I consider myself a seasoned traveler. Last year I flew over 150,000 miles and reached the highest level of status with my airline. One of my very first jobs was traveling the country teaching classes to people building airplanes in their garages. Since then, no matter what I am doing for a career, there always seems to be a travel component.
Like most of the world, until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t traveled beyond my local Walmart since March. But then, a family matter caused me to book a flight.
Over the last few months, I have heard a lot about this thing called “the new normal.” I have listened to it so often on the news, social media outlets, even from my friends in the business, that I actually started to believe it. I think, as humans, we are conditioned to believe that whatever we are experiencing today, we will experience tomorrow. This idea of “a new normal” shows how susceptible we are to that line of thinking.
But here is the thing, since the end of July, I have taken several trips. Two by plane and two over the road, and I am here to tell you that there is nothing normal about any of it.
Airports are an eerie shadow of themselves. Most of the retail and restaurants in the terminals are closed, and there are hardly any people. Midday operations are what you would expect to see if you had arrived at midnight in some regional airport in the midwest. Planes are mostly empty. Getting a row to yourself isn’t uncommon. In some cases, I had the row to myself and the row in front of me and behind me. This wasn’t some intentional effort by the airlines to social distance but merely a reflection of the lack of demand.
Let’s be clear, there is nothing NORMAL about this, and in fact, the very thought of this being some sort of normal would mean the collapse of the world as we know it. International travel is closed, cruise ports are shuttered, airports are nearly abandoned, bus yards are stuffed with buses with nowhere to go, and no customers to pick up. Restaurants cant keep their doors open, small businesses struggle to find ways to make it through the month, and we see anxiety and depression at levels we have never seen before.
Nothing in that is normal, nor should we trivialize it by boiling it down to some bite-sized- hashtag “the new normal.”
If we are honest with ourselves, if this were the new normal, we would see a collapse of the worldwide tourism and travel markets. We would see the actual economic impact of this industry as we watched every type of business that supports tourism begin to fail. From the obvious of hotels, airlines, and travel destinations to restaurants, gas stations, and the countless other business that survive based on those that travel.
So, no, this can’t be the new normal. It can’t be that we no longer send kids to school, and you cant travel to Europe. It cant be that buses cant take groups across the borders of Canada or Mexico, and we simply can’t accept that the general public doesn’t feel safe traveling, vacationing, riding on buses or planes, or staying in hotels.
So the 10 million dollar question is, what do we do about it? What does it mean to not accept this as the new normal? In the immortal words of Dylan Thomas in his poem Do Not Go Gentle into that good night – it says-
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It is time for us to rage against the dying of the light and stand and unite like we never have before. Not just as bus companies, transportation, or hotels, not only destinations, DMOs, or small businesses, but as the entire travel and tourism industry who will collectively not go quietly into that good night.
Travel right now is still about choice. I booked airline tickets, and no one stopped me. When I book a hotel room, there was no requirement for a health check. When I jumped in my car to drive across the state, no one made me prove I was doing it because I was “essential.”
All it took was making a decision- a decision that I was ready and willing to go out safely and get back to living. Did I wear a mask, yes, when it was appropriate? Did I use copious amounts of hand sanitizer and burn through bags of sanitizing wipes? Yes. Did I look for hotels and restaurants where they had shown a commitment to safety and who were taking the virus seriously? Yes, yes, I did.
But I went.
Now is the time to push our collective message to the masses. Can you travel? Yes. Can you do it with your safety in mind? Yes. Can you ride a bus, stay in a hotel, eat at a restaurant, and fly on an airplane? Yes. Is the virus still here? Yes. Is choosing to travel a sentence to getting COVID-19? No.
This is the story that we need to tell. This is the message. For the last six months, we have become so indoctrinated with platitudes like “stay home say safe” and the “the new normal” we have begun to believe it. But here is the truth, the virus isn’t going to go away. We are still some time away from a widely deployed vaccine or a medically agreed to treatment plan. So in some sense, the conditions that we are currently experiencing are a sort of new normal, but how we’re responding to them simply can’t be. Should people be cautious? Yes. If people are exceptionally vulnerable, should they think twice before traveling? Yes. Should the rest of us feel more willing to get out and do, go, eat out, and live? Yes.
The night before my first flight in nearly six months, I was lying in bed. I realized that my pulse was racing and that my inability to sleep wasn’t about excitement but anxiety. Me, a person who traveled the equivalent of 6 times around the earth, visited 13 countries and three continents in 2019 alone was legitimately afraid of taking a 3-hour flight.
That is the battle we are fighting right now, that is the issue that needs our attention. As we collectively watch the fight in Washington DC hoping for the allocation of monies we so desperately need and deserve, lets put some of our energy into painting a picture where the new normal includes the survival of the tourism and travel industries.
Let us talk to our customers and partner with others in the tourism industry to tell the story of how people can travel safely. Let’s tell the world the story about what we are doing to keep people safe and be part of the solution, not the problem. Let’s showcase every trip we do as more and more groups choose to set aside the fear of months of isolation and step out into the future. Let’s show the world that while many choose to stay closed off to the possibility of travel, others are moving forward and are doing it safely.
Let’s show the world that there is a new normal, but that we aren’t there yet, and together, the tourism and travel market and our partners, can help them get there.
Together we can. Together we will. Together we will not go quietly into that good night.
I’m Chris Riddell, and this is what I think.