Ghost Cities, Eerie Airports and Nervous Passengers: Is This Travel in 2020?

English Bay, Vancouver, Canada
English Bay, Vancouver, Canada

The world of travel is up in the air, with Coronavirus impacting people’s holiday plans – and state of mind – across the globe. Madelin Tomelty experiences it first-hand on a journey back from Canada.

Well that escalated.

A week ago, I got on a flight from Sydney to Vancouver, excited and eager to experience Canada for the first time. The mountains! The food! Those lovely Canadian folk, eh? Yesterday, less than six days later, I arrived back home, anxious as I sought out the familiar rugged Aussie terrain from my window seat, and utterly relieved when I felt the wheels of the 777 bounce and skid across the runway. When the pilot instructed us to stay in our seats and not disembark for an extended amount of time, I was slightly alarmed. Around me, on the half-empty flight, at least 50 per cent of the passengers were wearing surgical masks, their eyes flittering around in alert wariness. My hands felt like dried prunes from constantly applying hand sanitiser during the 15-hour flight. A lot can happen in a week.

I can be sure that the next fortnight will be a lot less eventful, because I am now one of the thousands of Australians who has been legally ordered to self-isolate for fourteen days, by virtue of arriving back in Australia from abroad. I was only ever going to spend four nights in Vancouver, on a work trip, but when the Prime Minister made the order on my third night, a few days after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it became crystal clear how rapidly this global health crisis was escalating. Countries had started closing their borders, and given the lack of warning that came with the new Australian self-isolation law for those returning from overseas, I was suddenly concerned that I could end up stranded in Canada. There are worse places to find yourself stranded, sure, but in uncertain times one needs to be home, and my flight out the next day could not have come sooner.

During my stint in Vancouver, I walked everywhere, exploring and getting a sense of the city. The problem is, did I really see the British Columbia city as it is, as it should be? Unlikely. It was quiet – too quiet. I could get a seat at any cafe or restaurant I liked, which would usually be a good thing, but under these strange circumstances, not so much. The most popular shopping street in Downtown, Robson Street, was also relatively quiet, despite it being the weekend.

When I arrived at the airport for my departure flight, well, that was when the eeriness really hit – never in my life have I seen an international airport so barren. It was also then that I realised I was decidedly stressed out, although I had done a pretty decent job until then of being calm and trying to enjoy the new city I was in. I huffed and puffed my way through the airport, trying to find the right airline counter. The Air Canada staff checking me in asked if I knew I had to self-isolate when I got home – I snapped at her that yes, I did, and it was absolutely ridiculous. At security, also empty, they asked me to place what felt like every item I had packed in my carry-on, into its own tray. I had an embarrassing five trays rolling through the scanner, and then the bottom fell out of the paper carry bag I had stuffed full of winter clothes I’d been forced to buy to fare the unseasonable spring cold snap. I became increasingly flustered. Needless to say, the woman at security was not sensitive to my situation.

I traipsed around the airport piled up with random objects like a puffy jacket and a box with a martini shaker in it, trying to find a place that sold a cabin bag that wasn’t Burberry, Bally, Coach or any other designer label, and wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg – I had plenty of cabin bags at home, and I really needed my arms to hold all the things I was currently carrying. Crisis averted with an affordable cabin bag, I went to smell some perfumes in Duty Free in a daze, trying to grasp onto some sort of travelling normalcy. There was just one other person browsing. The fluorescent lighting was giving me a headache. I was hot and sweaty even though it was freezing. I didn’t buy a new perfume.

I later realised I had left some much-loved art I had bought at Granville Island somewhere along the way on this very dramatic airport pilgrimage, just to make matters worse. It goes without saying, I would not fare well in an apocalypse.

But can you blame me? The 24-hour Coronavirus news coverage is stressful. A lot of it is warranted, but a lot of it – clickbait headlines like ‘The Household Items that Could Give You Coronavirus’ – is not. It’s a lot, to take in constant bad news, and as a travel writer, this whole travel ban thing has big consequences for daily life, and potentially far-reaching consequences for the industry I work in. We are all losing our cool, and not just those returning from overseas in response to the shaking and unprecedented calls from the government to “come home”.

Earlier today, my partner returned from the fifth supermarket he had visited in a day to try and find toilet paper, to no avail. He witnessed with his own eyes two women in a shocking confrontation over the last pack of nappies on the shelf. It’s no wonder the WHO waited so long to declare a pandemic: “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.” At no point did they mention the toilet paper shortage, but they were right about everything else.

Qantas has just announced it is cutting 90% of international flights and Virgin Australia is cutting all of its international flights until at least mid-June. Both airlines are cutting their domestic services by at least half. “We have entered an unprecedented time in the global aviation industry, which has required us to take significant action to responsibly manage our business while balancing traveller demands and supporting the wellbeing of Australians,” said Virgin Australia CEO and Managing Director Paul Scurrah in a statement today.

Just as Australians, and especially those in NSW, QLD and VIC, begin recovering from the devastation of the bushfires, someone in a Chinese ‘wet market’ makes contact with an infected bat or snake, or some other illegally traded animal, and just like that, here we are, stuck at home and living on 2 Minute Noodles.

And with the latest news an unprecedented, indefinite level-four global travel ban in place for Australians, we won’t be taking overseas holidays anytime soon. I personally have had to postpone my international wedding by a year, and there is nobody that is unaffected by what’s going on. What does this mean for travel itself in 2020? What about luxury travel, and all of the destinations and experiences that were forecast to be ‘hot’ in 2020? When will we start travelling again, or will people’s appetite for the foreign and exotic, be diminished for some time?

I guess we will have to wait and see. It’s a good thing I have a lot of time right now to do just that.

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