Had you, a decade ago, described these topsy-turvy times, I’d have assumed it was the product of an overactive sci-fi imagination and a penchant for microdosing. Ditto if you’d forecast a rope swing in Bali would have folks dishing out the big bucks to stand in a long line for a photo opp in the jungle.
Can you conceive of holiday time spent winding your way along the island’s traffic-clogged roads, to fork out for a few moments spent capturing a contrived image of feet above palm fronds — all for social media show? Surely, we’ll look back on that pre-2020 idea of going just for the ’gram or to clock up what we so crassly call bragging rights, as being such a dated way of determining our travel targets. So I find it heartening that a paradigm shift is happening, and we’re being forced to think more deeply about where we go, and why.
I’ve loved how this hiatus in travel gave us a welcome breather from FOMO, and prompted us to stop and think. Now, let’s lean towards logic over elegy. Forgive me for coming over all Pinterest-motivational-post by quoting Einstein; but when he pointed out the world won’t evolve past a state of crisis by relying on the same thinking that created the situation, he had a point. So what a wonderful thing if 2020’s pandemic torpor inspires us to shed those ‘see it before it’s gone’ compulsions, and put the kibosh on our bucket-list bent.
We’ve felt a new fragility in this world, with many experiencing a stronger connection to it than ever, or to each other—all eight billion of us. And it seems clear that humanity will benefit from being more sensitive and conscious about how we navigate its 197 million square miles going forward. What this will actually involve is an entirely new lens on travel. We’ll need to think more as we work out the places that need us to visit—that benefit from our tourism. And—and here’s the new bit—we’ll need to acknowledge that other places, frankly, need time to heal; and will actually do so only if we avoid them entirely.
For this, I think it helps to think holistically. I find the Indian system of Ayurveda a good framework to follow. This 5,000-year-old medical and healing model is based on targeting and preventing the causes of ill health, rather than simply treating the symptoms. In the same way Ayurveda is based on the principle that wellness depends on balance between mind, body, and spirit, we need to find balance between us travelers and the geography we live in. The word itself combines the Sanskrit ‘Ayur,’ meaning life, and ‘veda,’ meaning science or knowledge. Its diagnoses and prescriptions are based on prevention through knowing what to nourish with, and what to avoid (within reason).
We should strive this same way for a better equilibrium in travel—because boy, have we fallen out of whack. Us being kinder to the planet’s beautiful places isn’t just about letting the environment heal; it’s about nourishing every ecosystem, in every sense. Sometimes that will mean leaving well enough alone. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is indeed bucket list material. And there are some fairly sustainable ways to see it. But maybe now is the time to forego a visit to the world’s largest reef system. Why? Because increasingly acidic waters are bleaching Queensland’s coral; much of it is dying, if not already dead. Carbon emissions, combined with the effects of El Niño, have already dangerously warmed the waters of the Coral Sea. Surely it would be smart to not add to the problem, at least for a while.
Envisage what you want from a trip. Then picture the poster destination for it. Now try and imagine whether Mother Earth would be there welcoming you with open arms. I’ve never been to Machu Picchu, but I don’t need a shaman to appreciate that visiting a lesser-known correlate might be the way forward. (Tip: Kuélap is an ancient Incan site that’s actually older, less fettered by tourist trappings). I hope to head here one day, but for now I’ll swerve the previously trammelled trails. I like to think it would be an all-the-more transformational journey because of that.
Anna Hunt, a London-based Peruvian-trained shaman, explained to me how and why Peru’s indigenous people are so much more connected to nature. ‘[It used to be that] all humans lived in agricultural societies. When your livelihood is so intimately connected with the weather, this dictates the strength of your harvest, and in turn, you inevitably hold a deep respect for nature, which you view as the ultimate supreme power. If the rains don’t materialise, there’s no popping to the supermarket. From this reverence for nature, rituals to both connect with and appeal to Mother Earth are a daily practice.’ Anna has come to learn of the great transformational power of time with a pacos, the healers of the Peruvian Andes. ‘In our society we seem to have lost our connection with Pachamama, and forgotten her wisdoms.’ Next time you’re planning your travels, maybe close your eyes and imagine seeking Her approval on where you want to go. No crystals or sound-healing necessary; I’m guessing we all know in our gut what the best thing is to do.
Some destinations have indisputably gained more popularity than is actually good for them. Sure they look fabulous in photos, and because of that we flock there. But now that Venice is opening back up, do we return? If so, how? Let’s go for longer periods and plan our time there more thoughtfully. Last year, news feeds were full of stories about the degradation of Mount Everest from a surfeit of aspirant climbers. Far better, surely, to head to Ladakh in North India’s Himalayas? And perhaps it’s worth not joining the masses en route to Iceland—which has six international visitors for every resident—when you could make instead for the Faroe Islands, an underpopulated archipelago, that is part of Denmark. Seek places rich in nature and history, yet not nearly as trampled.
As we’ve all just seen, things can change, and quickly. This was meant to be the year that Komodo Island was a no-go, in response to rampant over-tourism (which threatened the dragon populations). It’s not terribly surprising to hear that in 2021, tourist-starved Indonesia is unfurling that red carpet to lure us back to the home to the world’s largest lizards — but it is good to hear they’ll be charging a premium for the privilege.
Perhaps this is the kind of visit that is more of a help than a hindrance for conservation? To be discussed. Which is the point. We should all be in dialogue about these things more. We should savour the process, and the work (because that’s what’s required of us now: research, inquiry, due diligence) of better understanding how all of our choices have positive and negative impacts. Let’s rule out what looks good on our grid, and enjoy debating more deeply what’s great—or god awful—for the globe.
Juliet Kinsman is the Sustainability Editor at Condé Nast Traveller.