitement of going nowhere. Every holiday-maker knows that for every 10-day trip around Antarctica, you hope to spend 10 years at home replaying your adventure through photos, or stories, or memories. Physical movement is never so important as the simple sensation of being moved. If lockdown has reminded us of this inner component of travel, and of how much is near at hand, we owe it a lot. Taking walks around our neighbourhood as never before, my wife and I have discovered bamboo forests three blocks from the apartment we’ve shared for 27 years now.

Travellers are seen at Toronto's Pearson International Airport at a time when travel is being restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 4, 2020.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

For better and worse, our attention spans are very short these days. Earlier this year, many of us were most concerned about the climate change that was igniting terrible fires across Australia, the political and economic oppression that was intensifying the refugee crisis, the fighting in Syria. None of those challenges has gone away and COVID-19 has only lent them a greater urgency. The stresses we place on our environment are the best reason to think twice about air travel and many of us have long been aware that we have to justify every flight we take, given the damage that planes do.

Yet that same shrunken attention span also makes me wonder if, a year from now, we won’t be caught up in the dramas of the moment, many of them unimaginable today. And even as we’re all determined to reorient our lives right now – and economic suffering is going to take many of us to new places – family duties and the need to be part of a global marketplace are not going to disappear. The need to rest, the longing to explore – the wish to break out of our ever more provincial mindsets – are as universal as the urge to eat, or falling in love.

One day this month I received a letter from my wise first editor, now 90. Two of his anticipated vacations this year had been put on hold, he confessed, but he had hopes of being able to take the third. In the meantime, he was brushing up on his Chinese. Two days later, I heard from the stranger who wrote those words above about “meeting the unknown.” Seventy-seven-years-old and alone, she was writing to me from Ottawa to share the yearning she felt to be back in the South Korea, where she’d spent three life-changing months last fall. Travelling alone as an elderly woman could be difficult, she wrote, but “when I’m away,” she added in a later letter, “I feel younger and that all things are possible.”

Dancers do the tango in front of a restaurant in the El Caminito district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 6, 2019.VICTOR MORIYAMA/The New York Times

I know the feeling. I’m grateful that this planetary tragedy has reminded me of everything that’s to be gained while staying at home. I’m even happier if it’s recalled to all of us what we’re so recklessly doing to the planet. Conducting public events online instead of flying around the world has been a joy and a relief. But perhaps the main thing the virus has offered me is a reminder of how treacherous it can be to say anything about next year, or even tomorrow. In the 1990s, we were informed of “The End of History.” A decade later, post-9/11, we were told of “The End of Irony.” Now some people are alerting us to “The End of Travel.” If the virus has taught us anything, it’s the value of “The End of Predictions,” not least the ones I deliver so confidently here.

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