Travel in the age of con­ta­gion

As the tourism in­dus­try is up­ended by Covid-19, how will travel change in the shadow of the pan­demic?

Mint ST - - TRAVEL - Vivek Menezes

An un­fa­mil­iar sound as­saulted my ears this past week, dur­ing the daily sun­set walks I take along Mi­ra­mar beach in Panaji, the cap­i­tal of India’s small­est state. An es­tab­lished epi­cen­tre of bud­get tourism, th­ese sands are usu­ally thronged by de­lighted hol­i­day­mak­ers at this time of the year, with the waters sim­i­larly con­gested by “party boats”—each one hold­ing hun­dreds of rev­ellers danc­ing to pound­ing Bol­ly­wood an­thems. But now there’s none of that ca­coph­ony, only the seem­ingly deaf­en­ing crash­ing of waves. We had for­got­ten how loud the ocean is, all by it­self.

The tourists are gone from Goa, dis­in­vited by the global coro­n­avirus emer­gency. Af­ter neigh­bour­ing Kar­nataka and Ma­ha­rash­tra went into lock­down ear­lier this week, chief min­is­ter Pramod Sawant de­clared: “I urge peo­ple to avoid trav­el­ling with­out ne­ces­sity, and not to at­tend or or­ga­nize large func­tions. Schools, col­leges, pubs, movie halls, pub­lic swim­ming pools, spas, boat cruises and casi­nos will re­main com­pul­so­rily closed un­til 31 March.” Com­pli­ance has been spotty. Sawant him­self promptly pro­ceeded to ad­dress large in­door po­lit­i­cal gatherings. But things will cer­tainly change the mo­ment the state reg­is­ters its first con­firmed case of the dreaded in­fec­tion.

That mo­ment of reck­on­ing is in­evitable. Epi­demi­ol­o­gists pre­dict 60% of India’s pop­u­la­tion will be in­fected over the next year, with mil­lions of po­ten­tial fa­tal­i­ties. Many ex­perts draw analo­gies to the im­pact of World War II, with its huge con­se­quences for ev­ery as­pect of our lives. A cou­ple of days ago, when I reached out to au­thor Ami­tav Ghosh, who has been di­vid­ing his life be­tween India and the US for decades, he wrote back: “This is clearly a piv­otal mo­ment: It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine the world go­ing back to the same ‘nor­mal’ as be­fore. Tourism has been, for many years, the world’s big­gest in­dus­try. There can be no doubt that that will change, and along with that a lot else will change too.”

Ghosh is cor­rect that travel and tourism has con­sis­tently out­paced other sec­tors of the global econ­omy, to be­come an es­sen­tial en­gine of growth for many coun­tries.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2019 Eco­nomic Im­pact re­port of the World Travel and Tourism Coun­cil (WTTC), tourism ac­counted for 10.4% of global GDP and 319 mil­lion jobs, or 10% of to­tal em­ploy­ment. The num­bers are even more re­mark­able for India, which ranks at third place (out of 185 coun­tries) in the WTTC’s 2018 Power Rank­ing, which as­sesses growth in the sec­tor, along­side its con­tri­bu­tions to GDP.

Ev­ery bit of that has come to a grind­ing halt in 2020, af­ter India joined many other coun­tries in shut­ting its bor­ders to for­eign­ers. Ear­lier this week, the French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron an­nounced, “Con­cretely, all trips be­tween non-Euro­pean coun­tries and the Euro­pean Union (EU) will be sus­pended for 30 days.” France is the world’s most pop­u­lar in­ter­na­tional tourism des­ti­na­tion. Spain (which ranks sec­ond in global pop­u­lar­ity with tourists) had al­ready de­clared its in­ten­tion of ban­ning vis­i­tors. Mean­while, the US has im­ple­mented a his­toric pro­hi­bi­tion against trav­ellers from 28 coun­tries across Eu­rope, in­clud­ing the UK and Ire­land, in ad­di­tion to its pre­vi­ous “Mus­lim ban” against seven Is­lamic-ma­jor­ity na­tions.

In all this, some in­ter­est­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally com­i­cal ironies have emerged. Turkey, so of­ten cal­lously re­buffed by the EU, closed its bor­ders to cit­i­zens from sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries. A range of African na­tions, in­clud­ing Ghana, Kenya, Tan­za­nia, Morocco and Libya, banned flights from Eu­rope, which is di­a­met­ri­cally op­po­site from the way th­ese re­stric­tions are usu­ally ap­plied. On a rel­a­tively pos­i­tive note, the Is­lamic State (IS) terrorist group is­sued “sharia di­rec­tives” urg­ing its mem­bers to steer clear of Western coun­tries with the de­cree that “the healthy should not en­ter the land of the epi­demic, and the af­flicted should not exit from it”.

