Why we travel — and why we shouldn’t stop

By Tom Robbins

There was never going to be much carnival spirit about Heathrow airport at 5.30am on a Monday, but at a desk at the end of a vast, dimly lit departures hall, I shared a modest moment of celebration. Most British people haven’t left the country for more than a year; on January 6 it became illegal to holiday abroad. That ban was finally lifted on Monday, and I was to be on one of the first flights out. “Good to have you back,” said the smiling woman at check-in.

The travel industry was praying this would be the day things started returning to normal, and in a way they were. At security I placed my toothpaste in a clear bag; muscle memory carried me half-asleep through the X-ray and conveyor-belt routine. Heathrow has only two of its four terminals open but the departure board was surprisingly full. The Prada, Dior and Hermès boutiques were all open, people were trying on sunglasses over their masks, spritzing with perfume and buying giant Toblerones, three for the price of two.

In the British Airways lounge, there was even champagne. Passengers are apparently drinking more of it than ever, toasting the end of their confinement (and emboldened by the fact that they now order via smartphone app rather than having to ask a human being). “Whilst Covid has isolated us, travel reunites us — we want to start looking outward again,” said Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, announcing the resumption of international travel.

Much of the world feels the same. Across western Europe, flight capacity rose 25 per cent last week and plans for a “vaccine passport”, the Digital Green Certificate, are being finalised. In the US, mask mandates are being lifted and cruise lines are starting to untether their ships. In China, some airlines and tour operators reported bookings over this month’s Labour Day holiday had outstripped pre-pandemic levels.

At 7.30am, bang on time, our BA Airbus A320 pushed back, the cabin crew performing their familiar and soothing benedictions. The engines spooled up and we accelerated west along Heathrow’s northern runway. The wings lifted and came alive, the wheels folded away, and the pilot turned left, for Lisbon.

Later in the flight, a breakfast television crew did a series of live broadcasts. “This is incredible!” said the rapturous presenter as the cameraman pointed his lens at the window to show blue skies and wispy clouds far below.


Not everyone is so delighted. The truth is that tourists have always been unpopular. “The merits of the railroad and the steamboat have been prodigiously vaunted . . . ” began an essay on “Modern Tourism” in an 1848 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, “but they have afflicted our generation with one desperate evil; they have covered Europe with tourists.”

For decades we jetted off without thinking whether we needed to. But now the initial indignation of cancelled trips has faded, I wonder if we are getting used to it

By the latter half of the 19th century, tourists were already being likened to dumb animals, collectively described as herds, flocks or droves. Paradoxically, seeing the world was becoming an increasingly universal aspiration, the doublethink required enabled by an emerging distinction between the free-willed “traveller” and sheeplike tourist. “Every Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in 1930.

The root of the stigmatisation, argues Italian social theorist Marco D’Eramo in The World in a Selfie, is the resentment of rattrapage, one social class catching up with another. “The stages of the traveller’s growing contempt for the tourist correspond to the spread of leisure travel, from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie (19th century) and the bourgeoisie to the proletariat (20th century).”

In the 21st century, tourism has exploded, the number of international arrivals soaring from 700m in 2000 to 1.5bn in 2019. There are queues on Everest and Snowdon; protests in Barcelona and Florence. The tourist tsunami has pushed the old animosity to unprecedented levels but there are new factors too.

On one hand, critics point to travel’s role in spreading coronavirus. They are right: multiple studies have shown tourists were responsible for seeding clusters of both the original infection and new variants. (All the more sickening that a killer disease disproportionately afflicting the world’s poor should have been propagated by wealthy tourists partying in sweaty après-ski bars.) In the UK, the ethics of holidaying are tying politicians in knots: in the week that his own party legalised foreign travel, Conservative health minister Lord Bethell warned: “Travelling is not for this year — please stay in this country.”

Then there is sustainability, accelerated from a niche cause to mainstream preoccupation by the Extinction Rebellion protests and campaigners such as Greta Thunberg. They are right too: improvements in aircraft efficiency haven’t kept pace with the rising number of flights, pushing aviation’s total carbon emissions up by 29 per cent between 2013 and 2019.

Combined, the result is that the old trick — hating the deplorable tourist hordes while revelling in one’s own travels — is in danger of coming unstuck. Some people now talk proudly of being “flight-free” as they might about being vegan. An anti-travel movement is gaining momentum; in some circles, tales of far-off places have gone from badges of enlightenment to something like guilty secrets.

