For most people, travel is discretionary. We choose whether or not to travel, to move to someone else’s place to stay overnight or just for a day. The origins of the word tourism are in the Latin tornare; ‘to turn on a lathe,’ from the Greek tornos. To tour is not to emigrate, it is to travel to return. People travel for VFR, for business, to study or work abroad for a contract period or a holiday. In none of these cases is travel compulsory, the individual has the luxury of choice. This is not always so; people also travel for war, hoping to return; and to emigrate hoping to remain.
The last major global pandemic at the end of WWI came in four waves between February 1918 and April 1920. It infected around 500 million people, one-third of the world’s population, and killed between 17 million and 50 million people. It is erroneously remembered as the Spanish flu but it originated in Fort Riley (Kansas) and New York City. It was the American flu. Early reports were censored to maintain morale and the pandemic was named after neutral Spain, a country without censorship. Spanish flu was caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, as was the swine flu pandemic in 2009. Populations weakened by malnourishment, by war and troop movements aided the spread of the pandemic. Many of those spreading the disease were travelling for war in crowded conditions.
The situation now is very different. Most travel is a choice made by individuals and in some cases their employers. In either case, trust that the traveller will be able to return unscathed is fundamental. For a long time, travellers have been able to assume their safety, to take it for granted. So much so, that significant numbers have travelled without taking prophylactics and precautions against malaria, a few have caught it.
Covid-19 was spread by travellers returning from studying or holidaying abroad. The travel and tourism sector facilitated the process by which a local outbreak in Wuhan turned into a pandemic. In the small town in Kent where I live, the lockdown is being eased. We are being urged to stay alert and to take responsibility for our own health and safety. Individuals are deciding whether to venture out and where. They do this with the benefit of considerable local knowledge about which businesses and places they can trust. We are to wear masks in crowded places mostly to benefit others. Masks are reported to be more effective in preventing the wearer from passing on the virus than in preventing the wearer from catching it.
When I travel to someone else’s place for business or holiday, to study, or to visit family I need to trust a long chain of providers in our complex sector. At any stage in my trip, I could encounter and catch the virus. I need to get to the airport, through security and the terminal, where I will mix with passengers from all over the world, and on to the plane. Then through another airport, immigration and by train, metro, bus taxi to the hotel or other accommodation. Once in my destination, I will need to trust others in public spaces, in cafes, bars, restaurants, museums and attractions and on transport.
There is a lot of trust required. Quite a lot of it beyond the control of our industry, in public spaces all of those present, are dependent on the willingness of others, local residents and tourists from all over the world, to socially distance, wear mass and isolate themselves if they may have Covid-19. And then I need to return home via transport and two airports. There is a risk that I may be locked down at home and unable to travel, that I may be locked down in my destination, and locked in and unable to return if my country of residence locks down again while I am away. These Covid-19 risks are widely uninsurable.
Travel used to be a risky business, it has not been risky for a long time. But it is now. Until there is a vaccine or reliable and effective treatment our whole sector needs to work hard to create and maintain trust, in our source markets and in the host populations. No individual business can achieve this alone. There is a long and complex chain of responsibility. This is the new normal.
In this year’s World Responsible Tourism Awards, we are looking to commend those businesses and destinations which have addressed the challenges and consequences of Covid-19. Nominate yourself or others before August 3rd. Details and nominations here.