After the border closures and travel bans that have been benchmarks of controlling the spread and severity of the pandemic here and around the globe, it is travel that could end up not only regenerating our spirits but also finally spurring us into action to reimagine (and realise) the world we now want to live in.
It was the elephant in the room that ended up filling the entire house. A horrid, claustrophobic place where doors slammed shut as soon as they opened, braced against the next Greek letter threatening to smash through like a bad-news battering ram.
The COVID travel landscape
While many of us cautiously wade back out into the weird COVID-adjourned world once again, the big-brained optimists among us have hailed the pandemic vacuum as an extraordinary opportunity: a time to rethink, reimagine and reshape the trajectory of our lives, our communities and our planet. The pandemic exposed issues, inconsistencies and injustices aplenty in the ‘old normal’, making it abundantly clear that our collective trajectory could do with a good, hard rethink, judging by our sluggish progress battling that other Godzilla-sized pachyderm in the room: climate change.
At first, travellers lamented the immediate missed opportunities of that postponed trip to Bali or rescheduled weekend away. But as reality set in and the pandemic stretched on, the bigger picture of just how integral freedom of movement is to our emotional wellbeing and identities came into focus. Grounded and with boundless time to reflect, we turned our thoughts inwards, asked existential questions and crystallised what is truly meaningful to us beyond the immediate.
Big questions with bigger answers emerged. How can we make our journeys more ethical, more enriching and more environmentally friendly? Is travelling ‘sustainably’ enough or can we do much better, improving places instead of just minimising the degradation? In essence, can travel be part of the solution to all the things that have troubled and ailed us in lockdown – and some of the things that existed before COVID-19 did?
Looking to the future
To look into the future boldly, first we must ‘own’ our uncertain present, and acknowledge just how ‘unprecedentedly’ crappy 2020 and 2021 have actually been.
“People who perhaps wouldn’t have had reported mental health issues prior to COVID are now presenting with anxiety or depression, worse than had it not occurred,” says Tamara Cavenett, Australian Psychological Society President. “It’s a real concern, especially in states hardest hit by lockdowns.”
“Simply ending lockdowns doesn’t end mental health issues. They will be ongoing for some time. It’s not as simple as getting back to ‘normal life’. None of us are leading our normal lives. We feel anxious going places. Question who we’re seeing. People were saying to me: ‘I don’t know if I want to resume my normal life’. Even now, we don’t know what next week looks like.”
The pandemic forced mental-health conversations out into the open, with people more likely to ask for help, leaving counsellors at support organisations such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline (where calls were up 40 per cent) swamped. Now, with borders opening and vaccination rates in the nineties, travel itself emerges as a powerful tool in our healing journey.
“I would often encourage clients to plan a trip,” says Cavenett. “Even planning one can boost mood. You get excited about the thought – put energy in and get pleasure from just dreaming about where you’re going.”
Travel’s healing powers are not destination-specific, with no psychological difference between the Maldives and your go-to holiday house on the Australian coast.
“Any change of environment is mood-boosting in a clinical sense. Whatever makes you feel excited; gives you something to look forward to; something to save for. When you’re going with someone else, you also get a chance to bond and relax. And, once you’re there, you are often very active.”
The trend of travelling less selfishly, with greater mindfulness, was gathering pace noticeably before the pandemic, according to Dr Claire Ellis, chair of Ecotourism Australia, an eco-certification body covering about 1600 tourism experiences (its goals are approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council).
Ellis acknowledges that “people want to feel good about their holiday and also want to know they’re not trashing places”.
“I know the term is new, but Ecotourism Australia [founded in 1991] has always been in ‘regenerative tourism’. For our operators, it is really about making the world a better place using tourism as a tool: accepting nature, accepting culture, having people love and enjoy the environment and giving back.”
The demand for regenerative tourism experiences is a “very significant consumer trend”, filtering down to people’s day-to-day life choices, she says. “Australians are hugely focusing on physical and mental wellbeing. People are finding adaptive solutions in their everyday lives that work for them; with fewer people travelling into work daily; people thinking about food waste, recycling and using different kinds of energy. You have these expectations of places you travel now.”
To avoid greenwashing, Ellis suggests booking your next trip with businesses accredited by an appropriate globally recognised, independently audited body. While Eco Tourism Australia focuses on nature-based activities, EarthCheck may be more relevant for city hotels, for example. Even Bookings.com and Google use certification systems to make it easy.
Tourism operators need to tell their stories sincerely without “pushing it down people’s throats”, she says. Ellis cites off-grid Lady Elliot Island’s efforts to ‘protect and improve’ the Great Barrier Reef’s biodiversity, maintain sustainability and educate guests (through its ECO Warriors program) as one standout. The journey towards a truly regenerative tourism model will require whole-of-community collaborative approaches.
“It’s fabulous for people to have a great sustainable experience at a single operator, whether it be money to save local koalas or whatever, but that’s not enough. Ellis says organisations like Tourism Australia, Visit Victoria and Tourism and Events Queensland were already giving back, spurred on by a demand for ethical local experiences in the wake of bushfires, floods and droughts, as well as a heightened awareness of the history and richness of First Nations culture. Pre-pandemic demand for greater connection with the original custodians of our backyards was booming. But lockdowns and the international travel hiatus have challenged even the best of Australia’s Indigenous tourism operators.
