To say that 2020 was not a good year to be a travel writer is an understatement. It was a year in which my colleagues and I considered an uncertain future, and learned to adapt and diversify, if and when we could. Patience and positive thinking became essential tools in a year when travel and tourism – our lifeblood in more ways than one – sputtered and stalled.
Travel, whether for business or pleasure, temporarily ceased. Airlines were grounded. Borders, both internationally and within Australia, were barricaded both literally and metaphorically. Passports gathered dust. Dreams and plans were mothballed for the duration, as the global pandemic brought us to a place we had never imagined. A world where we all stayed home, either by choice or by law.
Each year on this blog, I review my travels for the year. This one has been like no other, but despite the lack of international travel, it has had its own rewards.
I began my working year, not with travel but with an assignment for Frommer Media to write about the impact of the summer bushfires on some of Australia’s popular tourism destinations. As the long-time author of Frommer’s Australia, I couldn’t guess at this stage that my annual update would be cancelled for the foreseeable future, just the first of my regular gigs to disappear from my work calendar.
My first travel assignment of the year was a portent of what was to come: a short trip to a destination just a couple of hours from home. The place was Minjerrabah/North Stradbroke Island, one of the world’s largest sand islands, in Moreton Bay, just an hour’s drive and a 30 minute ferry ride from my home in Brisbane. The assignment: to snorkel with the manta rays that inhabit the waters around the island. And yes, it was every bit as amazing as it sounds (but that’s not me in the image!).
In February, I made what was to be my only international trip of the year. Japan had been on my wish-list for a long time and I was thrilled to join a media group experiencing a tour with G Adventures. There were many highlights, from watching the snow monkeys bathe in hot springs near Nagano to the temples and gardens, the bustle of Tokyo, and a wonderful homestay with a Japanese family in Hagi. There was cycling, paper-making, shopping and hiking on massive sand dunes. So many surprises. We ended the trip in Kyoto, where I was thrilled to finally visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, famed for its 10,000 red torii gates.
By the time I returned from Japan, there was talk of a fast-spreading virus and face masks were being seen at airports. To be on the safe side, I self-isolated at home for two weeks after returning. In March, I headed to Melbourne on business and grabbed some time with my daughter and baby grandson. A week later, when I walked into Melbourne Airport for my return flight to Brisbane, I was shocked to see empty departure lounges. A week later, Australian state borders closed and travel was off the agenda for…who knew how long?
By Easter, it was clear that this was not a good year to be a travel writer. Although some of my stories from previous trips were being published, this only served as a reminder of those brilliant days in places like Morocco, Austria and the Channel Islands. Would I ever get to them again? Long weeks at home relaxed into a slower pace; there were Scrabble games and jigsaw puzzles (even those brought reminders of places longed for).
At the end of May, after eight years of part-time tutoring in journalism at the University of Queensland (the last semester delivered online), I learned that this job too would no longer exist for me. My freelance pitches to editors took a different turn. What could I write about that would interest readers unable to travel too far from home? What was already in my notebook that would still be relevant to them? What local stories – travel, or not – could I write that would still sell? What blog posts could I write, just to keep that writing muscle flexed and in shape? These were tough but strangely tranquil months, while we watched the pandemic streak across the world, while staying relatively safe on our isolated continent. Walks around the neighbourhood showed we were not alone.
By July, although state border closures still prevented me from travelling outside the state of Queensland, work was starting to trickle in again. An assignment to the Sunshine Coast, about 90 minutes drive north of Brisbane, was accepted with alacrity and provided a welcome change of scenery. Sailing on a serene river, riding a vintage steam train and tasting local cheeses never seemed so exciting! And then there was a gorgeous hotel room, and restaurant meals!
In August, I took my first flight in five months. After taking the train from Brisbane to the outback Queensland town of Longreach (a 23-hour journey), I made the return trip by plane. Ironically, my assignment was a preview story of the 100th anniversary of Australia’s national airline, Qantas. The year had not been a good one for Qantas (or any other airline) either, and most of the celebrations were cancelled, but it was nevertheless an interesting time to be looking at the history of aviation in this country. Longreach was bustling with Queensland travellers taking advantage of the chance to see their own state.
Despite the joy of being on the road again, Australia’s tough border restrictions were keeping me from seeing the one person I missed most: my little grandson Ollie. Melbourne’s soaring number of Covid-19 cases (by Australian standards) and tough lockdown laws saw residents confined to their homes for almost four months, except for short periods each day and essential reasons. In September, Ollie turned two and on that day, the Victorian state government relaxed the lockdown laws a little, including the reopening of outdoor playgrounds! It was the best birthday present Ollie could have had! He’s also lucky enough to live close to the beach.
September also brought me another assignment, this time flying north to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Australian editors were seeking “local” stories, destinations accessible for readers who had put away their passports and were looking for places to explore closer to home. The Great Barrier Reef and the green of the Atherton Tablelands, west of Cairns, provided me with plenty of inspiration.
By the time the jacarandas bloomed all over Brisbane in October, I was again focussed on my own backyard and had made good progress during my “down-time” with my doctoral studies. My thesis had grown to nearly 60,000 words and I felt that in some ways the lack of travel (if not the lack of income) had been an unexpected opportunity to make progress with my studies. Always the glass-half-full view!
The last few months of the year have been quiet again, as the pre-Christmas time often is for my work. There have been local stories to write, and I was fortunate to end the working year on a high note with an assignment for an international publication. For a week, I drove through south-east Queensland’s Scenic Rim talking to tourism operators about their year. After years of drought, Mother Nature had ignited 2020 with devastating bushfires throughout the region. Then came Covid. But these passionate people are resilient and resourceful and their optimism is infectious. Their stories are inspiring and instructive, and those are the vibes I’m intent on taking into 2021 with me.
Whether this prediction – whichever spin you put on it – comes true or not, may the coming year be kinder to us all. To my friends and followers – wherever in the world you may be – I wish you a safe and happy future. Thank you for reading this (somewhat intermittent) blog this year, and I look forward to hearing from you. Happy New Year!