Henry Wismayer, THE WASHINGTON POST
…the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.
A future without travel? Until recently, I admit, it’s not a concept I’ve been able to imagine, much less embrace. Ever since I turned 18, I have shaped my life, and scratched a writer’s living, around the pursuit of foreign places. In that time, the weeks that I spend overseas have often seemed like a prerequisite of contentment: a source of not only stimulation, but also self-actualization.
That is how vital travel can feel to those of us who let it. In an era in which spirituality has in many ways been supplanted by a quest for temporal experience, to venture abroad is to accumulate evidence that we are making the best of our short time on Earth. Bask in the afterglow of the last adventure. Count down to the next.
At least that’s how it used to be.
For the last few months, the borders have closed, and the skies have emptied. The cruise ships have all docked, the hotels have shuttered. Suddenly, those of us who love to travel have found ourselves living in a strange limbo, lavished with a surfeit of time, yet deprived of the liberty to take full advantage of it.
In the months since the coronavirus outbreak pushed much of the global population into quarantine, many of us have sought distraction, even enchantment, in photographs of the newly empty human world. Among these, tourist attractions can seem among the most poignant and uncanny, for it is rare that we get to see these places without the throngs of visitors that usually populate them. It is interesting to consider what our response to these images suggests about travel today.
Of course, there is longing. The sight of famous destinations, absent crowds and traffic, evoke a Sartre-like ideal — travel, without the hell of other people — that only accentuates their enticement. But alongside this desire, for me at least, there is also melancholy, for it is impossible to witness the serenity of the paused planet without feeling a tinge of regret for what travel has become. In the same way that some of us have found a misanthropic thrill in apocryphal tales of dolphins swimming up a Venice canal, or satellite images of pollution dissipating over China, the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.
Recently, I marked 10 years of travel writing feeling uneasy about the state of modern tourism. In part, my idea of foreign places had become infected by the unavoidable backdrop of an angrier, destabilizing world. And while millions still jumped on planes for leisure, I couldn’t shake the creeping sense that so much of what we call travel is extractive, the commodification of someone else’s sunshine, culture and photogenic views. In my most cynical moments, I had started to see travel as something monstrous, a vector of humanity’s infestation that has evolved out of all proportion with what the planet can sustain.
Last summer, I looked on, aghast and complicit, as the world’s most celebrated sights and cities were inundated like never before. Regions once off-limits to all but the most intrepid now teemed with rubberneckers from every corner of the world. Those tourists brought with them a litany of collateral issues, from environmental damage and consumer price inflation to cultural insensitivity and urban displacement. Lines snaked beneath the summit of Mount Everest. Behemoth cruise ships jostled for space at the Venice quayside.
Continue reading “A travel writer contemplates a less mobile future”