Covid changed the world in many ways. Among the changes was one so fundamental to many of us as to seem a given—our freedom to move around as we like. Travel, as we have known it for the past decades, was suddenly dead, just as now it suddenly seems alive to some of us who live in countries lucky enough to be re-emerging from the pandemic. But after traveling for the past nine months—and for the past 25 years as a journalist and travel entrepreneur—and speaking daily to those planning travel, what I am seeing is not exactly a rebound, as some are saying. Neither are we entering the age of “revenge travel”, nor a semi-repeat of the Roaring Twenties, as others have declared. I believe that we are seeing a new phenomenon emerging that I call Renaissance Travel.
Revenge travel implies hostility, aggression and inflicting pain out of a feeling of having been wronged. As with anyone who works in travel, I can say that Covid-19 inflicted pain on our industry and restricted global mobility for all to a degree unthinkable before last year. World air traffic declined 90 percent at the peak of lockdowns, and flights remain at less than 50 percent compared to 2019. Even if people want to make up for lost time, I have yet to meet someone whose response to the suffering of this past year is to celebrate with a vengeance. Nor do I see evidence of the same reckless quest for novelty and modernity that characterized the post-World War I period. Rather, what I have witnessed is an almost universal acknowledgement that travel was a privilege that many of us took for granted. When it was prohibited, we gained a new appreciation for its gifts, for the sense of freedom and possibilities it afforded us. A shared outcome of the months of being in lockdown seems to be a newfound desire for a slower pace and a feeling of responsibility in our approach to travel.
Based on hundreds of conversations I’m having with clients and those I meet on the road—in the last two months I’ve been to California, Arizona and Montana, Morocco and Paris—I’m hearing and seeing a commitment to being less consumptive and more considered, intentional and purposeful in the trips we plan. Now that more than 50 percent of Americans are vaccinated and we are in the early phase of travel resumption, I see three distinct groups of travelers emerging:
1. The Domestic First Travelers
This group embraces the glory of exploring at home. They began appearing last summer and is filling up ranches and lodges in the American West, hitting our 423 national parks and re-glorifying the great American road trip.
2. The First Returners
They are the ones who while in quarantine daydreamed about their favorite haunts and were shattered at the thought of never sitting in that beloved café on the Left Bank or sleeping in a treasured palazzo hotel in Venice again. They want to return to rekindle happy memories but also to support the people and communities who sparked them in the first place.
3. The Dream Chasers
These folks blaze a trail to the destinations that they had always dreamed of visiting and assumed they’d get to one day. However, during the pandemic, they realized that those dreams were indefinitely deferred, and now they want to seize the day as soon as possible. After all, as the pandemic taught us that we don’t have as much control over time and our travels as we used to think.
Two weeks ago when I traveled with a group of 16 Dream Chasers to Morocco for one of our small-group trips, I realized that everyone who travels post-pandemic, regardless of their motivation, are also serving as ambassadors of hope to those dependent on tourism revenue. Morocco derives close to 20 percent of its GDP from tourism and has suffered enormously as it has evaporated. As some of the first American travelers to return to Marrakech’s historic La Mamounia, there was nothing rote or weary about the welcome of the Fez-wearing doormen, who greeted us with smiling eyes above their masks. “We are so glad that you have chosen to come,” they said, as did many others we met along the way, acknowledging that there are new hoops to jump through and different anxieties to overcome. “You are truly welcome,” they said, and we felt it.
“My kids thought I was crazy to fly to Africa even when vaccinated,” one of the travelers allowed on our second day. “But I have wanted to visit Morocco my whole life, and I wasn’t waiting any longer.” The normally bustling Place Jemaa El Fna and its labyrinthine souk were almost empty and the legendary Majorelle Gardens—which usually swarms with over 850,000 visitors a year, making it the country’s biggest tourist attraction—was a cobalt blue jungle for us alone. When I addressed a shopkeeper in French, he politely asked if we could speak English. “I haven’t practiced for a year,” he confessed. Throughout our nine-day sojourn, as we connected with our guides, our Moroccan hosts and our fellow travelers there was a rawness to the conversations, an easier intimacy than I had felt in dozens of trips before, perhaps because we were all less practiced in complacency, so the emotional resonance of each interaction carried more weight.
After all, remember pre-Covid, when road warriors fetishized nonchalance in crossing borders and time zones? In any airport, you saw million-mile flyers who traded Tokyo for Toronto with no change to their daily routine; workout, work, eat, repeat. Another version donned sneakers and sweatpants to fly, a sign of their trans-Oceanic ease. Their destination? Just another background change. But I am old enough to remember dressing up for a flight, when it was a special occasion to go to the airport, not something so ordinary that one arrives in one’s PJs Covid has made me realize that in leaving behind the days of dressing up for flights, we also lost some of the reverence for the voyage. I hope that we summon that reverence along with a recognition that things have changed. The hotels and restaurants that have survived are adapting to new rules and restrictions; they may be understaffed and still reeling from losses—financial and personal—so it seems to me that the best kind of traveler for today’s environment leads with reverence, compassion and flexibility.
My first trip in an airplane post lockdown—and the miracle of flying in a tin can with wings across an ocean—felt like the miracle that it is. The realization that travel can and should be seen as something astonishing and sacred is why I believe that this new era could be called Renaissance Travel. It is not just a rebirth of global exchange, but it encompasses the idea that out of a dark period, we can emerge with views that are more holistic, humanistic and enlightened. For too long, travelers focused on what they got out of a vacation instead of recognizing that travel should always be mutually beneficial. Domestic First travelers are exploring our backyard, but they are also helping to support local restaurants and hotels. The First Returners are showing loyalty and solidarity to those establishments and communities that gave them souvenirs of sustenance, and Dream Chasers are creating a new example of re-engagement, demonstrating how we can show up in a global community with more shared understanding and respect for our interconnectedness.
Melissa Biggs Bradley is founder and CEO of Indagare, a members-only, boutique travel-planning company, offering curated content, and bespoke trips around passion points.