The first line of the song ‘Should I stay, or should I go?’ has most certainly reverberated when planning trips in the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
From the outset of the pandemic, tens of thousands of airline passengers were hit by the grounding of flights worldwide. Before the outbreak of Covid, flights had been booked and paid for when suddenly chaos ensued. Airlines were inundated with calls from travellers seeking advice regarding refunds – a lot of confusion and nobody seemed to have answers. Over time, many airlines did offer refunds or vouchers for future flights although there are many instances where travel agents fobbed off the passengers’ requests for refunds claiming they had not been paid by the airlines. With much persistence, the monies were sometimes forthcoming. Sadly, many were not renumerated, at great personal cost.
The pandemic brought the travel industry to a halt. Prior to Covid-19, travel and tourism accounted for 10% of global GDP and over 320 million jobs worldwide making it one of the most important sectors in the world. The restrictions of mobility both within and across countries has had a huge impact on the demand for travel, hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality venues across the globe. Behind the scenes of these industries, there are businesses, families, individuals who have suffered enormously crippling financial loss. One BA pilot found his schedule bare. “Every month we got a roster – all the flights we were expected to do, every single flight was cancelled” from March 28th, 2019, he had 100 days without flights.
As a result of many lockdowns and further rules and restrictions, one restaurant owner who had no choice but to close his business after 30 years said, ‘I feel like I have lost my identity’. This same sentiment of loss has resounded over and over, in so many sectors. Many people, especially businesspeople, were stranded in distant lands and unable to return home for many months until approval came to mobilise. As travel resumed, the airports were chaotic while travellers would sometimes be informed during their trip abroad that the rules had been changed and they had to endeavour to return home before the set deadline after which huge fines would be imposed upon arrival. Oftentimes, when returning from ‘red countries’, the passengers had to stay at ‘quarantine hotels’, government approved, which by all accounts had become increasingly difficult to book last minute and the prices exorbitant, food inedible, cramped conditions and sometimes guarded accommodation while the traveller had to foot the bill!
Currently, it is possible to travel with varying rules and regulations set in place, vaccinations being a bonus, PCR tests mandatory, at high and differing costs, and masks of course. It is heartening to witness things beginning to ease up in terms of travel, nevertheless we still face challenges. What happens when you take that longed-for trip and just before you are due to return you get Covid and are forced to remain where you are until you text negative, in isolation! While expecting the arrival of a loved one, a ‘positive’ PCR test prior to their departure flight means no travel allowed, blighted hopes yet again. Rebooking flights is possible but at further expense and ever-present uncertainty while the frequency of scheduled flights has been greatly reduced during the past year therefore less choice is available, and fares have escalated. The whole situation generates so much anxiety and unpredictability. This is not exactly a ‘win-win’ for travellers.
While the pandemic has been quite grim in terms of travel, many have discovered the beauty of their own surroundings, exploring areas in their own home countries which they may have overlooked or not taken an interest in previously. With the confinement we all faced during lockdown and the temporary loss of freedom, many have used it as an opportunity to enjoy family, reconnect with friends, to pursue creative skills, writing, drawing, gardening. As Winston Churchill said in the wake of the Second World War “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. With that in mind there has been a push to concentrate on climate change projects, more investment for poorer countries and an increased awareness and concern for our health and that of our planet. Essentially, we are all in the same boat (pardon the pun!) and this has been a shared catastrophe. At the start of the first lockdown, many of us had a haunting sense that somehow this was deserved. That somehow, we had been riding for a fall, we had been too busy, too globe-trotting, too carefree for too long. It is hard to remember that sense of moral reckoning now that many of us have spent so much time craving international travel, many for crucial and heartrending reasons. When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters, one represents danger and the other represents opportunity…let us hope that what we have gleaned from our struggle during this pandemic will cause us to be much kinder and sensitive human beings, not to take things for granted and that the lessons learned will not be lost.