Travel is disrupted, but long live the spirit of travel

When I unpacked my bags last November after a journey in Armenia and Georgia, there was no inkling that I would not be boarding a plane again for a long spell.

The joy of stepping into a city for the first time, relishing new flavours, gazing at a skyful of infinite stars or bonding with a kindred spirit in another land - all luminous experiences - are now out of reach.

We will surely fly again. But while we have reason to anticipate the return of normal life and travel, entire nations are still in trauma, so I should also picture bleaker scenarios ahead.

I wonder if the global fallout of Covid-19 will take the lustre off cities where small artisanal businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues may soon shutter for good.

Will sickened airlines fly to fewer exotic places in future when they re-prioritise routes? Will there be a lingering visceral distrust of Asian faces here and there or perhaps we will imagine slights where there are none?

Dystopic signs have emerged overnight, with businesses running on empty, airlines facing bankruptcy and racist encounters.

The pandemic is a pervasive disruption that has upended all dimensions of life, with tourism a very visible casualty.

A star sector, it contributes 10.4 per cent to global gross domestic product and outpaced global economic growth for eight successive years.

Tourism is also responsible for one in 10 jobs worldwide, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council in London. Up to 75 million of these jobs are at immediate risk and the hardest hit will be the Asia-Pacific, which accounts for two-thirds of the imperilled jobs.

Travel industry leaders evoke war and apocalypse in their imagery. Mr Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association, called the travel tumult "a bloodbath taking place in a jungle", according to Singapore's Web In Travel site.

"It will only be the survival of the fittest," Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said recently. Earlier, he had made headlines when he questioned the extent to which Covid-19 could be spread during the incubation period, labelling it a "fear factor" instead.

The writer tried and failed to spot pumas during a trip to Patagonia, but now, with the world in lockdown, pumas have started to boldly wander into urban areas like Santiago in Chile. PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

Figures keep getting grimmer., the largest online travel platform in China and a bellwether for an industry on life support, expects revenue to plummet by up to 50 per cent in the first quarter. Its chairman James Liang and chief executive Jane Sun have slashed their salary to zero from last month.

On a personal level, travel lovers are experiencing loss. The freedom to escape urban routine, or being pleasurably lost in time somewhere in the world, are all integral to their identity.

A friend, who yearns to fly again, thinks she will not complain again about overcrowded airports and unreliable flight schedules.

That was how accustomed we were to travel, never once imagining a planet in lockdown. Travel is a grand privilege and its demise illuminates a profound, if temporary, hole in our life.

Yet, travel professionals are among the most creative and inspiring people I know, creating channels for anyone to wander to the ends of the earth.

For instance, as the coronavirus raged in February, boutique-hotel booking service Mr & Mrs Smith released its report on Modern Love: Exploring The Future Of Romantic Travel that portrayed singles and self-romance in ascendance.

Hotels have been on trend, crafting experiences that give solo globetrotters equal standing with couples.

Imagination - and also relentless work - is a calling card of a competitive travel industry that has invented anything from budget airlines to near-space flights, from Antarctica cruises to a Filipino jungle trek in the footsteps of a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender after World War II.

We can expect the travel industry to rise again, and to transform in an altered post-Covid-19 landscape. Already, green shoots and fresh ideas are popping up.

Adara, a leading provider of travel intelligence, reports promising signs of a rebound in flights within China and to China from international origins.

As Chinese travellers go, so goes the world. This is certainly the case for Singapore, where the Chinese make up 20 per cent of tourist arrivals.

On April 2, global online travel company Skyscanner reported that 60 per cent of its travellers are optimistic that they will be able to travel internationally later this year, of which half are "very optimistic".

In this light, Skyscanner is asking travellers to remain hopeful and share stories of where they will go and who they will visit using #WeWill on social media.

Investors in the travel game are also looking for opportunities, according to venture capital firm Ennea Capital Partners in a March 30 note published by Phocuswright, an authoritative travel industry research firm.

"They have dry powder at hand, which they have been mandated by their Limited Partners to invest,'' the report pointed out.

"Investors will need to re-engage in the investment game at a not-too-distant point in the future, especially as the current crises will give rise to new market opportunities."

With a reset of the market, the way we travel will change. Now that livestreaming is integral to life, we may rethink the concept of space in travel.

Cocooned at home, we livestream the northern lights, stroll in Monaco or join a wellness class in Bhutan. I was once enraptured by a Kilimanjaro trek on YouTube - all 45 poetic minutes of it - and still replay its changing terrain in my mind.

The other day, I read in National Geographic: "Virtual reality may even expand travel opportunities in years to come, as researchers focus their work on experiences that are expensive, dangerous, rare, or even impossible in the real world.

"Bucket-list items such as whale-watching or seeing the Sistine Chapel could become accessible to everyone - with all the thrills but very few of the environmental impacts."

It sounds like a better world already.

I am also fascinated about the pumas that wandered into the locked-down Chilean capital of Santiago.

On a previous trip to remote Patagonia, I looked in vain for elusive pumas hiding in the golden tufts of grass that my horse was passing.

But now the big cats are urban explorers in a Covid-19-transformed world that will still be wondrous after the pandemic is vanquished.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 05, 2020, with the headline Travel is disrupted, but long live the spirit of travel . Subscribe