Travel Writing After All This
While sprucing up this blog a bit during lockdown, I fell into reading my old posts about South America. I enjoyed it, mostly for the memories, but also because the current lockdown is warping my sense of time and space. Hours feel like weeks, but then I blink and a month’s gone by. I find myself traipsing similar orbits each day around the house, and then perhaps over to the supermarket or the park. There’s a palpable escapism to be had in reminiscing about South America and other places.
But the comfort of looking through old posts and thinking about what happened on my travels brought it home to me that travel will be vastly different when the lockdowns are over. Whole economies will now spend probably upwards of a decade readjusting to this new normal, there will be many things that people will not be able to do in the short term. Tourism as we knew it will be not be the same as before, especially if Covid-19 turns out to be something that we cannot effectively vaccinate against.
But I think this represents an opportunity rather than a crisis. In recent years, capitalism, global tourism, and social media had aglomerated to create a wave of people washing through touristy towns and cities much to the detriment of people who had to live there. It’s not that new a phenomenon. Ten years ago during my PhD Bath used to be intolerable during the summer months. Even earlier than that during my MSc, stag and hen dos would blight weekend nights out in York. In January 2018, Barcelona seemed to be creaking at the seams with overtourism even at that quieter time of the year. Now those places and many others will be desperate for tourists to come back. Both for their livelihoods and because for them playing host to bustling crowds of people living, laughing and drinking in strange lands will be a way to know that this dark time is over.
And yet, I cannot help but feel happier now that my local patch is quieter, grassier and experiencing a greater sense of community and solidarity than before. I imagine the inhabitants of the world’s beauty spots may also be thinking about how they now keep at least some of these wonderful places for themselves. There will be a period when the world will be asking how to create travel experiences in a socially distanced way. But the world will also need permanent solutions of this nature, rather than temporary ones, to make the future more sustainable. Overtourism should not resume, because it should never have been business as usual, and no one should have to see a place urgently because there’s a danger of it not being there next year.
The title of this post includes a reference to writing about travel. We as travellers, no matter what way we record our voyages, will need to document the experiences we have in new ways. Our writing, our photographs, and our films are going to have to be more about immersion and explanation, rather than about status or bucket lists. You can get wall maps that are like lottery tickets, where you scratch off the foil if you have been there. The age of those wall charts should now be over.
Also over is the age of the social media check-in. And the age of the home-from-home airbnb. The interconnectedness of the world, the culture and diversity that makes it such a wonderful place and compels to experience its breadth and depth, now relies on a deeper awareness of who we are, where we are, and who we are with. Not in a finger-pointing “those people have the plague” kind of way, but in solidarity with them. They now depend on us, to bring them trade but not the virus. And we depend on them, to show us another part of ourselves, but not to give us the virus.
We may have to be content to experience the world in ways that are less about accruing status and are more about the sharing of experiences. When I was in South America, I knew that I was not in the best frame of mind. I can say in fact, with the safe assurance of hindsight, that I went there to decide whether anything in the world could prompt me to continue caring about it. Because of this mind set, and my awareness that I would often be documenting internal novelties as well as external ones, I tried to capture a range of experiences both in person (so many tours of Cathedral crypts) and with my camera. Tourists are often disparaged for photographing everything and feeling nothing, but I tried my hardest to do both. In my bedroom in lockdown, I can use each to understand the other.
Truly transportative travel writing exists in a multitide of forms, not just as writing. The best of it transforms us as well as transports us, and that is what we will need now. The good news is that it looks as though I will have plenty of time to work on the material I already have, even if it may be a while before I can get out and explore for some more.