I'm more a beanbag than an armchair type of person to be honest, locked-down as I am in one of Auckland's more hippie-ish suburbs. But in the wake of overtourism, carbon offsetting and now a pandemic, I have begun to wonder: Is armchair travel the future of responsible tourism?
Yesterday, 11 May 2020, was supposed to be D-Day. Dianne’s Deployment Day. Travelling through Darwin to Dili on my next travel adventure, a new assignment with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) as a Tourism Development Adviser. Partner organisation: The Asia Foundation. Assignment goal: to help form a functioning destination management organisation in the Maubisse region of Timor-Leste.
Keith, my husband, was planning to join me after he’d finished working on an international conference in the Greek Island of Rhodes in early June.
Instead yesterday, 11 May 2020, the New Zealand government announced that we would be moving to Lockdown Level 2, the next step in bringing ‘normality’ back to the country. It’s going to be a long journey for many, particularly in the areas of our expertise: corporate events and responsible tourism.
Lockdown for the most part, has not been a big stretch for me. I’m the original digital nomad working remotely wherever I happen to be based, which fortunately at this time is in the foothills of the Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland. If I have to be stuck anywhere, I’m very grateful that it’s here.
But what has changed radically, along with my plans, is my worldview. There are multiple question marks hanging over whether VSA will continue and what form it will take; if they will still be sending volunteers to Timor-Leste, if they will still consider tourism a valid assignment, if, at my age, I’d still be considered a viable candidate.
I have begun to rethink my attitude to responsible tourism and the part I want to play in it going forward. It seems to me that tourism, while it didn’t cause COVID-19, needs to take full responsibility for its part in the wildfire spread of it.
From a marketing perspective, I’ve had lingering doubts around the sustainability of developing and depending upon tourism for a livelihood, which the aims of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) et al, have done nothing to allay. When you do a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) the single biggest threat to tourism - any kind of tourism - is a global financial recession. Tourism depends upon tourists having disposable income. The pandemic is certainly going to result in austerity, if not outright economic hardship for many. Add to that the thought of killer germs overflowing from one squashed airline economy seat to another and between cabins and crew on massive cruise liners, and the industry doesn’t look very appealing. For the first time in my life, I have absolutely no appetite for travel.
I’m an anti tourist, which on the surface of things, seems at odds with my innate wanderlust and the work that I do. I love intrepid travel, the adventure of it, immersing myself in new places and as far as is possible, having an authentic local experience. While working and travelling in developing countries, I realised that tourism was going to happen there anyway, whether I approved of it or not. I wanted to be able to offer local people options to selling out to international tourism ventures and watching the profits head offshore. I wanted to help build sustainable tourism while minimising the negative impacts on their land and culture.
Now I’m not sure I want to be associated with tourism at all. I suppose it’s early days. We’ve yet to see the full impacts of the COVID-19, both economic and psychological. Do we limp back into our old lives and try to pick up where we left off, or attempt to forge a brave new world from lessons learnt?
For the moment I’m not making any decisions. Instead I’m going to content myself with armchair travel, a kind of time travel, reliving the travel adventures I have been fortunate to have experienced up to this point in my life. I'm hoping that somewhere along the way I'll discover a yen to revisit old places and begin to hunger for new places to explore.
Armchair travel, quite literally! Keith sitting in an old leather armchair at Roadtrip & The Workshop, Shoreditch, London, during a visit to the UK five years ago.