In the pre-Delta days, I was hard-pressed to find even a friend of a friend who knew anyone who had contracted COVID-19. Sometimes I’d hear stories of so-and-so’s parents overseas testing positive, but no one here.
And then the daily press conferences started in NSW and we’d wait at 11am to hear a number that moved too quickly into the thousands.
About two weeks ago my cousin died overseas, a day before his 32nd birthday, three months after his wedding we couldn’t travel to. Normally, someone dying goes unnoticed by anyone but those who knew them, but because my cousin died after contracting COVID-19, I could log on to the site of his government’s health department and see a number and know that one of those numbers was him. It was, in a way, comforting when a rushed funeral we couldn’t attend was not.
Statistics are important, and as we hurtle towards a planned reopening of our borders, that is clear now more than ever.
But today, on World Tourism Day the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) asks us to use this pause in travel, before the rush begins, to consider HOW we travel and ensure that tourism and its benefits are available to everyone.
We are being urged to look beyond tourism statistics and acknowledge that behind every number, there is a person.
It can be hard to do this. Most of us are not able to even simply visualise a large amount of people, let alone care for them as though we know them. If we could, life, with its poverty and war, would be hard to endure.
But like the stories behind the COVID-19 stats, there are stories, lives behind those tourism stats too.
For the past 18 months, the word ‘travel’ has been hitched to some unusual bedfellows (‘restrictions’, ‘bubble’, ‘exemption’), but it’s the prefix ‘essential’ that can have worrying implications.
I understand. Travelling for leisure is not essential like healthcare or education or food and water. But it can enable those things.
According to the UNWTO, the business volume of tourism “equals or even surpasses” that of oil exports, food products or automobiles.
It is one of the main income sources for some nations, and provides far-reaching benefits across an array of sectors (such as construction and agriculture) in others.
It creates jobs which allow people “to earn not just a wage, but also dignity and equality”, UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili said.
“Tourism jobs also empower people and provide a chance to have a stake in their own societies - often for the first time,” he said.
But there are those who dismiss travel as a frivolous past time, and its lack a mere first world problem to be combatted with a couple (and maybe more) incredibly valuable injections.
If we remove the economic factor for a moment and venture into the greys of human connection, of philosophy even, travel can change you and subsequently the world.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we have had to harden ourselves to the plights of those overseas, interstate, out of our local government areas, beyond our post codes, next door.
The pandemic has made us care less about others, a survey as part of a larger project at the Australian Centre for Human and Cultural Values and The Conservation has revealed.
When we were locked more tightly into the countries into which we were born, when leaving was considered and pricey, complex and not the norm, we were the poorer for it.
Life is hard, and even if your problems are classified as ‘first world’ or not, they can distract you from identifying with others. Leave your home, your postcode, your LGA, your state, your country and you see the world from a different angle, disrupt a routine that has you locked into your own perspective.
Not everyone needs to travel to do this, but for the rest of us, that reset is what we need to work with others to ensure that this gorgeous, giving world of ours can be travelled for generations to come.
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