Five days ago American Airlines canceled 55,000 flights and grounded half its fleet. The U.S. Department of State has issued a rare “Global Level 4 Health Advisory” urging U.S. citizens to “avoid all international travel” due to the coronavirus. A tourism industry that has never totally screeched to a halt, has slammed on the brakes over COVID-19. Tomorrow we will wake up to find that nothing will ever be the same again. Here’s why I think that.
The U.K. has released “wartime” funding to help the shattered economy. Greece has closed shop alongside Spain, Italy, and most of the rest of Europe. The EU has shut borders. China is a “no-go” as are most Asian destinations as an unprecedented catastrophe threatens our world. Confusion and fear have replaced hope and enthusiasm for the coming vacationing season. Hotels are canceling everything, quitting payments, sending staff home, and virtually boarding up in preparation for what can only be described as doomsday. Or, the day the mortgage payment comes due.
I could go on, and on, and on listing the catastrophic effects of a flu bug nobody in the world was prepared for. As a moviegoer, I am perplexed at how it’s even possible our leadership could have been so hamstrung by a disease spread much less lethal than the T-virus from the Resident Evil films, or the Brad Pitt’s World War Z. I cannot help but interject, how “dead” we would all be if something worse were to get loose.
Snapping back to our surreal reality, I am no less amazed at the resilience and hard work of some, and the utter stupidity and greed of others. A U.S. president is boinking like a pinball bumping into one position or another over the pandemic. America is wobbling beneath her bubble of impenetrable greatness, while tiny nations like Greece go inside quietly to wait out yet another storm. The Germans march in tune, as always, as Chancellor Merkel hides in her bunker. France is unphased. Perhaps all the Parisiennes left for the countryside? In Russia, nobody seems panicked, which is perhaps a result of centuries of being hammered and attacked from the outside by “something” or other.
The Chinese seem to have weathered the outbreak now. Only nobody trusts the Chinese. I’d be surprised if anyone ever goes there again once Donald Trump gets through blaming them for getting sick. And the marketers! Wow! The marketers on the Internet reflect the real reason COVID-19 hit. God must be pissed at our selfishness and stupidity since web marketers were turned loose. Bill Gates’ team are busy selling Excel courses for a “special price”. Cruise lines are already crafting the message for how passengers can huddle in their cabins and play shuffleboard on deck “with confidence” once things are back to normal. Only things will never be normal again.
It was inevitable. The industry being destroyed, I mean. After all, there is absolutely nothing sustainable about travel. At least not the way we’ve been using and abusing it. Travel is crazy, after all. I mean, think about flying for instance. What kind of creature begs to be crammed into a toothpaste tube with 300 other people, flown into the clouds by a total stranger who could be drunk or an ax murder for all anybody knows and then jetted at 500 miles per hour across oceans and mountains to go to the beach?
It’s funny if you think about it. The fact there are beaches and mountains within a bus or car ride of most people’s homes. Oh, I forgot. There’s the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, and the Pyramids too. But TUI made it so, so cheap! Now didn’t they? Why any German highway worker can fly to paradise now. They come here to Crete. Stay in a four-star all-inclusive resort on the island where the Minoans ruled for centuries. But they never see the Cretans, they never feel the culture and the history.
They aspire to another buffet schnitzel, some steamed potatoes, a ton of sugar and sweets, colas, beers, and poolside laziness. Ahh, vacation life! The traveler dreams of paradise, but never really leaves home anyhow. And this is a poignant truth. Meanwhile the Oxford Dictionary and National Geographic define a key term for us. Overtourism, one of the unavoidable byproducts of our rampant consumerist way, is:
“An excessive number of tourist visits to a popular destination or attraction, resulting in damage to the local environment and historical sites and in poorer quality of life for residents.”
Santorini? No, I won’t even speak of how nutty the world is to sink a sunken Atlantis with the weight of cruise tourists hell-bent on watching the sun go down. Like my wife said once, “We are just too many.” Florida in my youth, now that was a paradise too. Just before, that is, Mickey Mouse chopped down all the orange trees to put up hotels.
