COVID-19 Is a Golden Opportunity to Reevaluate How, Why, and Where We Travel

Driving Park Loop Road along the rocky shoreline of Maine’s Acadia National Park.
Driving Park Loop Road along the rocky shoreline of Maine’s Acadia National Park. Brad Mitchell/Alamy Stock

In June 2019, Taylor Demonbreun set a Guinness World Record by being the youngest person, at age 24, to visit every country in the world. But her record wouldn’t last long, because late last year, 21-year-old Lexie Alford officially stole the title. The young swashbucklers documented their crusades online, demonstrating how easy it was to travel before COVID-19. What was once an unimaginable lifetime journey could be accomplished in about 18 months. That’s how long it took Demonbreun, anyway. She still holds the speed record.

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In the Before Times, many of us would have reacted to their accomplishments by packing a weekend bag. But the near-global halt to international travel dictated by COVID-19 created a (long) moment of forced reflection and called into question what Alford’s and Demonbreun’s accomplishments say about our evolving relationship with travel. Some of us, myself included, have grown gluttonous. As sea levels rise, we’re increasingly devouring the world like a fun-size bag of Cheetos. Alford and Demonbreun aren’t the only ones grinning with orange-stained fingers held up to the camera. To some extent, we’re all guilty.

As an old millennial, I vaguely recall the revolt that turned my peers and me against the Humvees and McMansions that marked status for our parents’ generation. We understood that happiness was to be earned through experiences, not possessions. We didn’t care about keeping up with the Joneses—or we didn’t think we did, anyway. So, we studied abroad, backpacked through Europe, and nursed our souls with adventure.

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But ultimately, it seems we bucked one set of Joneses for another. Our lives shifted online, and experiences began to look a lot like possession. Travel became its own status-seeking behavior.

Did 21-year-old Alford “experience” the world’s 195 countries, or did she “collect” them, like objects?

Until the 1950s, more people traveled by train than plane. Vacation was a time-consuming ordeal. But now we’ll airdrop in for a weekend in Berlin or 36 hours in Singapore. We do it for the ’Gram. We do it to say we did it. Between 1998 and 2008, global air travel increased threefold.

All of this might be excusable if not for the damage we’re inflicting on our planet. COVID-19 showed us exactly how quickly air quality reacts to changes in behavior (especially when it comes to travel). Before-and-after pandemic photos from London, Moscow, and Los Angeles show smoggy gray skylines washed clean, like someone restoring old film. In Punjab, India, the Himalayas became visible for the first time in decades.

In May, a group of environmental scientists reported that global carbon emissions were estimated to be down 17 percent. It’s the biggest drop in recorded history.

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Defenders of air travel will point out that planes account for just 2.8 percent of global carbon emissions, but that number’s misleading. Unlike ground transportation or factory work, aviation is a service available only to the wealthiest. According to industry estimates, 80 to 90 percent of people have never flown. But the world’s expanding middle class, along with new cultural norms around travel, will change that. International air traffic is expected to increase 330 percent by 2045, according to a report from the United Nations.

“Aviation has been growing tremendously fast,” says Susanne Becken, Ph.D., a professor of sustainable tour- ism at Australia’s Griffith University. “And it’s been eating up the carbon budget for countries that are reducing emissions.”

I cringe to think of my own carbon footprint. I rarely eat beef and choose bicycle over car whenever possible, yet I give little thought to my decision to board a plane. Over the past few years, I’ve flown to Sweden, Kenya, and the southern tip of South America. A single round-trip flight to Australia makes me personally responsible for something like 2.8 tons of carbon, a number that by itself exceeds the 2-ton individual budget humans need to reach by 2050.

Now in the wake of COVID-19, I’m reexamining the distance of my travel. A photo in front of the Eiffel Tower might blow up for me on social media, but if I’m being honest, I don’t have to fly to France (1,550 pounds of carbon) to connect with the world. I can actually hear people speak French in Montreal, which is half a day’s drive from where I live in New York. In a few hours, I can be in Burlington or the Adirondacks, the largest publicly protected natural area in the contiguous U.S. In my own state, I’ve yet to float the Delaware River or pedal the 350-mile Erie Canal bike trail. I’m a day’s drive from the Great Smoky Mountains in one direction and Acadia National Park in another. This country, even my small slice of it, offers a bounty of experience that I’ve been too quick to dismiss as too close to home.

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“There’s so much we can explore near us,” says Maja Rosen, an activist who launched a campaign to encourage people to avoid planes for one year. “And the decision to fly is often the single biggest contributor to your personal carbon emissions.”

I’ll admit that it’s hard for me to stifle my envy when I look at an accomplished traveler like Alford, and I’m sure her nearly half-million Instagram followers feel the same. But envy is precisely the kind of negative emotion that travel is supposed to protect me from. Envy is what compels people to buy new cars they can’t afford and Jet Skis they’ll barely use.

In a video posted on YouTube, Alford explained that while she tried to spend as much time as possible at each destination, the rules of Guinness were only concerned with proper entry and exit documentation. That points to how many of us think of travel: a passport stamp, a few social media posts, and bragging rights. It’s hard to imagine that being more fulfilling than a Humvee.

Maybe you’ll fly again this year, or maybe you’ll wait. I’m in no position to judge, and I’m not ready to swear off planes entirely. But I will be dedicating more of my travel days to local rivers and trails. I’ll seek meaningful experiences closer to home, and I’ll sit with the truth I can no longer ignore: However frequent international travel enriches my internal world, it inflicts a bigger cost on the one we share.

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