2020, the Year of the Pandemic, saw spikes in domestic tourism, not because the lure of learning the local beckoned, but because people weren’t allowed anywhere else, or were afraid of what “being overseas” might mean for their health. The attempts to paint a rise in regional tourism as a step forward, as sustainable, simply does to local worlds what tourism has done to places overseas, gutting them and turning them into sideshow spectacle tourism has become elsewhere.
The end of tourism is upon us. Destinations are no longer foreign. Tourism slowly and subtly does to tourists’ homes what it has done to places abroad for centuries. Nobody is immune. Tourism has become domesticated, subsumed into the daily lives of people everywhere. Today, tourists arise like vultures, circling over their own homes and neighbourhoods, ravenous, hunting. The end of tourism might just be the world knowing nothing but tourism, enveloped and sealed by that industry.
Between Christmas 2020 and the first week of 2021, in a time of global pandemia, the Cancun airport had almost one million arrivals! The majority came from the USA. Reports from The Washington Post and The Guardian are reporting on tourists’ bad (and “aggressive”) behaviour in Oaxaca and Puerto Rico, respectively. Certainly, tourist entitlement is nothing new, but during a pandemic?
As it turns out, the industry outlooks touting a sustainable return to tourism were wrong. Dead wrong. The people who would otherwise embrace responsible travel are staying home because travelling at this time is not responsible! (It shouldn’t have to be said, but this responsibility has to do, in part, with the capacity for local governments to control the spread of the virus and “return to normal.”) The unwillingness of responsible tourists to travel now, whether intended or not, is an act of solidarity with the livelihood of their home and those of the places they would otherwise visit. But as is now becoming obvious, they are staying, while others aren’t.
The majority of people who are travelling are the exact opposite of the reformed responsible tourists imagined by the sustainable tourism advocates at the beginning of the pandemic. Tourists are going to the beaches, to the resorts, and to the parties, unleashing their pent up “lack of freedom” on people and places entirely foreign to them. Despite their own feelings on the matter, these tourists don’t give a shit about locals or the environment. They’re travelling for themselves and sadly, the locals are often all too eager to accommodate them.
This isn’t hearsay or a generalization. The vast majority of people not wearing masks in Oaxaca, in this perennial tourist town, are North American tourists. This is what they’ve come for, to free themselves of all responsibility to other people in a place where all other people are acknowledging their profound responsibility for each other.
The COVID-19 pandemic arose, in part, because of tourism. These two global phenomena are twins, or at the very least, the former is a consequence of the latter. Consider the undercurrents, the lingering narrative of the moment: once enough people are vaccinated, borders will open and little by little, things will “return to normal.” We will be able to travel as we once did, and we can once again wave the flag of wanderlust, driving it like a stake into the soil of foreign lands.
Some of the fear of not being able to travel for leisure has been partially softened by the talk of immunization passports (which were, in fact, fairly standard requirements in the early eras of international air travel). However, these tourist industry suggestions and solutions are self-serving. A COVID-19 vaccine and any silver bullet sheen that accompanies it simply allows for the continuation of the same conduct that created the conditions for a plague to emerge and spread.
As clear as day now: a vaccinated world, alone, does nothing to stop what let loose the virus in the first place. And what exactly, then, was let loose, if not just a virus?
According to the official story, bats that had contracted the COVID-19 virus, living in caves far from human settlement, infected other wild animals that were later sold in a “wet market” alongside domesticated animals. There, the virus travelled from wild to domestic animals and finally to humans. Through international travel corridors, it spread and became a plague.
Whether you believe the official story or not, the consequences of globalization, of technological fetishization, and of travelling for the sake of it still reign over the events of the last year. No matter what story we want to spin in order to convince ourselves or each other of who is to blame or that no one is to blame, the spread of COVID-19 is a direct result of a willingness to discover, conquer, and assemble the world as we deem fit. In places removed from conflict or war, this arises as tourism. Tourism becomes a conquered people’s peace. The plague is a consequence of western, technocratic, globalized hubris, which has finally come home to roost. It is a descendant of western freedom and it is taking its rightful place on the throne of our days.
Our willingness to travel and trespass into the wild, to bring the wild home (i.e. to domesticate it) shows that tourism is of direct and dire consequence for every single culture and place on this planet. It is an indication that a vaccine or an immunization passport guarantees that the very same behaviour that necessitated that vaccine has not stopped, that we instead mandate the perpetuation of that behaviour while celebrating it. As necessary as it might appear to be, mass vaccination for a people hellbent on escape invites and implores more disease, more pandemics, and more pandemonia. In our time, tourism has become both the cause and the sustenance for such mania.
Deeper now. How are these two things - the disease and the cure, how are they braided? How could tourism possibly unleash a disease that would keep us from touring?
The tourism industry and its ways of manufacturing tourists is blind to its consequence. The pandemic has shown us that this, as plain as day. The solution is no different. The trespass (tourism) and the reconciliation (vaccine) feed each other. The consequences compound exponentially, while the problem is portrayed as being solved. Tourism is iatrogenic: when its most catastrophic consequences laid bare are held up as cures, tourism itself is finally and properly unveiled as the illness it seeks to cure.
As a result of this new, seemingly permanent, pandemic danger, the destination addiction might diminish, the boomer bucket lists might get shorter, but their importance, like their impotence, grows. As they do, a rabid zeal to travel, tour, and conquer overshadows those who would have thought twice about travelling, as well as those who still do. The zeitgeist, embattled and embodied.
The addiction to wanderlust, to not understanding where it comes from, how it arises and its consequences for the world ensures tourism will exile if not extinguish every last intact culture and place, and that by the end (which is very well where we may be) it will happen as clear as day.
