A few weeks ago, I learned a new word. My mum taught it to me, sending me a BBC article she’d read about something called ‘fernweh’. I guess motherly intuition is a real thing; it described exactly how I’d been feeling. The word means ‘distance sickening’, and encapsulates that deep craving so many of us have experienced, especially since COVID-19 clipped our wings, to see far-flung places.
“What if our lust for travel causes us a deep yearning pain, an ache that reminds us we have to get out and see the world?” asked the article. “What if we’re trapped inside our homes because a virus has taken the Earth and its inhabitants hostage, and we feel despair that we simply cannot travel at all?”
The story was a comfort. Having been a travel writer for the past seven years, visiting about a dozen countries annually on assignments covering destinations as diverse as Antarctica and India, Papua New Guinea and Mongolia, the sudden end to this constant wandering has left me feeling stagnant. Uninspired. Worried about how I’ll pay the bills now, sure, but also restless and thirsty for the exotic and strange places that seem increasingly far away.
The irony of feeling this way is that six months before COVID-19 hit, I intentionally decided to take a break from travelling. Following an eye-opening assignment to the Arctic, I’d grown increasingly concerned about the impact my carbon-heavy travels, and my stories about them, were having on our stressed planet.
I still strongly believed in travel’s ability to open our hearts and minds, to facilitate cross-cultural connections, to create income and support communities and even save species, but I could no longer dissociate from the fallout I knew it created. There were certain memories from my travel writing assignments – that distressed polar bear I watched desperately trying to swim away from our tourist boat in the Arctic, the hordes of tourists clogging the streets in Barcelona – that just wouldn’t fade. I took the break in order to discover how I, and every traveller, could continue seeing the world without hurting it as much. So while I am feeling ‘fernweh’ almost daily, I’m also convinced that this pause is exactly what we need in order to reimagine a better travel future.
What will that future be? So much is still uncertain, but there are some key elements the forecasters are agreeing on. We will be travelling less, becoming more discerning about the trips we take and investing in more meaningful and purposeful journeys. A very good thing, when you consider that international arrivals went from 70 million in 1960 to about 1.4 billion today, a figure that accounts for an estimated eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
We’re likely to be either staying close to home, especially in the short-term (also good news when it comes to emissions, since planes use up to 50 percent more fuel than trains, and still more than cars or bikes) or going to the other extreme of travelling to far-flung wilderness areas that lend themselves to social distancing. Hopefully this will mean the end of over-tourism, mammoth cruise ship travel and smothering the places we love – like Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice – to death, in favour of off-track destinations that could really use our tourist dollars.
Destinations with a conservation focus are expected to be front of mind for many of us. The lack of tourist income in countries like Namibia and Madagascar have seen conservation projects fall over and poaching levels rise, since national park workers have been laid off, and we’re realising the importance of both our travel dollars and our eyes and ears in protecting vulnerable species around the world.
There’s also predicted to be a greater demand for small operators, locally-owned restaurants and independent guides, which create bigger economic benefits for local communities and more memorable experiences for travellers.
I hope all of this becomes reality. I hope being a force for good for communities and environments becomes the main reason we travel, rather than getting the hottest Instagram shot, and that we don’t forget all the lessons we’ve learned from this crisis as soon as borders open again. In the meantime, while we’re still hamstrung, I hope we begin crafting our utopian vision of the future of travel right now. Sitting in our loungerooms, as we listen to the birdsong we can now hear in our clean-aired cities. As we think about how residents in northern India can see the Himalayas more clearly than they have for three decades due to the big drops in air pollution since travel stopped. And as we remember that there won’t be a world worth seeing in years to come, if we don’t start seeing it in the right way now.
Nina Karnikowski is the author of Make a Living Living: Be Successful Doing What You Love ($30, Laurence King Publishing). Her next book, about sustainable travel, will be released in 2021.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ONLINE HERE