Mother and Son at Airport
Mother and Son at Airport

When we can travel again, will we actually want to?

Every day it seems there's a new headline speculating when international travel will resume.

It sparked a conversation with a friend recently, who asked, "when we can travel overseas again, will we actually want to?"

The comment was met with a record-scratch, because my mate has always been a wildly frenetic traveller. She's away more than she's at home. But something strange has happened to her in lockdown. She's come to appreciate the slower pace that came with the "stay at home" directive, and suddenly finds the prospect of travel exhausting and anxiety inducing.

On top of that, it's fresh in her mind that the pandemic began overseas and was spread around the world by travellers. And with something so highly contagious floating around the globe, the prospect of being on a plane or ship for a prolonged amount of time with a bunch of strangers is now wildly unappealing.

She argues, even if safety measures are put into place for the transport part of travel, once we get there, will we actually get the same thrill from pushing our way through a packed piazza in Europe, or attending the Glastonbury music festival? Or will we now be acutely aware of personal space?

Some of us have enjoyed the period of enforced hibernation more than we expected to. Picture: iStock
Some of us have enjoyed the period of enforced hibernation more than we expected to. Picture: iStock

Big bustling places like Manhattan that once pulled people in with the energy of thousands of people living in a tiny space have suddenly lost some of their allure.

But it seems that people are falling into two camps, because I feel quite differently to my friend. While I will absolutely heed government warnings and put the health and safety of myself and my fellow beings first, when life returns to "normal", I can't wait to escape the confines of home and wander the globe again.

Natalie Butyn worked as a travel agent for eight years before becoming a practising psychologist. She understands people's anxiety around travel following COVID.

"People are concerned about second and third waves, and if they were to travel to other countries, they think about how the country has managed the pandemic," she says.

"There's going to be concern about the quality of medical care if you got sick over there, and whether you're covered by travel insurance. People are also worried about leaving vulnerable loved ones at home. Then there's uncertainty about what a destination will be like once you get there - for example, can you still go to theatre and galleries in the same way? It's like COVID has made familiar holiday destinations unfamiliar, and that brings uncertainty and anxiety around it. Money is also a concern for lots of people at the moment, so they may be less likely to take the gamble on a holiday if they're not sure they'll actually enjoy it once they get there."

In contrast, some people are itching to get back out again, and continue ticking off items on their travel bucket list. Picture: iStock
In contrast, some people are itching to get back out again, and continue ticking off items on their travel bucket list. Picture: iStock

Despite all this, she says she can't imagine COVID-19 permanently dampening people's desire to travel.

"A large motivator for people to travel is to see friends or family overseas, and that's a very strong reason … Zoom is not the same as seeing people face-to-face. Another motivator is that people want to treat themselves and escape the everyday routine, and that urge is even stronger after lockdown."

She goes on to explain that everyone has a "call to adventure" and it's particular strong in younger travellers (who are showing only low levels of anxiety around post-COVID travel).

"There's this idea that there's something within us, that we want to experience a journey, challenge ourselves, learn about ourselves and come home a different person."

She believes people in general will enter the travel space cautiously, and will prioritise domestic travel, but says the pull of the foreign will eventually win out, partly because of the unmatchable thrill of parachuting into a completely different culture.

Even if there's a silver bullet solution and a vaccine is introduced, she says there'll still be a bit of a corona hangover.

"People will remain very germ conscious. That side of things will stay in people's minds. If travel is going to be successful, the industry is going to have to do as much as they can to ease people's anxieties around sanitisation."

People will be more aware of the cleaning processes travel companies have in place following COVID-19. Picture: iStock
People will be more aware of the cleaning processes travel companies have in place following COVID-19. Picture: iStock

History has shown that we do overcome travel anxiety. This was highlighted after 9/11 - the airline industry took three years to recover, but it did recover. It remains to be seen how the corona hangover will compare.

Travel crisis expert Lori Pennington-Gray has studied many disasters that have threatened the travel industry, from hurricanes to the zika virus. She told The New York Times she believes the urge to travel has actually been heightened by COVID lockdown.

"I think staying at home probably piques people's interest in travel," she says.

"Travel is a part of our life and when we aren't able to do it, we realise how much it plays a role in what we're looking for in our plans and in our future free time."

Travel writer Sarah Khan comes to an interesting conclusion in her article on Vox.

"The universal grounding of global travellers has already had a positive impact on a planet wracked by the effects of climate change, and when borders do reopen, a more mindful approach to travel will likely be top of mind: fewer trips, longer trips, more meaningful trips," she writes.

"As we emerge from months of social distancing, we might be craving human connections - cooking with nonnas in the Italian countryside, or meeting craftsmen in rural Rajasthan, or a family road trip".

"This might be a great reset that actually promotes a better kind of travel".

Originally published as When we can travel again, will we actually want to?


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