Crucially, the routine has been broken. For decades we went away in the summer, maybe Easter too, thinking a lot about the choice of destination but very little about whether we actually wanted or needed to go. That annual rhythm has been swept away; the initial indignation felt when trips planned for 2020 were cancelled has faded. I wonder if we are getting used to it.

And so tourism finds itself at a moment of weightlessness, unsure of its trajectory. The engines of the industry are preparing to fire, airlines are ramping up their schedules. But travel won’t be the same this summer, and that might mean it won’t be the same again.


In Lisbon, I waited anxiously in the queue for immigration, a sheaf of papers in hand. The one certainty of travel in 2021 is that it will involve a lot more red tape. For my trip to Portugal — which is on the UK’s “green list” of safest and easiest-to-visit countries — I would have to take three Covid tests (together costing £237), and complete and upload two digital passenger locator forms.

The first test, to enter Portugal, had to be taken in the 72 hours before take-off. Given that the clock starts running as soon as the swab is taken, and samples have to be sent off to the lab, then processed, there isn’t much room for error. Mine was taken at midday on Friday; a flight delay of four and a half hours would have left my certificate invalid, and me facing rejection at the border.

After lunch on the sun-drenched roof terrace of the Duque de Loulé hotel, another test was waiting. I was returning to Heathrow the following day, and needed a negative lateral-flow test to be allowed back into the UK. This can be done at a local clinic, or via a video call with a private company elsewhere. It’s a high-stakes game: if the test is positive (and studies suggest lateral-flow tests give one false positive in every 1,000 tests), you will almost certainly not be allowed to board your flight.

Arrive home without a negative test and you will be fined. That leaves the prospect of an unexpected quarantine overseas. For me, 10 extra days in a Lisbon hotel room with a minibar and strong WiFi signal might have been little hardship — but if I’d had my two young kids with me, missing school and climbing the walls?

Tour operators hope people don’t think too much about that scenario — they are desperate for tourists to return. In 2019, the travel industry contributed 10.4 per cent of global GDP, more than either automotive manufacture or banking, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. The organisation estimates that the industry’s near stoppage in 2020 has led to more than 62m people losing their jobs. The tiny Pacific nation of Palau, for example, has not recorded a single case of Covid, but tourism ordinarily accounts for more than 40 per cent of GDP and nearly half of private-sector workers have been left unemployed. In September, President Thomas Remengesau told the UN General Assembly the country had experienced “a level of isolation we have not known for many, many years”.

The sudden absence of tourists has highlighted not just their economic importance, but how they can be a powerful force for good. Before setting off for Lisbon, I called Richard Hearn, the British co-founder of Village Ways, a project set up when he and friends had stayed at a rural hotel in the Binsar Sanctuary, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. The hotel owner told them that the farming communities nearby were in danger of dying out, as the younger generation left to find work in cities and village populations dwindled.

Their solution was to open community-owned guesthouses in five of the villages, then to guide tourists on treks between them. Since the first tourists visited 15 years, ago, the project has grown to provide work for about 30 people in each village, and has spread to 24 communities in India and Nepal. Rather than corroding a traditional way of life, tourism has preserved it. One village, Satri, was down to its last four families but now has a dozen.

Last year, of course, brought the progress to a halt. The UK-based marketing arm of the project is shutting down in order to protect the salaries of those in the villages as long as possible. The managers of the India side of the company are working voluntarily. “But the pull of the city is being felt again, and the communities will struggle to survive without tourism beyond the autumn,” says Hearn.

I spoke too to Tom Power, co-founder of Pura Aventura, a specialist tour operator selling trips to Latin America, Spain and Portugal. He had just returned from Costa Rica. “It has gone from the most rapidly deforesting place on the planet in the 1970s to a position where more than 30 per cent of the country is protected national park — it’s a phenomenal conversion, really all based on tourism,” he says. “Until now, it’s been a very reliable source of income but suddenly you’ve got communities where poaching and gold-panning are starting up. There are fears about logging. The old tensions are coming back.”

