Forget coronavirus – what about the travel bug?

Good times for travellers have gone, and the travel industry will never be the same again.

Two things about Covid-19: its spread outside China started in major travel destinations – Milan, New York, Sydney – and Australian victims include a disproportionate number of rich people.

We know about the wealth bias because last week the Victorian and NSW governments released details about infection distribution in those states. The largest outbreaks have happened in our richer suburbs, places like Waverley and Woollahra in Sydney and Melbourne’s Toorak and South Yarra.

The picture emerging is familiar: richer people tend to travel further and more often, both by air and aboard cruise ships.

The pandemic has highlighted a couple of other well-known facts: that mass air travel spreads a virus at great speed to far-flung places, and that cruise ships with their thousands of passengers are hotbeds of infection.

At any given time in the past few years, until last month, about 10,000 civil aircraft were in the sky and 300-odd cruise ships were floating around the world’s oceans. Their total human complement approached two million.

Think about that. Roughly half of all the people living in Sydney or Melbourne rubbing shoulders up in the air or on the high seas, all at once. Most of them tourists.

This is without any historic parallel. Once, a new arrival in town would draw audiences keen to hear every last detail of the traveller’s tales, for the simple reason that until the last century exotic travel for non-military purposes was expensive and rare.

Ever-cheaper fares from the 1990s made global travel commonplace. In some circles, and not just richer ones, it would have been hard to find anyone who wasn’t planning or undertaking or just back from their “trip”.

That’s apart from the burgeoning band of aerial commuters who routinely fly hundreds, even thousands of kilometres in the course of a day’s work. In Australia we’ve developed a whole new travel sector: fly-in-fly-out workers commuting between large cities and remote work sites.

Covid-19 has stopped all that dead in its tracks. Airports that never slept are now comatose. There are thousands of travellers stranded abroad, fleets of planes grounded for who knows how long, travel agencies closed and tens of thousands of travel workers out of a job.

Cruise ships were once welcomed to ports by governments, tourism leaders and many others pleased to be on their tour map. They became familiar sights on many waterfronts including the deep water port of Hobart, able to accommodate the biggest of them.

Their sleek, picture-perfect image has suddenly vanished. Now they are viewed as harbingers of doom, floating petri-dishes. Thousands of edgy passengers, including 2500-odd Australians, are stranded aboard as country after country refuses them permission to land.

Whatever their mode of transport, Australian travellers returning home are now forced into two weeks of isolation. If they’re Tasmanians they will have to suffer another two weeks, and if they live on King Island or Flinders Island they face yet another two weeks.

The pandemic has been a severe jolt to a nation of travellers living for the next holiday abroad. It has left most of our favourite destinations in partial or full lockdown, with others joining them daily. Far from being welcomed, visitors are shunned and told to leave.

That was Peter Gutwein’s message, as premier and minister for tourism, to visitors to our holiday isle last week. The few who remained in hotels, caravan parks or camping grounds last week were bluntly told to get on the next plane or ferry.

Contrast that with the red carpet rolled out to visitors by his predecessor in both capacities, Will Hodgman, who took pride in the record numbers of tourists attracted to the island.

In these extraordinary times, fact is far stranger than fiction. We’ve been led to believe that normality will return when the virus is corralled, but it won’t. We are going through a revolution, with all its associated traumas. Economic recovery will be long, difficult and incomplete.

The many thousands of cruise ship and airport refugees caught up in this month’s travel frenzy, plus millions of others who saw and felt their plight, now have a whole new perspective on travel. Those memories will be lurking ready to emerge whenever another trip is contemplated.

For years after the pandemic, the travel industry will be smaller and less adventurous than it was, which for a business whose environmental footprint was getting out of hand would be no bad thing. Significant recovery, if it happens, may take a generation.

Home. As the old song goes, there’s no place like it.

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