What Covid did to Travel: the Good, the Bad, and the Better

English teachers call it a “feedback sandwich.” A discouraged learner might disengage, so you wrap the hard part between two tastier layers. At the end of the first tourism year after two rough covid ones, I’m seeing the same format.

The immediate good news:

Travelers: are ready and eager to go. Covid has proved an insufficient threat to keep us locked up. After a short ramp-up my tours were overbooked, and only a couple people here and there dropped off to quarantine. Our spirits are undaunted.

Providers: the vast majority are there and working, and most of those who aren’t retired voluntarily. Our hosts are ready to welcome us again. A year ago I wouldn’t have bet on either of these.

Now the hard parts.

Providers: are exhausted by the tsunami of visitors to the major tourist sites, and that can strain the connection we seek. But worse, the rampant inflation born of shortsighted corporate greed and political complicity has left the already spare margins of the independent businesses we love stretched to the breaking point. One of my chefs in Italy was representative of the class when he said “A few months ago I spent about 1000 euro a month to keep this place open. This month it’s 11,000.” That is not sustainable. Strikes and unrest were present across Europe as people grew angry with their leaders, but we just spent 40 years making sure no government can handle this challenge. So I won’t be surprised if actions get more violent this winter. A need for change is in the air, which can be a good thing, but is rarely easy or tidy.

Now the core of this post: what effect did Covid have on travelers? A lot of us are dusting off our social skills, unaccustomed to talking to strangers and new friends, which are both quintessential parts of travel. That’s understandable. But there is something deeper.

“Stranger Danger” has always been an impediment to traveler connections, especially for Americans, and we just spent two years under the very real threat that a stranger breathing near you could kill you. Or that you could kill the next one over. That has left a mark.

I was standing on an elevated walkway through a gorgeous botanical garden yesterday in Chiangmai’s Royal Park Rajapruek, amazed that this massive park of many wonders was nearly empty. A knot of Americans came down the path, saying “It’s been really hard to get the students to open up and communicate, they’re really guarded and almost fearful of others.”

I wanted to say “Isn’t this walkway amazing?” but they were conspicuously not looking at me as they gave me a wider berth than necessary on the walkway. So I was pretty sure they wouldn’t welcome my suggestion that maybe they too were manifesting a stranger danger in overdrive.

It made the beauty lonelier than it could have been.

But wait, there’s more! The other positive side. Because while covid and economic tension are threatening travel joy…the practice of travel itself can be a big part of the cure.

When we travel, we see the differences in other places, but we also see the similarities. Everywhere around the world I see people working too hard, long hours threatening family and social relationships, and not earning as much safety in life in return as they used to. In one country, you might think it’s the president’s fault, but when it’s global, you can see it’s more systemic than that. The politician being smeared changes, but the shiny gas station logos stay the same.

But most beautifully (and more attainably) the cure for Stranger Danger is to meet more strangers. When I stayed home during covid, the world began to look like a very scary place. Over the last eight months on the road I have seen over and over again that it’s not. I again think most people are kind. I still don’t lock my door at night. I continue to see the world as full of friends I haven’t met yet, and even better, a beautiful and increasing number of ones I have.

Covid knocked our boots off. Then quarantine tied the laces together and told us we’d better not go out anyway. But slash that Gordian Knot of fear and suspicion, and come back out here. It’s vibrant, it’s restorative, and it’s important.

Happy travels!