The reality is that there is good tourism and bad tourism, and we need to think more often about the difference. At one extreme there are projects like Village Ways; at the other, there are the cruise ships that wash away Venice’s foundations and new abominations such as the flights-to-nowhere that have recently found popularity in Asia. (Passengers fly for up to two hours so they can pass over foreign airspace, then return to the airport they left, purely so they can go on a spending spree in the duty-free shop.)

Think of it like food production. There has been a revolution in recent years as consumers have become concerned about sourcing, celebrating the organic and the local while spurning battery eggs and factory farms. Stopping travelling altogether would be like stopping eating: it would kill off the battery egg producers but take out a lot of the good stuff too. What might seem like principled self-denial is simply washing one’s hands of the complexities, withdrawing one’s buying power and thus one’s role in positive evolution.

One bleak but distinctly possible scenario is that the people who stop travelling first are those most concerned about ethics and sustainability, the same cohort who would be supporting the most socially beneficial types of trip. Those who don’t give a second thought to such matters will fly on regardless. So Village Ways folds, the duty-free flights, casinos and mega ships continue to thrive. Travel’s reputation becomes more and more tarnished.


And yet there is hope too. In the afternoon, I wandered on the banks of the Tagus, eyes squinting in the unfamiliar sun, mind grappling with the novelty of being somewhere foreign. Lisbon was stunning, friendly and empty — the scarcity of visitors right now giving a glimpse of what travel must have been like before mass tourism took hold, and perhaps what it might become again.

At the Jerónimos monastery, a 16th-century Unesco-listed complex set just back from the river, the few other tourists were mostly from Portugal. Around the world, the past year has brought a welcome readjustment towards domestic holidays, reducing both carbon emissions and the chance of sudden economic shocks should international travel be halted again. In many countries, domestic tourists have spread out off the beaten track, helping to develop new destinations that will help disperse crowds once international travellers do return.

Of course, the number of people visiting remote eco-tourism projects in the Himalayas or Central America is nothing compared with the number who want to simply drink cocktails by the pool. But, just as the organic food movement spread from specialist shops to supermarkets, the principles of sustainability are moving to mainstream travel.

Tui, the world’s biggest tour operator, has been reducing energy and water use in its hotels, claiming an annual saving equivalent to the carbon emissions of 24,000 cars and the energy needs of 18,000 households. And sustainable travel is gaining volume all the time. Intrepid, for example, a tour operator that took 460,000 passengers away in 2019, has already committed to being “carbon-positive” (meaning it is responsible for removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it generates). At least 90 other tour operators have signed up to “Tourism Declares Climate Emergency”, committing to cut emissions to 55 per cent below 2017 levels by 2030.

Most importantly, the long-held “slow travel” fantasy — that tourists would go away for fewer, longer trips, minimising carbon while maximising the amount of money spent locally — could finally be realised as a byproduct of the pandemic. All the testing, all the forms, the worry of getting stuck, the constantly changing rules, the expense and the inevitable queues at immigration — it means a weekend flit to Venice or New York is no longer worth the stress, while a three-week journey through Italy or along the eastern seaboard might be. Pura Aventura says the average duration of its trips is up 50 per cent.

The free-for-all of unfettered tourism is ending. As we become accustomed to travelling less, and with more Covid-induced constraints on where and when we can go, perhaps we will learn to accept that the almost completely unregulated tourism industry also needs closer management. If there are crowds on mountain tops and at Unesco sites, there must be permits or ticket lotteries; if tourist sublets are killing a community, there must be quotas.

Late in the afternoon on Monday, I wound up at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, the original source of the celebrated Portuguese pasteis de nata. It is, let’s be honest, a tourist cliché, the background to countless Insta-posts — everything that has become so easy to deride. And yet it is authentic too: in business since 1837 and now owned by the fifth generation of the same family. The custard tarts are still exclusively handmade and sold on site, to a secret recipe known to four people. They still cost just €1.15.

Maria Dulce Roque, a supervisor who started work here in 1977, told me they were missing the tourists. Sales had fallen from 30,000 tarts on a busy day pre-pandemic to a tenth of that on some days last year; about 30 jobs have been lost. Couldn’t they start supplying supermarkets, or set up an international licensing deal? She frowned. “We want it to be a sort of pilgrimage to come here, to eat a pastel in Belém.”

We should think much more about making the right kind of pilgrimages, we should make them less often, but we shouldn’t give up on them. The world wants us back.

is the FT’s travel editor

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