There is no such thing as non-essential travel

For much of the past year, governments have advised against “non-essential travel” in the light of the ongoing global health crisis. Whilst this is of course good and necessary specific advice, I believe that travel on the whole is by definition essential, a part of the modern hierarchy of needs.

Of course, how far up the pyramid it is, and the amount and type of travel required, will vary immensely from person to person. Thus it is intrinsic to the human experience; travel is essential in the sense that it is truly a part of our very essence.

A pandemic may curb the opportunity to travel and radically alter the balance of risk and reward, but in suppressing the ability and appetite for most people to do so right now, in all likelihood unprecedented demand is building — a pent-up desire to break free, especially given how very small the world has got in the past few months for many of us. The rollout of vaccines gives us a sense that we are tantalisingly close to that freedom. The idea that our appetite has been permanently diminished, as some have mooted, does not seem correct.

Travel always involved risk; the last 20 years were the anomaly

It is hard-wired in our nature to explore our surroundings. The wonder of flight means that there is no earthly limit — every corner of the globe can be visited, and even the edge of space itself, for a price. Indeed, the more pioneering the method of travel and the destination, the more likely that it is a price in blood as well as treasure. And yet someone will always be willing to pay it. Why take risks to go anywhere outlandish when so many wonderful safe bets exist? As George Mallory is famously supposed to have said in regard to climbing Everest, because it’s there (he duly died there).

Since time immemorial, we have travelled, and we have expended human, intellectual and financial capital in doing so, working to improve speed, safety, range and comfort. We have achieved this to such an extent that in real terms, the cost — in every sense — of travel has fallen precipitously since it was the province of aristocrats and explorers. And of course the ease and ready availability of modern travel has long since eliminated that sense of travel being a noble pursuit, fraught as it was with risk, and inherently time-consuming.

These factors made most travel the realm of adventurers, largely drawn from actual nobility, who could afford the time and the cost of mitigating much of the risk, or those seeking to make something of their lives — and in both cases, often acting out of a sense of duty, given that early travel was often done in the name of a monarch or other patron.

Whilst those days are long gone, there is an extent to which 2020 brought back some of those elements of exclusivity, in the sense of cost, time and risk. I would argue that for some of us who travelled extensively this year, there was an instinct that it was a mission on behalf of mankind, to guard the memory of travel as an innate part of our species’ experience, to find the safest ways to visit family, enjoy culture, support the economy, and to participate in a unique way in what has been a unique year, taking the opportunity to see certain places unspoilt by mass tourism.

Travel during Covid — selfish indulgence or noble defiance?

Seeing the world bereft of its usual hustle and bustle comes with a range of complex emotions, but the overriding one for me is the need to keep a pilot light going for the day when we can relight that flame again en masse. Travel these days should not be entirely self-indulgent — if done right, far from being tone-deaf in the face of a once in a century crisis, it can be about surmounting it.

We carry a responsibility to give some kind of hope to the people we visit, many of whose livelihoods have been utterly destroyed in the last year, often with little or no government support to tide them over.

It is also a unique chance for some over-touristed cities to rediscover themselves, their values and culture, without having to be on show, and therefore to think about how they want to engage with visitors in the future. Too many of the world’s great cities have become caricatures of their former selves, suffering from the irony of suffocation from the sheer volume of people coming to see their authenticity and beauty that both are diminished, and the locals that added the secret sauce of atmosphere driven out by overpriced real estate and lack of fair access to the amenities their own taxes are funding.

Others still have become bland, laden with the same international brands people could just as well find on their own high street, with the march of a global popular culture and the dominance of English, further eroding much of national, regional and hyper-local identity.

Of course, it is a two-way street — many have taken advantage of modern mobility to leave their home towns and live elsewhere. A large number have returned to the shelter of the familiar, the protections afforded to citizens of their home state, and the comfort of friends and family in a challenging time. For some, perhaps this was just temporary — for others, this might give pause to think about values and the fragility of dependence on a functioning international flight network to sustain their previous lifestyles, and to see their place of origin in a new light.

