Slow Travel In The Age Of Covid-19

Slow Travel In The Age Of Covid-19

There is no denying it, the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on our small globalized world. Beyond the terrible human tragedy that is unfolding, a severe economic crisis is taking shape. And no sector has been more brutally hit than tourism. With closed borders, mandatory quarantines and other countless restrictions everywhere, is this the end for us vagabonds, long-term travelers and nomads?

After The Lockdown

Following a dramatic last-minute escape from Saudi Arabia and getting stranded in Germany, I saw the power of my passport temporarily shrink to the level of Afghanistan. It was an incredibly humbling experience and a stark reminder of the impermanence of all things. And I must remind myself that I was lucky enough to end up in one of the more relaxed countries regarding lockdown rules.

Most of my fellow traveling friends around the world coped surprisingly well with the initial tsunami of panic and madness that swept over the globe in March. One simply remained at work in a winery in New Zealand, another kept climbing in the area she was visiting, a few managed an extended stay with the family, yet another friend camped in his van by a river for a couple of months. Not the end of the world.


The results of an unhealthy amount of coding during lockdown in Germany

I for one tried hard not to overthink too much, and buried my head in some long-postponed projects. Morale was far from high, I must admit. As the dust settled in Mai-June, countries gradually reopened and the first few border restrictions were lifted, it became clear that a lot had changed. For the first time in my life I could count on my fingers the number of options I had.

Game Over?

Like the fall of the Berlin wall or 9/11, I’m convinced we’ll soon refer to a pre- and a post-Covid-19 world. And our invisible foe is here to stay for the foreseeable future, until an efficient vaccine is widely available or the large majority of the world’s population develops lasting immunity to the virus. Both scenarios cannot be taken for granted at this stage. Sorry, Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon, folks. Most scientists are talking about years.

So where does that leave the modern nomads and more generally all would-be travelers? As we now all know, getting stranded for months behind closed borders is a very real possibility. And flights will keep getting cancelled, more airlines will go bust. Plus there is the far from trivial question of earning a living during a severe global recession.

For those of us who don’t have a permanent home, the next years will be a colossal challenge. Yet when I look at the fate of migrant workers in India, I don’t think we can complain. So, game over? For some, certainly. And now is certainly not a bad time for a more sedentary life and putting some money aside. But as a crafty, highly flexible crowd, modern nomads are also in an excellent position to adapt, and perhaps even to thrive. Nevertheless, we will all, one way or another, have to rethink our lifestyle.

Budget Travel In The Age Of Covid-19

A lot of the timid reopening attempts seem to be aimed at luxury tourism so far. The rationale is clear. It’s better to take a small risk with a few well endowed individuals than letting in hordes of broke backpackers. But the supply of rich and adventurous tourists is very limited, so I don’t believe this strategy is particularly sustainable.

I have no doubts that traveling is going to get more expensive. Mandatory PCR tests and quarantines at designated hotels quickly add up. The choice of cheap accommodation, restaurants and bars aimed at tourists will shrink dramatically. And once the airline industry consolidates, the era of cheap tickets might very well be over.

Is this a deal breaker? For hostel dwellers and big party fans, yes. For bona fide slow travelers, no. Our itineraries might just become less ambitious for a while, and our pace slow down even more. Frankly, that’s not a bad thing, especially for our environmental footprint. Since slow travel already mostly relies on local transportation, accommodation and food, it should be relatively easy to dodge this bullet.

Making Ends Meet

The money question for all long-term travelers who depend on open borders to make a living, or even worse, on tourism, is trickier. Overall, earning money will be more difficult. Most digital nomads are at a clear advantage. But even here not everything is rosy. Just take the cliche niche of travel bloggers, who took a critical hit on revenue over the last months. 

So what can we do? If developing online income streams is not possible, we will have to explore local and domestic options more thoroughly. Example? A Bulgarian friend of mine regularly goes to Ethiopia for paragliding. He offers highly popular tandem flights near Addis Ababa, and thus can partially compensate for the collapse in international clients back home.

Volunteering in a global recessionary context will also become increasingly attractive. It’s not a good long-term and standalone solution, but it can temporarily reduce your overheads while allowing you to contribute to a community. Sitting out the storm in a positive manner, so to say.

Bottomline? Diversifying income streams and being creative will be more important than ever.

A Silver Lining For Slow Travel

There is no reason to succumb to pessimism. Most of the great sights of our world are now all but deserted. Nature is taking a much deserved rest from mass tourism. For the first time in decades you will mainly meet locals almost anywhere you go. The courageous and patient will be rewarded.

It’s certainly not a good time to collect stamps in your passport. But if you are location-independent and open-minded, you should still have a few cards left to play. This is a great opportunity to shift down your pace, connect more with the local community, try something new.

hedgehog bulgaria
Zootherapy in Bulgaria: making new friends on the way home at night

Me? After Germany, I went back to the small town of Sopot, in Bulgaria, where I learned paragliding 6 years ago. It’s great to see some familiar faces again, have nerdy talks about clouds, pick ripe fruits from the trees that grow everywhere, observe the rich nature of the Central Balkan mountain range. There are many things that I still need to figure out myself, but it’s not over my friends! 

Practical Survival Tips
For Long-Term Travelers

  • Aim for places where you would be comfortable staying longer than anticipated. Destinations that you already know, have local friends and/or speak the language are ideal candidates. If a new lockdown is imposed you won’t be a stranger lost in a hostile land. That trip to Turkmenistan can wait.
  • This implies that domestic options are often good first choices. Not as glamorous or exotic as the top 10 list of the Lonely Planet, for sure. However, there is a lot of hidden beauty in this world if we but take the time to look.
  • There has never been a better time for roaming the great outdoors. Epidemiological risks are reduced, and getting stuck in the countryside is far more pleasant than being locked up in a big city. Camping and van dwelling are unsurprisingly experiencing a boom in popularity. It’s a good time for cyclo-touring too.
  • Travel restrictions change on a daily basis. The IATA website lists the up-to-date entry restrictions by country, including mandatory testing and quarantine requirements. It’s a great tool to monitor your options. The website of the relevant US embassy provides further valuable up-to-date information, regardless of your nationality. For example, at the moment pretty much anyone can enter Turkey, a wonderful and affordable destination.
iata covid-19 restrictions map
Travel restrictions overview from the IATA website
  • Keeping an eye on the local epidemiological dynamics is never a bad idea. Rather than relying on biased media reports, I prefer looking at the raw data at Our World In Data once a week. It’s also flawed, but the general trend is usually clar. For example, Brazil and Mexico might have open borders at the moment, but Turkey is the safer choice.
  • How is the local medical care? Does your insurance covers you? How you deal with the infection risk is a personal decision, but you should at least take a minute to think about it. A friend of mine, in her twenties and healthy, got it and took months to fully recover. The media loves to talk about mortality, but morbidity goes largely unreported.
  • Most of the much-hyped travel bubbles have yet to materialize, with the exception of (most of) the EU/Schengen area. But with the bare survival of the tourism industry at stakes, I’m confident that politicians will gradually figure out better procedures. PCR tests before and/or after hopping on a plane or crossing a land border are likely to become the norm, as many countries have already begun implementing.
olympos turkey
Sea, sun, mountains, Turkey is not exactly a bad choice
  • Some countries try hard to attract long-term visitors. Example: the lovely little country of Georgia, with it’s mountains, beaches and delicious food. Uzbekistan and Barbados are considering similar schemes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this trend accelerates over the next months and years. Slow travel might become more popular than we think with the rise of the home office.

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