What the Pandemic Taught Me About Travel

I’m writing this from my work-at-home setup away from Metro Manila, where I have spent most of my days since the pandemic began. Remember March 2020 when we thought the lockdown would last only until June 2020? Excuse me while I laugh maniacally at my naïve self.

Like many of you, I’ve been through the stages—working out religiously and losing weight, gaining it all back and then some, making Dalgona coffee, getting sucked into TikTok, purchasing useless items on Shopee, rolling my eyes at anti-vaxxers, getting quarantine fatigue, watching my mental health suffer, and accepting that freedom day just won’t happen for the Philippines.

The coronavirus is part of our lives now, and as the tourism sector updates travel rules weekly, we’re exploring ways to travel responsibly—at least the more conscientious of the lot.

Traveling Responsibly in the Time of the Coronavirus

A common question I hear from the travel community is: Where do you want to travel when the pandemic is over? It’s easy to make a bucket list of countries and cities, but I’d like to ask a more poignant question: How has travel changed for you? More importantly, what has the pandemic taught you about travel? My reflections below.

1. Travel slow.

I’m guilty of cramming as many items on my itinerary as I could. The pre-pandemic life gave us that luxury of doing as much as we want, with tourism providers catering to our every whim. Now it’s a little more difficult to organize our travels—and that may not be a completely bad thing.

With pandemic travel rules limiting our options, we’re forced to learn one important lesson of travel: slow down. Instead of cramming several destinations and activities into one weekend, we do fewer things. And because we can’t travel as much as we used to, we learn to take it all in slowly.

Take a closer look at the background of your travel photos—observe the elements you often miss because you’re too busy captioning your Instagram and ticking things off your bucket list. Take time to get to know the culture of the place you’re visiting.

My 2019 trip to Italy made me realize one important lesson: travel slow. I crammed six cities in seven days and it was not a great idea! Click here to read about that trip.

2. Rethink mass tourism.

While I do enjoy the occasional organized tour, I cringe at the sight of truckloads upon truckloads of tourists getting crammed into popular destinations at the expense of mother nature. Before the pandemic, it was all about mass travel. During the pandemic, the destinations took a much-needed break and recuperation. When travel reopened in 2021, the re-boom overwhelmed tourism providers, most of whom realized they don’t want the boom back—at least not in the same manner.

Somewhere between the pre-pandemic travel boom and pandemic quietude is travel sustainability, and that’s easier said than done.

Hawaii, one of the top tourist destinations around the world, is creating a long-term plan for sustainable destination management rather than marketing. They enlisted the help of locals, from farmers to hotel owners, who want to focus on community involvement and visitor education. We can and should still travel as much as we want, but more conscientiously. And since not everyone will wholeheartedly go down that path, long-term travel rules must be imposed, especially in the more popular destinations. Read the full article here.

3. No travel snobbery and gatekeeping.

While I do agree with sustainable post-pandemic travel, I cannot stand travel snobs. You’ve seen and met them: They’re anti-mainstream and immediately brush off a location, no matter how breathtaking and insightful, as soon as it becomes “too famous.” They believe that only certain people (i.e. their posse) should have access to unchartered destinations that they believe they’ve discovered before anyone else.

They think that there’s only one way to travel, which is their way, when in fact there are several different ways to travel. Some prefer backpacking, while some want only luxury travel. Some are planners, some are more spontaneous, while others are somewhere in between. Travel differs per personality. It’s not a competition.

I believe travel should be accessible to everyone, for as long as we do it conscientiously and with respect to the locals who were there way before you posted what you believe is the first official Instagram photo of the place.

4. You don’t need to be stuck in the office to be productive.

If there’s one thing the pandemic made office employees realize—it’s that most of the work can be done at home. Albeit a few adjustments like finding decent internet in our third-world country, remote working or the work-from-home setup made us see what was already obvious for years—that we don’t need to waste hours stuck in traffic (I don’t miss EDSA one bit) and glued to our office desk overtime for tasks that we can easily do at home or wherever you can take your laptop. Some bosses are finally realizing the time-saving task of “meetings that should have been one email.” Keeping your work-at-home life balanced and healthy is another topic though.

Quarantine Fatigue in Manila? Consider Relocating to the Beach or Mountains!

I’ve also seen a rise in digital nomads—people who have moved to the beaches and mountains while holding down full-time jobs or freelance work. Some supervisors know of their employee’s relocation, while others are completely unaware that people on their payroll have been meeting deadlines while sipping piña coladas all day by the beach.

5. When faced with a crisis, people’s true colors come out.

When did you realize that many of your relatives and friends have been anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and fake news peddlers this whole time? The pandemic quickly unleashed their true colors, didn’t it? Add that to their hidden homophobia, misogyny, and racism when it comes to global issues, and you may find yourself questioning your relationship with those people.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning, look at the social media posts of certain friends and relatives, and then utter, “Welp, humanity is effed.”

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Thanks to my reflections on the pandemic, those slots are now fully occupied by my rescue dogs.

Half-joking aside, I’ve become more cautious about the people I want to spend time with and more importantly, travel with. Traveling is no longer as easy as it used to be, so if I’m going to spend all that money on travel requirements, I’m not going to give my travel buddy slot to just anyone. Otherwise, I’d rather travel alone.

6. Support local before anything else.

Do you know which businesses were struck first and hardest by the pandemic’s economic crisis? The small local businesses. That coffee shop run by two best friends. That small food kiosk at the mall where people stopped going because of lockdown. The mom-and-pop grocery at the corner. The little family-owned restaurant that couldn’t pay its employees for a year.

The FMCGs, enterprises, and conglomerates are going to be fine. The advocacy of #SuportLocal has been around way before the pandemic, but we need to support local now more than ever. When you purchase local, it will keep low- to middle-income families afloat and help SMEs sustain their employees.

7. Look at your neighborhood with tourist goggles.

Do you remember traveling to a new city or country and ogling at things that you already have in your hometown? I remember taking photos of gypsies and street performers abroad, and then realized we have our own version here in the Philippines. But being abroad in travel mode made me look at them with rose-colored glasses.

Or how about tourists who flock to your side of the country? Did you ever watch them look amazed at things you find so mundane? I remember a foreigner who was so amused that we drink our soda from a plastic bag by the sari-sari store. He was so excited to take a photo of himself doing the same thing.

I took a travel writing course in 2014 and one of the biggest lessons they taught me is: Start with your own neighborhood. Practice travel writing and photography by looking at your neighborhood as if you’re traveling there for the first time.

If the Philippines’ ever-changing pandemic rules are making you feel stuck, try looking at your neighborhood with tourist goggles. You’d be surprised to spot new details and stories you never noticed before.