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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?

A smattering of visitors at the Taj Mahal on 16 March
A smattering of visitors at the Taj Mahal on 16 March

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 fortyjust 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.

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