Life is suddenly in the slow lane. Travel has slowed to a halt for most of the world, with airline schedules at a minimum, government travel bans in place and many of us living under restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.
Slow travel has long been a movement that has attracted me, and I’m hoping that this enforced slower pace for the world will give us space to reconsider the ways in which we travel. So often, we live and travel at a hectic pace, so eager to “see it all”. Our time is limited by the days we can take off work, and we want to cram as much into our visits to other places as we can.
As a travel writer, I often see new places on itineraries planned by destinations who want visiting writers to experience as much as they can in as short a time as possible. They want to get as much “bang for their buck” as they can, so hosting writers begins the moment we step off the plane. Itineraries often start at 7am and finish after dinner (or post-dinner drinks at a popular bar), sometimes close to midnight. The next day it all starts again. There’s little time on trips like this for idle wandering, pursuing our own interests or quiet reflection on what we are seeing. I’m not criticising those who organise such trips; it’s part of their brief, just as it is part of ours as travel writers. But it’s not a holiday, by any means.
Now everyone is grounded, with time at home and time to think about how we live and how we travel. We have slowed down, and many of us are relishing that. We are cleaning our cupboards out, tending our gardens, reviving our baking skills, sewing and knitting, sorting our photos (both online and off), going for walks. Jigsaw puzzles and board games are back in vogue, and we have time to read – yes, real books! – again.
I wonder if travel will take on a new form when we are finally on the move again? If staying at home will bring a new appreciation of places we can go, or alter our decision-making about where to go, or how to travel?
There’s no doubt that the lack of planes in the sky and vehicles on the road are making a difference to the world. First, that wonderful shot that’s circulating showing clearer skies above India making the Himalayan ranges visible for the first time in 30 years. The BBC reports that pollution levels in New York have dropped significantly. Factory shut-downs in China have resulted in an improvement in air quality. Seismologists around the world are finding the quieter Earth a boon to their ability to hear “seismic signals” from the planet’s interior. The quiet means we can hear other sounds – like birdsong – more clearly.
Even the oceans are quieter, with cruise ship activity grinding to a halt. Researchers believe this will lower stress levels in marine life, just in time for the beginning of the annual Humpback whale migration season.
And then there were the goats. More than 100 wild goats who live in the hills behind the Welsh town of Llandudno found the empty streets during lockdown so quiet that they became bold enough to invade – to the delight of locals.
I find all this fascinating. It hasn’t taken long at all for these effects to kick in, even if they are only temporary. Some have described this phenomenon as the Earth “taking a breath” – and I love that idea. In my homeland, Visit Auckland has released this beautiful video, set to a poem called Papatūānuku – Mother Earth by Ngāti Hine/Ngāpuhi writer Nadine Anne Hura (it has also been shared by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern).
Will any of this matter to us when travel restrictions are eased and borders reopen for international travel? Or will we all be so eager to be off “somewhere” – anywhere – again that we won’t pause to think about where and how we travel in the future? I am as guilty as anyone (perhaps more so) about scratching my itchy feet. I’ve made a career out of it, after all.
But I well remember one of the most relaxing holidays I’ve ever had, because it was a slow and quiet journey. A sailing trip down the Queensland coast, from Cairns to Townsville – a distance which could be driven in a little over four hours – over two weeks. As I wrote in an earlier blog post about the trip, I was worried about being bored. Turtles, dolphins, a spot of kayaking, beach walks on deserted islands, and lively games of Scrabble on the deck with my companions soon took care of that, and I’ve been a convert to the art of slow travel ever since.
I hope our “breathing space” from travel is well-used and that when we move again, we are more thoughtful travellers. The many places around the world that have suffered from over-tourism will thank us. There will be changes in the world and in the way we travel. Of that I’m sure.