There is an absence of the usual international visitors, the nature of retail has probably irreversibly changed, and domestic tourism may be the only option for a holiday for many people. On top of this, a part of the psychological battle against Covid was a rediscovery of some long-discarded attachment to national identity and pride, from Spanish policemen playing guitars in the street, to Italian opera singers belting out arias from the window, or Captain Tom’s incredible walk for the NHS.

But the interest in discovering new places and learning more about old ones has not diminished for most people who do not have the chance to travel at the moment. One only has to look at the proliferation of virtual guided tours on Zoom and Facebook Live, giving those who are stuck at home a chance to live vicariously and a reminder of what they can to look forward to when all this ends.

When I post albums of my travels, which have been as extensive as ever in the past 12 months, I am quite sure there is a percentage of friends who are silently resentful or jealous, or who just find it outrageous that I’m still gallivanting around the world as if there’s no pandemic, with all the connotations they care to ascribe to my behaviour. For every one of those, there is a multiple who send me public and private messages of encouragement, who are not just pleased for me, but I venture to say see it as a gesture of defiance, that they, by supporting me, are participating in. And it is their window on the world.

What travel has become, and what will become of travel

When it does all finally end, will travel be any different, or will we simply slip back into our old, complacent ways?

The advent of the passenger jet democratised access to at least the Western middle class, whilst the package holiday reached all parts of European and American society. The past decades have ushered in an era where the middle class of the developing world can also travel, thanks to immensely efficient aircraft and their operation by low-cost airlines.

At the same time, with the internet providing a much richer window on other societies, lowering the cost in time and money of researching and booking foreign adventures of all sorts, demand has coupled with this supply of affordable flights in a seemingly inexorable upward spiral of capacity and its absorption, for example by hundreds of millions of newly-minted and highly aspirational Chinese tourists.

Meanwhile, the Schengen Zone has made travel within most of the EU even simpler, breaking down international borders between countries who were sworn enemies within the lifetimes of our grandparents. A weekend in another European city has become run-of-the-mill for its mass affluent citizens.

The old cliché of Americans not having passports no longer stands — in a single generation, the percentage has risen from under a quarter to nearly half of the population, and of course North America is an entire, vast and diverse continent with enough destinations for a lifetime of travel, so it has always been a somewhat patronising observation by sneering Europeans like me, who take for granted that here we have fifty-odd countries within the same physical footprint as the mainland USA.

Whilst there is undoubtedly quite a difference between people in the type of travel they seek, and the ostensible reason for undertaking it, I believe the core instinct is the same.

We all like the idea that we can be somewhere else, even if most people can only exercise this in reality a couple of times a year. It doesn’t matter if it’s the stereotype of Butlins or Benidorm, not Buenos Aires or Bora Bora, nor if the traveller is looking to be immersed in as different a culture, language, cuisine or history as possible, or to eat the same fish and chips and drink the same lager but in better weather.

Whilst our prerogatives might be different, the desire to see what is over the literal and metaphorical horizon is in all of us. Travel has become a freedom, almost a right, which we take for granted, however we choose to exercise it.

Zoom calls cannot come close to replacing that sensation of breathing the air of another land; the slight change in shades of colour and light even in the neighbouring country; the way things sound different, not just language or wildlife but even the street noise, which should be standardised in the modern era where the same cars, phones, appliances are ubiquitous; of course the cuisine, the architecture, the scenery — the excitement and wonder of the new, or that delightful familiarity of coming back to somewhere already discovered, that at once isn’t home but is.

I live for all those visceral feelings. But I live for something beneath it too, and I suspect that many travellers, consciously or subconsciously, do too, but too little is ever written about it. I am interested in all of the above, along with the history, culture, politics, religion and philosophy of a place, because I want to know what shaped it, and what influence the ideas of each group of people had or could have on the world around them, firstly in that town, then the region, and so on as that wave moves out in concentric circles until, however faintly, it touches the place I live, and leaves a residue that instinctively I know must come from somewhere, and I know that I must go to that somewhere.

