How does a pandemic and resultant restrictions impact those who depend on travel for a living? For some, the uncertainties also mean persistence, as hard faith emerges out of a protracted wait. In soulful American cities, Indonesian islands, or in the Australian wild—there are people whose lives have undergone staggering changes. We want you to hear from them.
On March 15, Darshana Athukorala was doing what he does best—helping tourists soak up his beautiful country. A couple of days later, the 31-year-old found himself quarantined at an army-assisted camp in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka. He spent the next 14 days in isolation, along with other guides who had been working at the time. “Waise (in fact), the first local to get coronavirus was a guide only, in Colombo,” he explains.
Ask him if it was daunting, and Athukorala sounds puzzled. A salaried national guide, he has faith in the country’s crisis management. After all, this is the second time in a year that the Sri Lankan tourism industry has found itself under threat. “After last year’s Easter attack (bombings which killed over 250), we were struggling, and the government took care of us,” says Athukorala, who has informally assumed charge of a friend’s travel website (www.bluelilytravel.com) and is contemplating uploading his past excursions on YouTube, to stay savvy. After sharing a well-partitioned room with another guide, with “achha bandobast” (good arrangement) of food, masks, sanitiser and even mobile data cards, he is home and out of danger on the other end of his +14 days of self-quarantine.
While the salary comes to him through mobile ATMs, Athukorala worries he may not be showing off his country soon, despite the government announcing reopening international air travel from August. “Colombo food and architecture, Hikkaduwa surfing, Mirissa whale watching, aur Nuwara Eliya toh dekha hi hain (you’ve seen how lovely Nuwara Eliya is)… central mein Dambulla caves, and Jaffna for culture and crab curry,” he rattles off vigorously. It’s unmistakable. Here’s a man used to being out in the open every day and loving it. Killing time in his village in the western Gampaha district, he is reasonably safe and uncharacteristically stuck. For good measure, Athukorala throws in numbers, and practical bait. “Everyone knows that 10-15 per cent of our national income comes from tourism, so locals will always protect the guests.” Guides can speak in Hindi and even know where to find good Indian food, he reasons. “Fir kya problem?” (Then what is the problem?)
Vibrant, innovative. Historic and free. When Rebecca Fisher talks about Philadelphia, she could be talking about her cool grandmother who hosts beer-and-books parties and bops to reggae. The co-founder of Philly-based Beyond the Bell Tours (www.beyondthebelltours.com) believes that the city’s neighbourhoods, “a distinct overlap of communities from Central and South America, Southeast Asia and others,” capture the imagination of those looking to experiment with their existential palate. But three months into the pandemic-driven inactivity of American tourism, Fisher is contemplating moving back to her home in neighbouring Bucks County.
Home can be ambiguous for someone who has loved and lived in the East Coast city for 25 odd years, melding her understanding of its plurality with a dream of building an inclusive travel space for the queer community, and “anyone who left out of mainstream tourism.” Add to the mix friend-slash-business partner Joey Leroux, and you’ve got BBT. But between cancelled bookings, refunds and a scramble for grants, the economics of sustaining this labour of love has never been messier for the Haverford College classmates.
That’s not to say the pair aren’t already pushing the boundaries of traditional travel. For Pride month, they have created Pride-in-a-Box, where one can buy a box (www.beyondthebelltours.com/pride-2020/pride-in-a-box) containing varieties of ‘queer kitsch’ objects created by a local LGBTQ-owned business—and then connect their history through virtual talks and a drag performance. Such ‘box experiences,’ applicable to the food, history and music of a region, are already becoming popular, feels Fisher. Creative tech solutions such as digitised city walks—where one depends on paired audiovisuals instead of the gestures of a masked guide—could well be the new normal. “We will see the death of traditional tourism and that could be good,” insists Fisher, keen on incorporating “music, theatre, even scavenger hunts” to keep things edgy. “No more 100 people on a bus listening to a microphone!” she forecasts, with a brightness fit for the city of soul music and cheesesteaks.
I got married, and COVID-19 started,” sighs Luca Canessa, a 43-year-old diving instructor based out of the remote island of Flores, Indonesia. There is no good time for a pandemic, but for the Italian who has made homes out of far-flung parts of the world over the last 24 years, it proved doubly disruptive. His family, having come down for the big day on March 6, got stuck on the island after the wedding as the contagion spiralled in their homeland. At some point, harangued aunts and cousins managed to secure a flight to France, and from there, a train to Genoa. Back in the fishing town of Labuan Bajo at the western end of Flores island, the Canessas’ trials were just starting.
“We got yucca (cassava) growing wild and fish in the water, so food is not a big problem. But with no tourists, people are struggling to save their businesses and pay rent,” reveals the man who’s turned to selling home-made tiramisu with his new wife. Meanwhile Canessa’s small but sturdy venture, Sokaraja Liveaboard (sokaraja.com), had to be stripped down from six to three staff, who are on 50 per cent salary. “I take care of their food and living, but if things don’t pick up, we’ll be broke,” he says with a touch of anxiety. “The world has seen deaths before, and it always bounces back. But people from Italy, France, America—will they have money to visit?” For Canessa, who believes in picking a raw landscape and “being a part of its growth… not be a selfish foreigner,” leaving base is not an option. This is where he has envisioned his life for the foreseeable future, touring stunning expanses of the Komodo National Park which is a four-hour boat ride away. Plus Canessa’s dream is just beginning to materialise, with the town popping up on bucketlists thanks to connectivity projects.
