Travel After Covid Lockdowns: In Search of Wonder – The Wall Street Journal

Just as the coronavirus began to seep into our consciousness early last year, I found myself sailing around Antarctica. I’m generally an urban creature, and having enjoyed watching 1.5 million penguins once in Patagonia, and spending midwinter weeks in Alaska, gazing out over miles of snow, I hadn’t been so excited in advance. But nothing I’d seen had prepared me for the blue-green icebergs, as tall as five-story buildings, among which I drifted one blue midsummer morning. For the thousand shades of silver, gray and pure white that surrounded me on every side. For the shocking absence of any sound, or sight of human habitation.

It was a tonic and a timely reminder of how much grandeur travel can open up to us, while expanding our sense of the possible. As it happened, after lockdown descended, seven weeks later, I still had to fly quite often between California, where my 89-year-old mother had just emerged from the hospital, and Japan, where the rest of my immediate family and my job awaited me.

Tourists traversing a glacier in Antarctica.

Photo: Johan ORDONEZ/Agence-France Presse/Getty Images

Catching up

But those trips were journeys of necessity. Now, after two years of largely staying close to home, it’s a joy to face the prospect of some new places—in my case, Zanzibar and the Seychelles—a few weeks into the new year. And to read that travel, having rebounded enthusiastically this year, is projected (variants willing) to keep soaring in 2022, as if many of us are eager to make up for lost time.

At exactly the moment when borders were most tightly sealed because of Covid-19, the veteran hotelier Adrian Zecha opened two new properties, in Vietnam and Japan. I asked him about this in March, and the man who helped transform the travel industry with his Aman Resorts pointed out that he had seen plenty of setbacks over the course of his 88 years. World wars, oil shortages, the anxiety around SARS. Did any of that mean that people lost the wish to escape their routines and encounter fresh wonders? He didn’t think so.

For me, as for many, the pandemic has revealed how much can be seen and done close to home; I’ve relished the chance to explore the hills around my mother’s house, as I hadn’t done in half a century of spending time there. In Japan, I’ve discovered bamboo forests only minutes from the apartment where I’ve stayed for more than a hundred seasons. And of course the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow reminded us all that we have to rethink how we move—and live—if we are not to bring about extinction. Ten days after I disembarked from my ship last year, the temperature in Antarctica hit a terrifying, and unprecedented, 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Universal longing

But we live now in a global neighborhood, and every one of us ends up poorer if we turn away from our neighbors. When my parents were in college, I often remind myself, no regular citizen could dream of sailing around Antarctica—or even of flying to California to tend to an aging parent. More and more people, in China and India and Brazil, are hungry now to savor the larger world as many in the West have done for decades. And I’m not the only one with loved ones in one place, family in another and old friends in a third who feels it would be a crime not to keep seeing them in real life.

By now travel represents a 10th of global GDP and it isn’t going to go away soon. As many as 700 million people depend on it for their livelihood. The gleaming new hotels and English-language menus all around me in Japan, set up to accommodate a record 31.9 million international visitors two years ago, have been looking somewhat neglected these past two years. But domestic tourism seems to be booming again, and the government hopes to see more foreign visitors than ever in the years to come, in part because lockdown has quickened a near-universal longing to head out.

Concern for the environment may mean that we learn to travel in new ways, and sometimes closer to where we live. But insofar as travel is an expression of curiosity, of generosity and of an extended sense of responsibility, it will continue to flourish so long as those essential human virtues continue to shine.

A man walks near the Chilean station Escudero on King George Island off Antarctica.

Photo: Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Mr. Iyer is the author of 15 books, most recently twinned works on his adopted home, “Autumn Light” and “A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.” He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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