I am from a generation that was brought up only dreaming about foreign holidays, believing them to be a far-fetched luxury. As it happened, I ended up traveling around the globe chasing after breaking news, as well as regularly joining long airport queues for vacations or short weekend escapes to the sun, away from London’s gray winters.
Nothing equals the pre takeoff feeling of freedom, happiness and relief, whether traveling for business or pleasure. It seems that, over the years, we have conditioned ourselves to occasionally cut and go, escaping the routine in search of a rest, recharge and reboot ready for new challenges at work once we return. Going on a foreign holiday became a necessity.
But the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and maybe global warming could now change that for good. Over the past 18 months, travel has once again become an unattainable luxury, plagued by uncertainties, extra costs and anxiety about rule changes.
Nowadays, essential travel is the only game in town — and also for the foreseeable future if we are to suffocate the virus with the help of vaccines and people’s continued compliance with restrictions.
This week’s downgrading of Portugal from the green list of holiday destinations to amber has shocked a British population yearning to try and shake off the fearful, lonely and anxious months of lockdown. Hopes of adding the likes of Malta, Jamaica and Grenada to the extremely limited UK green list have also been dashed for now, even though more than half of the British population has been fully vaccinated and at least two thirds have had their first jab.
Travel will likely remain elusive until the virus is more under control, as risks of new mutations or new waves are lurking and threatening more hardship all over the world. The Delta variant seems to be 40 percent more transmissible, though we are told that two vaccine doses should still keep severe illness and hospitalization at bay.
International travel, which saw the UK welcome in excess of 40 million tourists per year in pre-pandemic years, has dwindled. Between January and April this year, only about 1.5 million people visited the UK. British people seem to have learned their lesson and, in the name of abiding by the rules, have cut their foreign travel down to a minimum. We have learned to work from home, adapted to socializing via video calls, ordered our food in instead of going out, and have had staycations instead of flying to sunny destinations.
The pandemic has produced a semblance of wartime conditions, whereby we all have to do our bit for the common good.
Though airlines, tourism companies and the hospitality industry have suffered an unimaginable blow and are still incurring billions in losses, the hope is that aviation will remain a cornerstone of people’s lives and their countries’ economies. Bosses of the two biggest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, this week promised a return to pre-pandemic growth in the not too distant future, for both leisure and business travel. Meanwhile, United Airlines has announced the intended launch of a new supersonic jet 20 years after the pioneering Concorde was grounded by the UK and France.
Certain countries have started to prepare to remove their COVID-19 barriers, allowing vaccinated travelers from selected nations to visit. France announced last week that it would welcome holidaymakers from America and the UK, as long as they have been vaccinated, in a bid to “reconcile freedom of mobility with the need for security,” according to Minister of Tourism Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne. Switzerland is working to issue its citizens with a vaccine certificate that will allow them freer movement across Europe’s Schengen Area. The EU is due to roll out similar certificates in July.
But that does not mean a return to normal, as the last 17 months have demonstrated that reduced infection rates in a few countries are offset by surges of new variants in less-fortunate countries like India and Brazil. This echoes what many world leaders have been repeating: That no country is safe until all nations get the virus under control.
Geostrategic factors have marginalized the chances of a comprehensive global approach that could protect all societies; and it seems they will continue to do so. The departure of former US President Donald Trump, who indirectly fanned the flames of discord through his conflictive approach to world diplomacy, has not yet produced a return to suspicion-free multilateral action in order to tame the virus.
In the UK, many are urging the government to delay the lifting of lockdown restrictions that is due on June 21. This is due to fears that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s over-optimistic approach to unshackling society and the economy might lead to a new surge in infections and hospital admissions, necessitating another lockdown. That would be taxing both for the economy and for a society that is unable to plan any foreign vacations for the second summer running.
I am opting to stay put and even delay any “essential travel” as long as possible, since, in addition to taking seriously the rules on social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask, the pandemic has produced a semblance of wartime conditions, whereby we all have to do our bit for the common good.
How big a price we ultimately have to pay is not yet clear, but it will be substantial, as people have gotten used to traveling and the economy depends on people’s free movement to thrive. Sacrificing foreign holidays and having to cope with entertaining the children on home soil, while putting up with the British Isles’ wet summers, might be the only option. Traveling is an incomplete and costly experience in this pandemic world, as a tourist destination deemed green today could easily turn amber and later red.
To travel or not to travel is not a mere spoiled rich society problem; it is a pressing global question that will determine the scale of the shift this pandemic has on our open borders and skies, as well as our freedoms.
Taking a holiday has become a necessity for rich and poor societies alike in recent years — it is a goal that releases us from the captivity of the everyday. Planning a vacation is a momentous step that brings us happiness, even prior to buckling up and taking off. COVID-19 has undermined our happiness and ability to cope, likely for some time to come, as the world is still overwhelmed by the pandemic and the lack of a multilateral approach to fighting it.
In the globalized world we live in, we used to explain our economic interconnectedness by saying, “When China sneezes, the world catches a cold.” Well, clearly, to treat the cold we need to heal the sick in Africa and Western Asia to prevent the virus from mutating and delaying the rest of the world’s healing. If that means shelving my family holiday, then it is a price I am happy to pay, in the hope that the virus is controlled and eradicated and we can all resume a life free of lockdown and uncertainties, even if we have to continue with masks and vaccines for a few years to come.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.