“They say flights will start from June and the national park, too, will reopen. But I don’t think people will be back before next year,” Canessa weighs in. “We’ll be okay. We just need time.”
You can learn about and help his community in Labuan Bajo by reaching out to the Facebook group Flores Pioneers (facebook.com/groups/florespioneers/).
In the Eurasian wonderland of Georgia, winter is for hardcore skiers who head for the silver expanses of Gudauri or Mestia, people who don’t usually require guides. So the last time Zviad Bechvaia went out on tour was in January. A two-day whirl around capital Tbilisi and the verdant Kakheti region and he was back home, planning for when the pace picks up in April. In a month, a pandemic had paralysed the world.
“I’ve managed the last few months with zero income as I depend on the previous year’s savings. But the situation needs to turn around by 2021, or…” the guide trails off. Bechvaia is an independent operator who helms an agency called Travelist Georgia (travelistgeorgia.com), and frequently collaborates with Georgian National Tourism Administration. The government, he says, implemented early restrictions and managed well as far as the virus is concerned. What’s been trickier is the inevitable economic fallout. Individual entrepreneurs were granted $100 for the whole year, he says, which does not account for the huge force of undocumented labour in small-scale tourism. “Not all companies provide paperwork, some pay their guides in cash. What will those guys do?” wonders Bechvaia, adding that in a poor country like Georgia, it’s hard to just shift from one job to another. And although airlines may tentatively reopen in July, he is certain the middle-class tourist would be wary. Yet on the safety front, he sees his country marshalling good advantage. “Less than 100 people in the hospitals (at the time of writing) and locals take rules very seriously,” is cause for hope all right. There is also the matter of the great Georgian outdoors—the Caucasus mountains, Black Sea beaches wrapped in romance, and rolling wine valleys where one can travel for days at an end without human interaction.
“Just keep your luggage in the hotel and take off in closed groups… you should be safe,” he suggests.
Ask if he is looking to gather any aid for the coming days and Bechvaia half-jokes. “Get your people to visit. If a small number of Indians also start buying my tours, there will be no more problem.”
The pandemic reminded me that we should rely on more than one trade or skill for survival,” says Hasher Ahmed, who was forced to shift focus from his Bahrain-based family-run travel agency, Airhome Travels (@airhometravels), to teaching Arabic on Zoom. Ahmed, who specialises in mosque tours, had travelled out of the country on March 19. When he was screened at the airport on return, alarm bells rang. “It was no longer something happening in China. Borders were sealed off and everything changed,” he recalls. Since then, Ahmed has seen friends struggle, despite the government and local NGOs rallying for aid.
Since March, non-essential services in Bahrain have been closed and reopened in controlled phases. Schools were the first to be shuttered, since one of the early patients was a school bus driver. It was a solemn Eid too, with zakat (religious donation) and prayers centring around recovery. The government stepped in to extend leases and bear electricity charges for residential and non-residential buildings; payment cycle for bank loans was also extended. But for Ahmed, it’s not the same without sharing with strangers the history behind the beguiling patterns of Al’ Fateh Grand Mosque; answering questions, asking questions. “There’s so much cultural warmth and clarity that comes from these interactions. People who walk in saying they don’t have more than 10 minutes end up with us for hours, as misconceptions melt away,” he says.
While there might be some time for Bahrain’s sizeable ratio of West European tourists to return for such exchanges, Ahmed hinges his hope on the country’s infrastructure and its easy navigability from neighbouring GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. “For people from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is like their second home. They should be back at the movies and the malls soon,” he calculates.
Until then, Ahmed hopes to support his staff and their families through a crowdfunding campaign: (charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/support-airhome-travel-to-sustain-and-introduce-new-destinations).
This time another year, Adam Mattner would have been wading through clumps of yellow kapok and saucy billy goat plums, showing groups of tourists how to savour the peculiar wildness of Australia’s Top End. The dry season, spanning May-October, is big business for the extreme edge of the country’s Northern Territory region. The weather is right for long hikes, or for floating face-to-sky in the cool waters of a rock pool. But as with the world, things have been choppy in NT, and May is only the beginning of partial rhythm returning to post-pandemic Darwin, where Mattner lives.
One dares say post-pandemic because of the regional capital’s optimistic numbers (30 confirmed cases and no COVID-19 related deaths at the time of writing), a result of strict border control since March. With Darwin and its periphery of great outdoors awaiting full resumption, the 35-year-old is coasting along on a “base wage, enough to not go backwards,” offered by the government. But the future is foggy. “A lot depends on domestic travel restrictions being lifted. We could see an influx of interstate travellers hoping to escape the southern (Australian) winter, or we could have no tourism season at all,” reckons the part-time croc-handler.
The chink in 2020 has meant different things for people. For Mattner and wife Melissa, both passionate about the conservation of native wildlife (chuffed.org/project/protect-native-wildlife-using-smart-trapping-solutions), it meant dropping a hard-earned plan of leaving base for a year of travelling the world. Early bookings have been cancelled and small refunds scraped together. Hiking the Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea, rafting down the Grand Canyon in U.S.A., and from there a sharp, thrilling turn towards Cuba, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal—it will all have to wait. Bush fire and COVID-19, it’s been a rough year for the country, the compulsive camper reflects. But even as the Aussie agrees that precautions will be essential to the future of travel, he’s vowed to not wrap himself up in a bubble. “Life’s too short for that.”
Mattner’s takeaway is clear as Darwin nights in the month of May.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.