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World travellers: Back to the future after COVID-19

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The pandemic has made a significant and lasting impact on world travel (Image via Pixabay)

Following a year of lockdowns and travel bans, long-term changes in the way we travel might be unavoidable post-COVID-19, writes Lee Duffield.

EPIDEMIOLOGICALLY, returning to 2019 might be impossible after COVID-19 and it might be a wise idea to go back much further in time — especially in the zone of travel. One big shift has been that COVID-19 stopped the hyper mass jetting-about which was taking hold by 2019.

What has been happening

Thoughts about it occurred while lining up at Brisbane airport one night just before Christmas, about to receive a “lawful instruction” to go into a fortnight’s self-isolation.

This could be anybody’s experience with authority in Australia in the last year — much different to what they would have expected a year before.

A few thousand Queensland residents had been given 24 hours to get home to self-isolation after Queensland authorities declared Sydney’s Northern Beaches COVID-19 cluster a hot spot.

So it was a scramble to join the airlift and on one of the police desks at the arrival gate, most of the terminal building darkened and cavernous, the Senior Constable was meticulous, ordering the home isolation, requiring tests the next day and some days later.

The Queensland approach of border controls and lockdowns to keep pressure off the health system helped when it came to getting tested at a hospital — plenty of staff, no delays, a same-day text with the negative result.

Not that they would brook any relaxing and wandering-about, sending three phone messages over the fortnight:

“I’m calling from the Queensland Government regarding the quarantine direction and to see how you are managing during the quarantine period. We will attempt to contact you again so there is no need to call us back.”

Then two detectives came around to the house, fit-looking young men, armed and agreeable. They wanted to “check I was alright”.

NSW — the gold standard of risk

Being in New South Wales also was not reassuring; their State Government, unlike all the other states, was being more “liberal”, privileging “business” over “protection”.

There, the civil society started running ahead of the Government, slightly-alarmed citizens swamping testing centres, even in “safe” areas south of the Harbour.

At North Bondi, cars edged through a grid-locked driveway for testing, adjacent to the grassy mound where, a week or two before, thousands of Northern European backpackers had thrown a rave party. They’d been chastised a bit by the police and, emboldened, did it again later a few suburbs further on. Each day, the news media updated maps of Sydney showing new “contact points” all over town; the city’s summer was looking like a close-run thing.

Not that protection was denied. The NSW borders were actually being closed by the adjoining states. Lockdowns by those states also saved NSW by stopping the infection from spreading all over Australia.

Traffic gridlocked at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre (Image supplied)

Still, setting a gold standard of risk would get worked up into a partisan try-on. Prime Minister Scott Morrison kept calling NSW the “gold standard” of COVID-19 management. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, his close party ally, tried intervening in October’s Queensland State Election. Her call to open up and “save the economy” had no impact with voters mindful that opening up – and many people becoming ill – would bust the economy anyway.

One aside is due to the adroitness of Liberal briefing officers handling Sydney media. One national radio host opined that Gladys Berejiklian was doing a “superb job”; a reporter told the nation about “our superb tracking system here in Sydney”, providing all the answers. Such, maybe parochial, lapses show up a potential weakness where the country has a heavy concentration of media in one place.

What used to happen back in 2019

That was 2020-21. What was going on in 2019, for those who maybe cannot recall?

The human race had taken to walking around the globe as if in their own backyards, no fears of disease, brigands, the vagaries of nature. A jump in world travel since 2012 had built up to 11.3 million Australian residents leaving the country annually, close to “emptying out” the population every two years; those numbers substantially replaced by 9.4 million foreign visitors arriving per annum. Forward projections showed the trend continuing.   

The travelling and marketing of it had sharpened its focus on holidays; trips were averaging 14 days, no longer the old “rite of passage” of a year in London or necessarily experience of culture. Even adventure such as backpack bar life for youth, cruise ships for grey nomads — potentially unsanitary floating resort-cities but able to spare passengers the stress of finding a hotel in some hectic foreign place. Apart from New Zealand, Indonesia remained the chief destination for Australians — read Bali.

Leading world tourist destinations like Venice or the Taj Mahal and smaller sites promoted hard by the tourist industry in 2019 were begging for an end to the overcrowding — visitor numbers exploding and unsustainable. Yet another fragment of proprietary software, this time Airbnb, was enriching its owners and generating crisis — people going homeless in their home towns.

The mass wandering chimed in with the neoliberal financial ideology set up over the preceding half-century: no borders, no regulation, no government, push for maximum economic growth regardless of extra costs like the exhaustion of the poor old Earth.

What used to happen before 2019 — last century

It was not always like in 2019. Even a short four or five decades ago, the travel experience was more regulated and rarer.

If leaving Australia for any extended period, say three months, in the 1970s you might get interviewed by a government official at the airline office, warned about exporting more than approved amounts of cash; bank transfers equally controlled, no doing it yourself online.

A little earlier, the chief mode of travel would be on board ship, liners like the Canberra or Oriana making the run to London. Air travel was expensive, leisurely by today’s standards, luxurious — virtually all first-class and nobody in “steerage”.

As for your body, the airlines did not let you on the plane if you had not received the government-prescribed vaccinations for where you were going. Well into the 1970s, everybody got a smallpox needle with its own “certificate”, a little raised scar. A trip to south-east Asia, India and Russia mandated yellow fever, cholera, typhoid and maybe diptheria. As evidence, you carried a personalised yellow booklet from the World Health Organisation, stamped and dated for each needle, still used in some regions for yellow fever and poliomyelitis only. 

While the numbers travelling were modest compared to boom-time 2019, a great change was already coming after jet airliners started arriving in the 1950s, offering cheaper fares, backed by promotional campaigns, especially “jet set” deals for young travellers.

In the 1970s, travellers were issued with certificates indicating which vaccinations they had been given (Photo supplied)

What is set to happen

Australia’s main pandemic problem is the fear of mutations getting in from overseas. The end of smallpox and other infectious diseases and the yellow booklets provided a holiday from pestilence, not an age of immunity.

Governments and airlines are promoting a COVID-19 vaccine application for smartphones; the app will be your personal yellow booklet, come back. But more regulation looks inevitable — a continuing and complicated duty. The coronavirus follows nature, not airline marketing and it wants to persist in countries where the flights will be coming from. For travellers, the 11.3 million of us annually, it might be a sound idea to cut back a bit, maybe leave the country every three years or so instead of one, two or three times in any year.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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