Freedom ain’t worth nothing if it’s free

What 2020 has taught us, of course, is that none of this is in fact a right. It is actually an immense privilege, one which will slowly be restored to us in the next year as we defeat Covid-19 with mass vaccinations, suppression, therapeutics and perhaps a better appreciation of the correct proportion of the risk of this virus as an illness versus the risk to our society and well-being through our reaction to it. Governmental travel restrictions not just on other citizens but even their own, along with measures such as compulsory quarantine, track and trace, show that sometimes an individual’s short-term freedom must be reduced for the long-term benefit of societal freedom.

Sometimes the cure can be almost as bad as the illness; very often, a patient might survive thanks to stellar drugs but suffer long-term debilitating side-effects from the treatment. We will almost certainly undergo this for some time to come. Much of this is beyond our individual control, other than our power to try and hold our governments and leaders to account. But what we take from this pandemic on a personal level, the lessons we choose to learn and the things we commit to do differently; these are our own responsibility.

It is perhaps also a moment to consider more seriously the environmental footprint of travel, and think about what sustainability means in terms of the places and communities we visit. We know for example the problematic and distortive impact that too much Airbnb has had on real estate markets in many places. And the sudden shutdown of the tourism industry has highlighted how too many economies were overly dependent on a single sector for their livelihoods.

Whilst an individual traveller cannot be expected to resolve all these problems through their own actions, and should not be resigned to simply sit at home instead, I think there is an additional onus on each of us to ensure that there is at least some engagement with the impact we have. This may be as little as just being a touch more conscious of our surroundings, a recognition of what it is to spend time on someone else’s turf, unavoidably changing it by doing so. There is no travel without a butterfly effect.

Travel is our contribution to evolution

So, when it comes to rediscovering the joy of travel, we must reach for something far more profound than the cookie-cutter experience that it has started to become. One way to do this would be to at least look beyond the check-box exercises of visiting the great sights, and instead immerse ourselves in why they became great. For the most part, it is because, over perhaps centuries of time, these places stirred something visceral within our forebears.

We have lost more works of art than we have hanging in the great galleries; there are more buildings in ruin than preserved for good; there are plenty of areas of natural beauty but only a handful that we traverse continents to see for ourselves; there are but a handful of cities which touch us across cultures and eras.

This is almost a form of natural selection — why these objects and places, from the hundreds and thousands that the human eye has seen, and the human hand has shaped, and the human mind has imbued with genius?

For each of us, we may find a different driving force — the beauty of travel is that it is experienced differently by all of us, but I think it is the sum of those experiences that creates a distribution bias. If enough of us felt any connection to one particular location, building, artwork or culture, even if that connection was different and unique to each of us, those things become known as a touchstone for that visceral experience.

All of which is to say that travel can reach into the recesses of mind, body and soul, in a way which nothing else can. Travel is not just about broadening our horizons, but deepening the human experience. As we begin a new year, with the vaccine rollout giving us all hope of some semblance of a return to normality, there is talk of a “Great Reset”.

I believe this is our moment to recalibrate what travel is to us, not to go back to the commoditisation and dumbing-down of that distant pre-Covid era, but to seize every chance to take a deep breath and allow those profound and personal moments to take hold. If you want to take a picture for Instagram or Facebook, go ahead.

But caption it with what you felt at that instant. That is your true memory of what you have experienced, and it’s what brings it to life for whoever is seeing it, connecting you, them, the place you are in, all those who have been there before, and those yet to come.

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Michael Freedman

Michael Freedman

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Flâneur, gourmand, dilettante, francophone. Prophet, therapist, egomaniac, wandering Jew. I like to say entrepreneur too but that’s just French for unemployed.