The irony wasn’t lost on me. I left Asia for Europe to enjoy borderless travel without flights or visas, only to end up in a Covid-19 induced travel coma along with the rest of the world. I was one of the lucky ones, though. I managed to land a temporary job in Athens and was able to work throughout the months of quarantine and replenish my travel budget. Nevertheless, the months of all work and isolated play made this Jack a dull boy.
I became unmotivated and quite lazy in keeping up with my work for Beat The Trail as my daily job appeared to drain my creativity. I found myself slipping into a somewhat lethargic state, while on the inside I was chomping at the bits to spend my days in freedom on the road again.
When Greece opened up for domestic travel I took the opportunity to leave the city as soon as I was able and set off for the mountains. After a few days of hiking, I felt like I was behind the wheel once more. My motivation and creative juices flowed freely again, like blood rushing back into deprived limbs. The tingling sensation that came with it was the sense of adventure, of the countless hidden promises of the Trail.
As borders in the Balkans were still weeks away from opening up to let me travel north, I met up with a friend and set off on a road trip through Greece. Driving from town to town looking for camping spots along beaches, lakes and rivers seemed the perfect way to celebrate our release from city life. It also allowed us to witness the country slowly starting up its tourism industry.
It was a good thing we prepared for weeks of wild camping, as most campsites and other accommodations were still closed. Towns infamous for their crowded streets stood nearly empty, and we had most beaches all to ourselves. Meanwhile, the gratitude of local business owners was noticeable in their manners, smiles and the occasional free plate of food they presented us with.
When the border to Bulgaria and the Balkans beyond finally opened up I said my goodbyes to Greece and rode the first wave of tourism back into the rest of Europe. As expected, I was one of the very few travellers on the road. It brought back memories of Mongolia, of travelling through countries unexplored by mass tourism. Empty hostels, vacant train seats and the quiet stares of locals wondering whether I was lost or the first of many tourists heralding the long-awaited start of the tourist season.
Despite the eerie feeling of entering a party where everyone just left, travel after Covid-19 also allows a peek into what could have been; into what the world would look like if it could handle mass tourism better. Perhaps there is a lesson here, a short-lived opportunity to rethink why we travel. When views are no longer obscured by hundreds of others looking for the exact same advertised experience, it becomes easier to realise the value of authenticity.
As the saying goes: “Crises precipitate change”. There is a chance the impact on the tourism industry might serve to ‘reboot’ the system. Perhaps governments, the industry and tourists themselves will learn to realise the negative impact of mass-tourism and invest in ways to minimise the damage to local culture and ecosystems.
One can only hope.