3 mins

Conscious Traveller: Learning from a global crisis

Simon Barnes explains how the lessons learned from the COVID pandemic and humanity’s response to it can help shape the future of travel for the benefit of all


When we return to normal… but let’s stop right there. I have heard that phrase too many times in recent months. Hear a hard fact instead: calendars don’t run backwards. There’s no going back to January 2020. Accept it: many things have changed forever. We are establishing a new normal, and it’s up to us to make it a good one.

The way we work, the way we greet, the way we meet, the way we relate, the way we travel, the way we think: all these things are changing in a year that has brought COVID-19, the death of George Floyd and so many bush fires you’d think that the whole world was in flames.

My calendar tells me I’m in Zambia, but I’m 7,000 miles away in Norfolk.  I should be co-leading a trip to the Luangwa Valley, telling our clients about the corporate lives of lions and why the bateleur eagle has no tail. God, they’re missing me out there.

Well, they are. There are no tourists in the valley, and that means no income: not for the people who run the camps and lodges, not for the people who work in them, nor for the families they support. Tourists put a dollar value on living wildlife across the world. Desperate people are therefore seeking, as never before, to make money from dead wildlife: bushmeat, elephant tusks, rhino horn, the scales of pangolins…

At least in the valley we have Conservation South Luangwa, a brilliant NGO that backs up government efforts to safeguard wildlife with foot patrols, sniffer dogs and a spotter plane

I hope to be back there next year, but no one knows how things will turn out. COVID-19 has given us all an unprecedented opportunity to think things over. Perhaps that’s why the global response to Floyd’s terrible death was so powerful. We seem more at home with big ideas. COVID-19 has taught us that when we accept that there is global crisis, billions of us can respond with energy and commitment. But the place needs tourists to keep it alive: that’s the way of things in a changing world.

The ferocious and continuing wildfires show us, as never before, that we really do have another crisis on our hands, and that it’s bigger than COVID-19. In the past 12 months we have had unprecedented fires in the Arctic, as well as huge fires in California, Argentina, Brazil and Australia. Sir David Attenborough said that climate change is the greatest crisis in the history of humanity. If we can take what we have learned from COVID-19 and put it to use in this far greater crisis, we will be doing the most important thing in the course of the history of our species.

And yet we must still travel, where appropriate. Travel will keep the wildlife of the Luangwa Valley going. But perhaps we will travel a little differently: asking difficult questions about impact, sustainability and carbon. Before we travel, we might make an appropriate donation (try World Land Trust).

The fantasy of glorious carefree days in a post-COVID-19 world brought about the second spike – and taught us that being carefree is not the way to go. The truth is we need more care than ever before. Travel well, travel joyfully, travel carefully. Travel well.

Simon has written about wildlife and travel for 30 years. His latest book, The History of the World in 100 Animals, is out now

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