Value! That’s what I am talking about people. COVID-19 is a message from God, don’t you get it? We live together on a blue dot of paradise floating in one of 100 billion galaxies, and we’re hell-bent on destroying it for the fun of it. I know the reader is asking “What are you getting at?” Well, let me start with a quote from award-winning author Professor Yuval Noah Harari on where we are now:
“Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics, and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions.”
The day after the last coronavirus patient gets well, here is what I think needs to take place.
Here We Go
Cruise lines should be reevaluated and revamped to create a sustainable industry that is regulated to absolute parameters. The time for lax regulations and cheapo cruise itineraries must be over for good. Taking an ocean voyage must be more than a luxury experience, it must be a “limited/regulated” activity. There are already too many diesel puking virus breeding grounds of waste floating around anyhow. Just because there is a market, does not mean humanity MUST fill it. I know, this is tough love, but, the industry has plowed its way to a dominant position whereas an unsustainable model for the future. The industry should survive and thrive, but not in its current form. The fact that I had to search Google through 5 pages of results to find an academic paper that was not schmoozing the industry should tell you something. This 2002 paper should also remind us that regulators and the industry have had ample time to prepare for catastrophe.
Flying the Friendly Skies of United! I remember this jingle from back in the 1960s. Today, United is the third-largest air carrier in the world. The company pulls down (or did) a little over $40 billion a year. But is United a sustainable business? Was it ever? Nobody has, or is, asking this kind of question. We should be though, especially in light of what is happening today. The larger query is; “Just because we can build and operate thousands of aircraft, does that mean we should?” Yes, airlines create jobs. And transportation is a vital part of civilization. But, can civilization survive too much? The answer is clear.
Half the people of the world do not believe in human-influenced global warming. All of the world is about to go through another Great Depression no matter what our presidents do. And nobody could have envisioned that six months ago. Right now we should all be thinking about rebuilding the travel industry, but hardly any of the decisionmakers are even considering revamping a system that was headed to collapse anyhow. Trump and the U.S. Congress are about to bail out airlines and cruise companies with taxpayer borrowed money from the Fed. Billions will be pumped into some of the most unsustainable businesses in the world. The warning of COVID-19 is not sinking in. Leadership is still clinging to failing ideas, and we’re letting them.
Consumerism, the engine that has been driving this industry, is fundamentally flawed. I was reading the other day from a think tank known as the New Economics Foundation about how our consumerist society does so little to satisfy us. Here is a short quote that struck me:
“The areas in which greater [financial] investment will yield continued improvements in well-being lie beyond the reach of markets”
What this means is that economic markets and consumption can fulfill some of our basic needs, but the most important things in our lives cannot be obtained from these markets. As author Richard Reeves puts it, these markets cannot get us “companionship, time for reflection, spirituality, security, intellectual development and joy in our children.” And instead of giving us more choices, travel markets and other segments actually limit our choices. Or, in other words, the ads and marketing that drive us to Santorini, for instance, actually dictate life for us.
Do you really need to huddle with 20,000 other sunset onlookers on Santorini at the end of a hot, exhausting day? Well, nine chances out of ten exhausted is what Santorini and a throng will get you. Ask anybody who’s been. No, I don’t mean you cannot see Santorini. I do mean that Santorini must have a maximum audience per day. Furthermore, there must be a sustainable mode of travel for getting there. In the end, it’s all about speed and profit. Conventional bean counters use multipliers over tiny margins to squeeze out more profit. And this is a big part of what we need to rethink. We also need to come to grips with the fact that air travel can never be sustainable. In the near future, we will only fly as a necessity or extreme luxury. I suggest we start planning for this scenario now.
I don’t have all the answers. I am not an expert who can even come up with all the questions we should be asking. It is obvious to me that this pandemic and the locked-down world offers us a rare opportunity to reassess. We’ve so many issues to address where sustainable travel is concerned. Overcrowding and environmental issues did not go away when borders closed. Borders closing was the wakeup call for us to prepare, not only for a worse pandemic but for a world we can have for the distant future.
I hope and pray that we can emerge from this disaster with an even brighter hope for the future. We can reshape our world in a positive way, as easily as we shaped the current state of affairs. One thing is certain. The day after COVID-19, nothing will ever be the same. The day after tomorrow, we will have to consider one another not as customers, but as partners on this tiny blue dot in a limitless universe. We are all we have.