If sui­cide bombers are too afraid to leave home, what hope for the rest of us? Pon­der­ing this ques­tion, my mind turned in­evitably to the clas­sic travel lit­er­a­ture that has kept me be­guiled since I first en­coun­tered them in my teens: Robert By­ron, Martha Gell­horn, Bill Aitken, V.S. Naipaul, Bruce Chatwin and many oth­ers. Af­ter all, travel is so much more than tourism. As an­other all-time favourite, Pico Iyer, once wrote: “We travel, ini­tially, to lose our­selves; and we travel, next, to find our­selves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our news­pa­pers will ac­com­mo­date. We travel to bring what lit­tle we can, in our ig­no­rance and knowl­edge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are dif­fer­ently dis­persed. And we travel, in essence, to be­come young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”

Over the past 30 years, since his won­der­ful Video Night In Kathmandu (1988), Iyer has firmly es­tab­lished him­self as our most prom­i­nent con­tem­po­rary philoso­pher of the open road, the ver­i­ta­ble poet lau­re­ate of jet lag. When the coro­n­avirus emer­gency ex­ploded, I thought to email him to ask about the fall­out on his fa­mously glo­be­trot­ting life­style.

From his home in the an­cient Ja­panese city of Nara, Iyer wrote back, “Part of the un­set­tling logic of viruses, as with ter­ror­ism at­tacks, is that they re­mind us that one’s no safer in New York City, or in a priv­i­leged resort town in Cal­i­for­nia, than in Wuhan or anywhere else. Some­times even less so. I sup­pose the one great les­son so far is that it’s im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict a thing, and all of us have to live calmly with un­cer­tainty. In that re­gard, it’s a pow­er­ful metaphor for life it­self. But here in Ja­pan, which was one of the first coun­tries to be di­rectly af­fected by the threat, ev­ery­one is pro­ceed­ing as nor­mal and get­ting ready to en­joy the cherry-blos­soms in the parks this week.”

I felt gen­uinely con­soled when Iyer ex­plained: “In my own case, I am liv­ing as I al­ways do, as far as possible. I flew from my flat here in Ja­pan back to Cal­i­for­nia for just a day, two weeks ago, and though the air­ports I passed through were qui­eter than usual, I could have mis­taken the jour­ney for a trip last year, or two years be­fore. This May I am due to fly, in the space of ten days, from San Fran­cisco to Dublin to Brussels to Lon­don to Cal­i­for­nia and then to Dal­las, and in the weeks fol­low­ing to Cal­i­for­nia, Moscow and Ja­pan, and I’m hop­ing all of that will pro­ceed as planned.”

All this was ini­tially re­as­sur­ing, but then I fig­ured out, un­der cur­rent conditions, Iyer would have to flout US and UK travel ad­vi­sories to visit most places on his itin­er­ary, and in the case of Rus­sia, he wouldn’t be able to en­ter at all, be­cause the country has banned all vis­i­tors pro­vi­sion­ally un­til May. Be­sides, even if you could get through im­mi­gra­tion con­trols, what would be the point of vis­it­ing San Fran­cisco, which just im­posed an as­ton­ish­ingly strin­gent “shel­ter in place” pol­icy re­quir­ing mil­lions of res­i­dents across the Bay Area to stay home?

Here we must in­escapably dwell about why we ven­ture to travel in the first place, with all the im­pli­ca­tions of the word “jour­ney”. For the 19th cen­tury Amer­i­can tran­scen­den­tal­ists Ralph Waldo Emer­son and Henry David Thoreau—who were pro­foundly in­flu­enced by the Upan­ishads (and who Iyer con­sid­ers his own favourite travel writ­ers)—there was never any need to go anywhere. The lat­ter makes the case rather colour­fully in his jour­nal: “Here I am at home. In the bare and bleached crust of the earth I rec­og­nize my friend. A man dwells in his na­tive val­ley like a corolla in its ca­lyx, like an acorn in its cup. Here is all the best and all the worst you can imag­ine. What more do you want? Fool­ish peo­ple imag­ine that what they imag­ine is some­where else. That stuff is not made in any fac­tory but your own.”

By his own telling, Thoreau “trav­elled a good deal in Con­cord”. In much the same way, the global pan­demic com­pels us—at least for the time be­ing—to look closer to home to de­rive what­ever we usu­ally seek fur­ther afield. While this sce­nario is cer­tainly un­fore­seen, and quite un­prece­dented in the mod­ern era, much of what is re­quired of us would have been en­tirely fa­mil­iar to our fore­bears. Let’s not for­get that just over 100 years ago, at least 18 mil­lion In­di­ans died in the Span­ish flu (aka “the grippe”) pan­demic, which killed 50 mil­lion peo­ple around the world. And right into the 1970s, the country faced the ever-present threat of small­pox, with its mor­tal­ity rate of 30-70%.