Does knowing this change anything? Does it alter the addiction of wanderlust, having understood it as an addiction? Perhaps you can see, now, that the pandemic is not new, it did not start in 2020. Epidemiologically, we have always been a risk to each other, only now, it is obvious. Knowing this, then, do we continue to travel as exceedingly biological (and cultural) threats to places and people not our own, or do we apprentice that danger at a distance, wondering deeply how we allowed it to emerge? Both will happen, I can assure you that, but we have choices and those choices will determine whether or not the centuries-old pandemic of tourism infects future generations.
These choices are being undertaken now, in part, as they were undertaken by generations before us, mostly unspoken and unquestioned. The travelling mythos of the West is one of escape, most often unbound to the consequences of that escape. This is why staying home has been so hard for people. Not just the lack of touch and social activity, not just the travel and tourism, but coming to terms with the world we’ve made for ourselves. This is what is required now, not elsewhere, but at home.
Meanwhile, many tourists are waiting out their “interruption” in neocolonial settings, all the while chanting “OM” and drinking cocktails and leaving the locals to clean up the mess. Understanding these places-turned-destinations as both suitable and inviting escape routes while home crumbles in the rearview mirror is an inheritance, one that stems, in part, from the hundred-million-plus people that fled Europe for the Americas in the last two centuries.
Let me be clear: tourism and immigration are not the same thing, but together they hold the key to understanding where this cultural inheritance came from. Moreover, for whom exactly is this plague-ridden escape “suitable and inviting?” When you leave home, who bears the weight of your departure? The answer is simple: anyone but you, anyone but the tourist. The people at home and the people you visit become responsible for the willingness to run away, to escape, to take a break, regardless of one’s intentions. The consequences are the same in tourist destinations as they were in the villages of the Old Country.
Tourists see other people’s communities not only as destinations but as sanctuaries from what impoverishes them at home. They understand exotic, foreign worlds in this way, as holding ways of living more akin to what had been lost elsewhere or previously, as well as an escape route for not having to confront that very lostness. This is what ails us, as tourists and western people, as descendants of settlers and exiles. This is the ailment we bring with us on our travels, not unlike other dis-eases.
As begrudging as it might sound to say, these tourists – the yogis, the hippies, the digital nomads, the COVID-denialists, the weekend warriors and beyond, who appear more apt to abandon home than to serve it are still deeply needed – at home. They ought not be forgotten or abandoned, in turn. Otherwise we commit ourselves as willing participants in their abdication of kinship and place. Accomplices, aiding and abetting, unawares.
If the times are so bad and the privilege so high that people who have the time, energy, and resources to affect change at home instead invade and saturate foreign worlds, then what has become of our lives and of our homes? How can such departure be anything but the dereliction of duty? Beyond that, if tourists are not called upon to remember home and how it all could be, do we not also participate in the abandonment of home?
In the end, something has to pay for the cost of remedying tourists’ personal lockdown suffering overseas, and unequivocally, what bears the cost are not things. They are people and places. Lives and the very meaning of the local. Because the residents of tourist destinations don’t know where you come from and because they can’t tell the difference anymore between guests and invaders, there will come a time (perhaps one already upon us) where they won’t care where you come from. It won’t matter how you behave there. Your good intentions will be meaningless and any attempt to rectify what has been done in the name of your people or culture will be cast aside in favour of more of the same, more dis-ease.
The difference between before the pandemic and now is that money was the only thing that stopped locals from seeing tourists as a virus. That is, if they hadn’t already come to that conclusion. Regardless, the fallout is such that tourist destinations, successful or not, recuperated and remunerated or not, will suffer what tourists and locals alike have already done to their own homes in the name of them for generations to come. This is what we must contend with at home, in the name of the places we would otherwise undermine by going there.
These are the consequences of modern escapism. Understanding the causes might finally bring us face to face with home, giving us pause to wonder why we’re leaving, before such a thing ever happens.
The advice I would offer to a younger version of myself, a pre-exiled version is this: if home is so bad that it is burning or burnt, then fucking fix it. Don’t leave it to the tribalists and fascists to “make it great again.” If the culture (or lack thereof) is part of the reason you would leave in the first place, then running from it surrenders the world to those old collective traumas that would have you leave home because of them.
I offer you this, because these were the mistakes I made and the blinders I wore by travelling and by leaving home. So, run for office, plant or protect trees, volunteer with the elderly, learn the local history, and support your community. Root yourself.
So, for the love of the places you visit, stay home. Maybe then or somewhere down the line, remembering why you stayed, home will start to shimmer with the radiant glow of the places you visit, and the reasons you had for wanting to go.
The alternative is simply more of what has come upon us, mostly unbeknownst, mostly as a result of our unwillingness to question the consequences of our so-called freedom, and of having turned it into a God. Being forced to wear masks will pale in comparison to the so-called freedoms that will be lost on account of people abandoning home in favor of their so-called freedoms. Remember, it was wanderlust and the willingness to travel to places not our own that spurred this crisis, at present and ancestrally. Trespassing against the wild, against every last thing not ours in order to make it ours, in order to make it known and found and commodified is why we’re in this mess.
Those were the causes. The remedy is simple, yet arduous: stay home and seed a better world. “Start with the poverty” as Stephen Jenkinson says and “stay with the trouble” as Donna Haraway invites us to do. The party is over. The jig is up. The game was rigged. Knowing this, and not being able to say anymore that you didn’t or couldn’t know, how will you proceed? How will you be remembered by what you did in this time? How will those places and people you so earnestly wish to travel to, for whom your consequence ripples out over, mostly in your absence, how will they remember what you did in this time?