The coronavirus pandemic has put a temporary stop to almost all international travel, and many are dreaming of foreign holidays as a way to cope with prolonged lockdown restrictions. But air travel is a huge contributor to carbon emissions: should we use what we’ve learned from the pandemic to change the way we think about travel?

Mel Young: The debate around quarantines and how nations are protecting themselves against different potential strains of Covid-19 is intensifying across the globe. People are getting upset because they might not be able to go on holiday or travel abroad. I even heard that one country – a popular tourist destination – is considering introducing a two-week quarantine rule for five years in order to protect its population. That would have a profound impact on tourism and foreign travel. But I can see two sides – one where it will be bad for the tourism industry, but another where it could actually be very good for the planet.

Alex Matthews: Yes it’s a tricky one. So many jobs and livelihoods around the world are dependent on tourism, which has obviously been hit incredibly hard by quarantines and travel restrictions. But the tourism industry has a huge carbon footprint, particularly in recent years with the rise of low-cost airlines; perhaps it was time that the industry was faced with a reckoning like the pandemic, forcing it to become more environmentally friendly. A move like the one you mention above would mean a huge rise in domestic tourism, which is of course much less impactful on the planet. But would it affect our ability to have a global view and empathise with people from other cultures?

MY: I think we might have to readjust our horizons and change the way we see international travel. The internet continues to develop at pace, allowing us to connect globally. We will miss human interaction and we wouldn’t have the same cultural experience, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We need to think more locally and appreciate what is actually in front of us, rather than dashing off to a foreign beach. I think that during lockdowns many people have started to see things in their local area differently – seeing things that were in front of their nose all the time. The one area which I am challenged about in this is the possible rise of elite tourism. So, the only people who will be able to afford to travel and take time off to quarantine will be the wealthy!

AM: Yes there’s a lot of opportunity for increased inequality, both in terms of ability to travel and get away, but also culturally – those who can afford it will have the exposure to other cultures that so many companies, for example, find valuable. I wonder if a solution could be a mileage allowance: you’re allowed to travel, say, 500 air miles a year, and if you want to go far afield then you have to save your miles up. But that doesn’t get around the problem of quarantine… It’s difficult!

MY: Well yes and no! I think we all have to look long-term which is why I like the notion of governments starting to scenario plan around the possibility of quarantines for five years. It concentrates the mind and you start to look at the implications and make systemic changes as a result. At the moment, I feel governments act in a knee jerk way and say things like “when we return to normal” rather than this is the way the world could be in the future. Five years of local tourism might actually help the globe heal and breath again, for example. And that has to be good. And we can come up with a fair way to deal with the emerging issue of elite tourism. 

AM: Yes, that’s a good way of looking at this. Going back to the ‘old normal’ shouldn’t be an option: the pandemic has given the world a chance to pause and reflect on our relationship with the planet. There now seem to be two camps of people – those who are desperate to return to normal and those who want to create a ‘new normal’, one where we are more considerate of the needs of others and of the planet. Unfortunately, most leaders fall into the former camp, but I suppose that is understandable to an extent – the last 14 months have been so difficult for the world, that we comfort ourselves with the thought of returning to what is familiar, so leaders promise them a return to normal. But it would be such a wasted opportunity – we should relish changes such as local tourism, as we’ve talked about here, closer communities and a healthier relationship with nature, and weave them into our post-pandemic way of living.

MY: Yes, I agree. We are starting to hear positive voices from people who have alternative strategies which are sustainable. Honestly, I don’t know whether a global quarantine strategy for five years for every country in the world would work, but what I like is this type of thinking. Pre-pandemic ways weren’t sustainable: how do we use the pandemic as an opportunity to move forward and create real change? 

AM: And, of course, these are all thoughts and conversations we will be having on The New Ism this year. Our goal is to talk to all sorts of people, but particularly young people, to get their ideas for how we can create that new normal – a new system – so that we live in harmony with the planet and all forms of life can thrive. If you’re reading this, we’d love you to join us – start by signing up for our newsletter and see where it goes from there! 


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