There’s no place like home

There are turning points and turning points, and I’ve passed a big one. After a lifetime regarding long-distance travel as perfectly normal behaviour, it’s now become clear to me that it is not normal, nor sensible, nor, in the long run, viable.

I know the huge global travel industry isn’t going to end tomorrow; demand will return if and when Covid is controlled. All I’m asking is that we at least think about positives and negatives and ask ourselves, how is this working out?

Some people travel because they have to. Maybe their crops have failed, or their government has put them in fear for their lives. Travelling for these people cannot be a pleasure; they deserve our attention, but this is not about them. 

Some people believe they travel because they have to. The world’s business, professional and political elite like to hop on a plane to meet like-minded colleagues, with sightseeing squeezed in as reward for hard work.

I care little about them, but I do feel for others of this cohort, members of separated families. Global travel enables new families to be made half a world away from old ones, perpetuating the need to travel. We’ve seen that playing out again and again during the pandemic.

Most people travel out of simple curiosity, to see what’s over that hill or what the next village is about. On balance, travel is good for human understanding. It doesn’t broaden everyone’s mind, but it works for most and it’s always good for conversation.

Less palatable is what mass travel does to the planet. The world has known for decades that aviation contributes disproportionately to global warming, yet just before Covid struck, emissions from aviation were growing fastest of all transport sectors, passing 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year globally. 

Responsibility for most of these emissions rests with the world’s power elite, which sees travel as its right. The aviation industry is well-protected by public subsidies, and business and government clients, including those who use corporate and VIP aircraft, are by far the world’s most frequent fliers.

Then there’s the not-insignificant issue of ocean cruising. Today’s big cruise liners are among the biggest ships ever built, accommodating over 6000 people. They claim they don’t pollute, but some evidence – flotsam washed up on Arctic beaches, for example – plus basic knowledge about time-honoured maritime waste-disposal habits would say otherwise.

Which leaves us with the end product of mass tourism: crowds of people in nice places hitherto unspoilt by crowds. That conundrum afflicts these nice places everywhere, which is where old European towns and Tasmania, especially the Hobart waterfront, find common cause.

Charles Wooley drew attention in these pages last week to the plight of one of these old cities, Barcelona, and the tens of thousands of tourists disgorged from cruise liners each day over summer, prompting locals impolitely telling visitors to go home.

Barcelona is far from alone. Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Kyoto are all suffering from “overtourism”, to which we can add coastal towns all over the place including Australia. Bear in mind that until Covid hit, the Asia-Pacific was the fastest-growing tourism market in the world.

It’s not just crowded streets forcing people to rub shoulders (and risk infection) when they’d rather not, or too many cars increasing wear on roads and bridges. High tourism returns are pricing residents out of the property market and rendering people homeless.

Wooley’s idea of encouraging more respect for our island by making it more expensive to stay here has a lot going for it, and he’s right to question opening up to all-comers. Though we would still have to stop cruise ships from giving us the Barcelona treatment.

It’s no surprise that the tourism industry, a major cause of the virus’s spread, wants travel restrictions lifted, but the advice of those paid to understand viruses is to play safe and get used to living within limits. I doubt many Tasmanians would disagree.

The pandemic warns us of the danger of overreach, and the global travel industry was exactly that. As climate change ramps up there will be matters to attend to and resources to marshal close to home. Turning our minds to that, away from the temptation to continue living and travelling as we were, will be the great challenge of coming years.

Covid has impressed on me the special charms of staying put, of spending time around family, garden, neighbourhood, treading one’s own streets and paths, making small regular journeys of discovery close to home. Depth instead of breadth. Not so bad, really.

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