December 31, 2019 was the last day of the warmest decade on record in Australia. At noon, in the coastal towns between Sydney and Melbourne, the sky turns an apocalyptic shade of red. Fanned by strong winds, biblical bushfires scorch the east coast. Flames higher than Westminster Abbey rage across the tinder-dry bush in scenes straight from the Book of Revelation, consuming man and beast.
As Australia burns before the world’s widening eyes, more than five thousand miles away a wildfire of a different kind has only just begun. On that same day, the Chinese branch of the World Health Organisation receives the first report of a pneumonia-like disease in the city of Wuhan. As cases mount over the next few days, researchers identify the cause: a novel coronavirus.
Fast forward a few months and COVID-19, to give that disease its official name, dominates our collective consciousness to such an extent that, in global terms, the unprecedented fires of Australia’s ‘black summer’ already seem like a fading memory – a decoy that drew the gaze from the coming chaos. In terms of disruption to our way of life, not even the world wars paralysed the planet to the same degree as this growing pandemic.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the impact of coronavirus will be at least as severe as the Great Depression, the longest downturn the global economy has ever experienced. Paradigm shift is an overused phrase, but not in this case; the world is changing before our eyes, and it will never be the same again.
For the travel industry, this crisis is an existential threat. Airlines, tour operators, hotel chains, cruise lines and every other large, medium or small link in the complex chain of businesses that constitute the world’s 10th largest industry face a moment of reckoning. Many of them will not survive it.
In the search for hope, which endures even in the bleakest of times, some observers have highlighted a few positive examples of the law of unintended consequences. For example, the shutdown of industry and seizure of transport has produced a significant drop in the level of air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
The most striking example is Wuhan itself. The most populous city in Central China is a manufacturing hub. NASA compared satellite images from the first two months of 2019 with the same period this year, after the government had shuttered factories and restricted travel, and found that levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere had plummeted. The same is true of Northern Italy, that country’s industrial heartland.
In New York, researchers say that emissions of poisonous carbon monoxide and planet-warming carbon dioxide also fell sharply as the city that never sleeps succumbed to a state of suspended animation – a pattern likely to be replicated in megalopolises worldwide.
Venice doesn’t fall into that category; only 55,000 people live in the bounds of the old city. And yet, if you visited on a summer’s day, you might mistake it for one, such is the pressure of overtourism. Estimates vary, but as many as 30 million visit Venice each year, doubling the population on a daily basis during high season. Now, however, its normally turbid canals run clear; with no water buses and tourist boats to churn the water, even the fish have returned.
From a certain perspective, this pandemic looks like a parable about our hubris – and in particular our ever-increasing exploitation of the natural world. Scientists aren’t 100% sure where coronavirus came from, but they have a working hypothesis: it might have jumped from bats to an as yet unknown species, a process known as zoonotic spillover. And that happened because of us.
How? In the ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan and elsewhere in Asia, caged wild animals – for sale as food or pets – are brought into close contact with each other, providing the perfect conditions for this phenomenon to occur. When coronavirus made a second jump to humans, it found the ideal host to spread throughout a globalised world.
International travel – a key dimension of globalisation – will resume once this crisis abates (although who can say when that might be?). But the travel industry, which accounts for 10% of global GDP, will look quite different by then. The World Travel and Tourism Council, for example, has warned that coronavirus could cause it to shrink by a quarter, costing 50 million jobs worldwide.
Optimists flag the industry’s resilience, citing the rapid rebound from body blows such as 9/11 and the global financial crash of 2008-09. But even those calamities didn’t have such a profound impact on our psyches, nor curtail our freedoms to this unimaginable extent. Simply put, coronavirus is changing how we see everything from the nature of work to the role of the state to the fabric of society.
In light of the environmental effects of a lockdown now encompassing a quarter of the planet’s population, perhaps we need to focus not on the speed of its recovery, but on its form. Seen through the right lens, today’s peril might be tomorrow’s opportunity: the chance to reshape travel in a way that responds to an even greater, but much more insidious, threat – and one from which self-isolation provides no protection whatsoever.
Climate change played a major role in Australia’s fires. With summers now twice as long as winters down under, this year’s conflagration looks likely to become an annual event. It’s a harbinger of things to come for elsewhere, too; unless we make radical changes to our lifestyles, such extreme weather events will unfold with ever-greater frequency on an ever-larger scale.
What changes? Flying less. Consuming less. Wasting less. Precisely the sort of behavioural U-turn temporarily forced upon us by this pandemic. If we make the right choices, perhaps, just perhaps, we can achieve through sober years of sustainable regrowth what coronavirus has accomplished in a matter of weeks: the unravelling of the consumerist, carbon-based economy.