“Some have done extraordinarily well – mainly when there’s been internal stimulus to that state – but others have struggled,” says Jason Eades, CEO of not-for-profit Welcome to Country (WTC), an online marketplace featuring around 200 Indigenous experiences. “Many were pretty resilient early on, drawing on reserves to keep going, but the last lockdown really hit hard [WTC had 95 per cent of bookings cancelled at one stage].”
The pandemic has indeed taken its toll, with one of Australia’s top Indigenous experiences, Kooljaman at Cape Leveque (Broome), now closed. But demand is rising again, particularly for urban tours, such as Royal Botanic Garden Sydney’s Bush Food Experiences.
“Tours are important for small communities,” Eades says. “It’s about making sustainable livelihoods in a way they can manage themselves. The multi-day tours especially are as much about keeping the community involved in culture, and passing it on to the next generation, as it is sharing with others.” He says remote cultural experiences like Lirrwi Tourism in Arnhem Land became a bucket-list item for travellers grounded in Australia.
“It’s more than just discovering the place in which we live, but allowing people to connect to it in a different way. People travel overseas with starry eyes, but there’s so much in this country that people don’t have a deeper appreciation for. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare; these immersive experiences will change your perspective on the Aboriginal community. You will come away changed, with a decent level of empathy and respect. They’ll also recalibrate what’s important,” Eades says.
“The reason why a lot of Aboriginal people get involved in travel is to share culture. Our community is very generous. There’s a deep sense that one way to change perspectives is to take people deeper and help them understand,” he says.
Travellers have a fundamental role to play in not only the economic recovery of COVID-hit communities, but their long-term prosperity and sustainability. That’s according to Penny Rafferty, head of sustainability at Tourism Australia and executive officer at Luxury Lodges of Australia. Rafferty says that the “economic nutrition” that properties like Lake House, in the Victorian regional town of Daylesford, inject into a community offers up the chance to develop and build the value and sustainability of the whole region. “During COVID [Lake House] kept staff involved and maintained relationships with producers, many of whom they inspired and mentored into extraordinary biodynamic regenerative and sustainable farming practices.”
“Post-COP26, with the rising awareness about biodiversity and climate change, there is an urgency to see beautiful places and wildlife, but also an understanding that we want our grandchildren to experience this,” says Rafferty.
The rise of overtourism
“In luxury travel, we talk about the shift from doing it for bling to seeking out rare and exclusive experiences. Acknowledging the small things and connecting with nature. Asking, ‘What can I do to not just minimise my impact but optimise my positive impact on the environment?’ “There was an awful lot about [pre-pandemic] travel that was clearly becoming unsustainable from an environmental and enjoyment point of view, especially with rising overtourism.
The optimistic me wants people to ask, ‘Why do I travel?’ and ‘What do I value in travel?’ ” The pandemic trajectory of Pennicott Wilderness Journeys is the perfect example of the symbiotic relationship between traveller and travel business. Before COVID, Rob Pennicott’s ‘yellow boats’ ferried some 130,000 guests a year across Tasmania’s wildest waters, from cruises around Bruny Island to transfers to the remote and breathtakingly beautiful Three Capes Track.
“My concern was keeping my 100 staff together,” says Pennicott, whose business is 100 per cent carbon offset with energy, water and waste monitored by EarthCheck. “We could have lost everything… I reached out to the Tassie public, offering vouchers at two-thirds of the rate to get cash flow. They came out in their thousands. It was very humbling to see enough money go into the bank. We employ local plumbers, electricians and kids who would have left these regional areas to go up to Hobart or interstate. That money is spent in those communities.”
Despite still being “on a knife’s edge”, Pennicott says the travel industry will boom once COVID becomes manageable, catering to the cabin-fevered masses. “Coming to Tassie is a really good start at rejuvenating yourself; having a quiet local beverage, snorkelling, sitting out in the wilderness. Last night, after a very big day, I went into the bush, sat down and just listened to the birds. Nature here is so meditative. “There will be people who can’t wait to go overseas, especially to visit family, but the vast majority will take the international step a little slower,” explains Pennicott. “A lot of people will just think they are so lucky to go to their own national park and out with friends to their favourite eating spot again.”
True regenerative travel might seem like a pipedream when we have not truly controlled our carbon footprints yet, but Greta’s generation are showing signs they will be the regenerative generation, fully embracing concepts of the circular economy and the B-Corp philosophy of judging travel by its impacts on workers, cultures and ecosystems instead of just profit-and-loss statements and Instagram feeds. “I know a lot of people who don’t even get on planes because of their views,” says Pennicott. “As soon as 15- to 25-year-olds are all voting, you’ll see governments put [regenerative travel] front and centre.” Perhaps, when COVID becomes just a terrible memory, the ‘new normal’ may indeed be something to look forward to.