It’s no surprise that a rapidly spreading and rather lethal virus wouldn’t be conducive to tourism. Not enough people were considering the option of using travel as a way to get to safety. Too many believe – often erroneously – that they would be safer at home. Or, if they die, they still want to bother all the relatives instead of romantically switching off the last light in some foreign land.
But the severity of the situation did surprise me.
Last week, I was on Pico, one of the Azores Islands. Because it was still the cheap off-season, I had treated myself to the Hotel Pico instead of camping. “It really does look very off-seasonish”, I was thinking mirthfully as I walked up the road from the port in Madalena. Until I was rattling at the door to no avail. It was closed.
“Lunch break,” I assumed and went for a walk, admiring the closed shops and the lines in front of pharmacies. But when I returned to the desired accommodation two hours later, it was even more closed and more abandoned.
I walked around the building, looking for an alternative entrance. As I had purchased a one-week lodging voucher, I didn’t think of myself as a trespasser when I jumped over the hedgerow and into the garden. Ah, there was the glint of the swimming pool, so everything was alright.
Until I got closer:
Oops, nothing was alright. Now I realized the wilderness in the garden, which I personally appreciated, but of which I didn’t assume that it was intentional.
Nothing could be heard, except for the chirping of the birds. No gardener, no lifeguard, no other employee was around. That allowed me to take a closer look on my own initiative. Let me put it this way: Even during the genocide in Rwanda, the hotels were livelier.
The offices looked as if they had been left in a hurry, but only recently. The Chief Manager, the Customer Relations Manager, the IT Coordination Supervisor, the Marketing Manager as well as the Human Resources Manager all ran directly to university where, reformed by the crisis, they probably enrolled in classes in philosophy, literature or history. Or maybe they went to the unemployment agency.
A mouse still tried to escape the massacre of the markets. It didn’t get far.
And if this is happening at the very beginning of the Corona crisis, you can imagine what this summer is going to look like for the tourism industry: bankruptcies, insolvencies, closures, lay-offs and suicides on a level last seen in the lull in tourism during World War II.
Now, only the pigeons are living here and pooping on the three stars next to the entrance door and on all the online evaluations.
And even the birds are starving or dying from boredom.
Speaking of World War II: Just as governments stepped into the breach back then, financing trips to Sicily and Normandy, now hotels, restaurants, airlines and even the ice-cream vendor in the park are calling for government aid. Because in a free-market economy, it’s up to the taxpayers to back-up a business model that flies tourists around the continent for 15 €, destroying the environment in the process and then collapsing – oh, what a surprise – at the slightest shock because no one built up any reserves.
As you know, I travel a lot, not so much for myself, but in a self-sacrificing way for the readers’ benefit, but I actually wouldn’t mind if the whole tourism industry were to collapse completely for once. Maybe we should use the current risk of contagion to question whether it’s really necessary to fly to another city every month, especially to cities where everyone else has already been or is flying to as well. Do you really miss so much if you don’t do that? I think not.
Let’s use the quarantine to think about quantity versus quality again. I find traveling extremely important for building one’s personality, for understanding the world, for encountering the foreign and the new. But all of this doesn’t happen on short trips, package holidays or cruises, or only rarely.
To attain these goals, one has to, as contradictory as it may sound, prepare oneself on the one hand by reading about cultures and learning the language, but on the other hand by opening up to the unexpected, the adventure. That doesn’t have to be expensive, quite the contrary: The biggest benefits can be gained from journeys undertaken with little money.
Time is what you really need, though. But we have already learned during the quarantine (or are going to learn) that we shouldn’t waste that much of our lifetime with work, in meetings, with Excel spreadsheets or on the phone. Because none of that is important (unless you are a rubbish collector or a nurse). The world keeps moving, even without internet marketing strategy sessions or trademark application consultants. So there is really no reason to work yourself to death for your boss, your company or the gross national product.
Instead of rushing somewhere five or six times per year, posting a few photos of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty on Instagraph, and finding exactly what you expected, I would deem it much more worthwhile to go on a real journey every few years. Or maybe once in a lifetime. Something like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked across Europe as an 18-year old. Or like Nicolas Bouvier, who drove from Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Fiat. Or like James Bruce, who spent years looking for a river. Or like Dumitru Dan who walked once around the globe – or didn’t. Or the longest-possible train journey in the world. Or simply a walk from wherever you are.
The coming months/years of quarantine can be put to perfect use for saving, planning, excited anticipation and for learning Pashto!
Because comfort seems enticing and adventure seems threatening, we sometimes have to force ourselves to our own happiness. And that’s why I would welcome it if there were no more (cheap) flights, forcing us to travel more slowly or to hitchhike. For all I care, the hotels can close too. Then we will meet the grandmothers with their signs “room to rent” again as we disembark at the train station in Sukhumi, going home with the one who promises a hearty breakfast for the next morning, all for 5 €. The most important thing would be for Trip Advisor and Google Maps to go bankrupt, so that one gets lost again and has to ask locals to show the way out of the favela in Salvador.
And all the speculators who purchased apartments to rent overpriced rooms to tourists through AirBnB, they should drop so deep into the red that they will have to blow themselves to pieces together with their property. It would be so beautiful if it was impossible to book ahead and if one had to walk through the Old City in Jerusalem late at night, knocking on dimly lit doors and asking if one might sleep on the roof, if nothing else, as we used to do.
Oh, this whole bloody modernity has made traveling so boring and predictable. Thanks to the Corona virus for bringing at least a bit of unpredictability into this robotic life! By the way, I really haven’t understood why all the tourists want to return home as soon as possible now. I am stuck on an island in the middle of the Atlantic because there are no more flights or ferries. I narrowly missed the last one because I was so fascinated by looking at the ocean.
And I love it. Finally a new situation that I have to adapt to. For a few months, maybe years. Let’s see how long the supply ships will be coming. After that, I’ll have to learn how to fish. Any maybe someone will cut the internet cable to make it really exciting.
Oh, and on Pico, where the hotels were bankrupt, I ended up staying at a monastery. But that’s another story for another day.