In fact, it should be noted that even now India is suf­fer­ing an­other deadly epi­demic. As de­scribed by Vikram Pa­tel, the Per­sh­ing Square pro­fes­sor of global health at Har­vard Med­i­cal School, in the In­dian

Ex­press on 14 March: “More peo­ple died of TB in India last week than the en­tire global death toll of Covid-19 to date. Given our ur­gent, en­er­getic and mul­ti­fac­eted re­sponse to the lat­ter bug, one is left won­der­ing why we have failed so mis­er­ably for an­other bug.” His in­escapable con­clu­sion: “It is be­cause those who suf­fer from TB are not likely to be boarding in­ter­na­tional flights or pass­ing through swanky air­ports to at­tend con­fer­ences…It is be­cause TB no longer poses a threat to rich and pow­er­ful coun­tries. It is be­cause those who have TB live on the mar­gins and have lit­tle po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.”

If all pre­vail­ing in­di­ca­tions prove ac­cu­rate, it looks like we are in­deed go­ing to be liv­ing in the Age of Con­ta­gion for the fore­see­able fu­ture. So how will travel change as a re­sult? Here, I im­me­di­ately thought of Gus­tasp and Jeroo Irani, the fan­tas­ti­cally un­flap­pable vet­eran travel jour­nal­ists, who have spent the past sev­eral decades in per­pet­ual mo­tion. In 2016, I had the mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing Ar­gentina with them, and was ab­so­lutely awestruck by their stamina, cu­rios­ity and ir­re­press­ible joie de vivre. It seemed log­i­cal—if there’s go­ing to be travel and tourism in the com­ing years, then my peri­patetic friends will prob­a­bly have fig­ured out what that’s go­ing to look like.

The Ira­nis told me: “We can’t imag­ine life with­out travel—it’s oxy­gen for us. By May, we ex­pect to make short for­ays in India, and in July hope to travel over­seas.” But ear­lier this month, they went to Jodh­pur, where “we donned masks, washed hands as frequently as we could, and used hand san­i­tiz­ers when wash­ing hands wasn’t possible. At the air­port, we avoided sit­ting in the crowded lounge and any form of con­tact with strangers. On the flight, we did not or­der snacks, or even wa­ter. Per­haps this is the shape of things to come in the short and medium term. Travel, but ex­er­cise cau­tion. Pan­demics peter out, vac­cines are for­mu­lated, and, say, by Septem­ber of this year, travel and tourism will make a strong come­back with pent-up de­mand to bol­ster it.”

That could be a re­al­is­tic sce­nario, at least for do­mes­tic tourism, be­cause in­ter­na­tional border con­trols are likely to re­main un­pre­dictable for years. Savio Mes­sias, the straight-talk­ing pres­i­dent of the Travel & Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion of Goa (TTAG), told me: “Things couldn’t be worse at the mo­ment, not just here but every­where. We will all just have to wait, and watch how the virus is con­trolled, and then go back to the draw­ing board. The in­dus­try is think­ing of re­duc­ing staff, and cut­ting op­er­a­tional costs, which we never did even be­fore, even dur­ing the lean sea­sons and mon­soons. Then af­ter the cri­sis hope­fully blows over, we will prob­a­bly have a dev­as­tat­ing world­wide price war, with des­ti­na­tions and op­er­a­tors com­pet­ing in what will un­doubt­edly be a buy­ers mar­ket.”

But then the in­dus­try vet­eran told me, “It’s go­ing to be a huge chal­lenge, yet there’s also the sil­ver lin­ing that peo­ple who are cur­rently cooped up are go­ing to badly want a hol­i­day. Goa is very for­tu­nate to be a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion, full of en­ter­tain­ment and leisure op­por­tu­ni­ties. So my guess is we will be in big de­mand for those who have re­mained in­doors for months, to fi­nally let their hair down. We are keep­ing our fin­gers crossed!”

That cau­tiously op­ti­mistic rea­son­ing found an un­ex­pected echo when I re­ceived an­other email from Iyer the day af­ter our ini­tial ex­change. This time his mes­sage was truly com­fort­ing: “As I think back on your ques­tion, I sus­pect that what we’re wit­ness­ing now is noth­ing akin to a ‘death in tourism’—in­ter­na­tional travel has gone up by a fac­tor of forty just since I was a boy. I was in cen­tral Nara yes­ter­day and the train-sta­tions and shop­ping ar­cades were thronged, of­ten with for­eign vis­i­tors. But per­haps it’s a brief (we hope) hia­tus for some tourism, and a hia­tus that moves many of us to re­flect on why we travel and why it has be­come such an in­dis­pens­able part of our lives.”

Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and pho­tog­ra­pher.

An area sur­round­ing the Kaaba, in­side Mecca’s Grand Mosque, empty of wor­ship­pers on 5 March.

A smat­ter­ing of vis­i­tors at the Taj Ma­hal on 16 March; and gon­do­liers with­out cus­tomers in Venice.


A view of empty chairs at St Peter’s Square in Vat­i­can City on 8 March.

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