Deputy Features Editor, Sofia Gerace, discusses the future of travel, putting a positive spin on an otherwise depressing subject.
Like many other young students, I thought that the best way to conclude my studies at university would be to travel to a new place: it was just the perfect plan. I dreamt of leaving home with my backpack on my shoulders and I was ready to enjoy whatever life was going to throw at me. Yet now we are stuck at home and the only place I have been visiting recently are the small streets around my flat. I had fantasies about being lost in a maze of streets in a big European city, surrounded by a crowd of strangers while smelling the scent of a new environment. But the truth is that today cities around the world look empty: on social media, images of deserted towns and cities taken by drones are heartbreaking.
In many newspapers and surveys it is familiar to read things like, “in these difficult times, one of the things that young people are missing the most is travelling”. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every economic sector all over the world. However, many people managed to adapt their jobs by working from home. We are relying on the internet to overcome these hard times. We are having online lectures, doing online shopping, organising online meetings, attending online interviews, and the list goes on. Nevertheless, the one thing that will always be irreplaceable is travelling.
The tourism sector is one of the most affected by the pandemic and you don’t need to be an expert in the field to know that the recovery will not be easy. Incomes are shrinking while prices in the travel industry are rising. In these times, there’s not one tourist to be seen on Tower Bridge in London, nor any crowds crossing the Champs Elysées in Paris. Young people are no longer riding their bikes around Amsterdam. Via del Corso in Rome and Las Ramblas in Barcelona are also empty of tourists. COVID-19 is taking away many things from young students and the opportunity to travel around the world is one of these.
Travelling is the kind of hobby that most people, and especially young students, love. There is often the need to look for something new and the desire to find something different. For many students, being at university is essential to set oneself up for the world of work. Studying can shape our understanding and knowledge in order to prepare us for the job of our dreams. However, travelling can shape our souls. On every journey, we have the opportunity to embrace a new culture, meet new people, have new experiences, taste new food, discover new places and learn something new. And often, after a journey, we are not the same person that we were at the start. I think this is what students studying in St Andrews experience on a small scale: in every case, there is a long, winding journey that leads the student here, each journey unique in its own way. But what is common to all is the desire to get to know different people and cultures.
In recent years, the range of opportunities for students travelling on a budget has been getting bigger and bigger. Interrailing springs to mind as an opportunity where young people can get discounts on trains that allow them to travel around Europe. Likewise, Flixbus organises bus journeys for very low prices – not the best quality we could wish for, but it still allows young students to leave home and discover the world. There is also the increasing number of low-cost flights that many students have benefited from in the past few years. Finally, there are hostels where you would find yourself sharing a room with complete strangers: an option that may not comply with current health measures but that would allow you to meet all sorts of interesting people. I remember going on a journey by bus from France to Italy last year. I was on a bus full of students who were looking to have fun during the winter break. It is sad now when you realise that this kind of option is not even thinkable. When you are young and ready for new adventures, new experiences can really change your life; but now the pandemic is preventing us from broadening our horizons.
In many countries, the ban on non-essential travel as well as all the quarantine rules are still in place, resulting in many young people being unable to leave their neighbourhood. And where travelling to other countries is currently possible, prices are rising in order to comply with health measures and to cope with the lack of customers. For example, the British government just decided to charge £1750 for people having to quarantine after entering the country: for many students travelling is not an option anymore. Not to mention the cancelled flights where refunds take months to arrive. Travelling is becoming a privilege and the youngest generations are those who are going to suffer the most from it. It feels like we are going back to the past, when taking a flight or a train was something that many could not afford. Many of our parents and grandparents did not get the chance to discover new places around the world while being at university. It was expensive and it was only for the most privileged. It took many years to make travelling accessible for everyone but now the economic crisis is hitting hard.
However, I’d like to believe that something good has to come out of this pandemic. While waiting to travel again, we can instead learn to appreciate the beauty of the world that surrounds us. We have the chance to truly discover the places where we live and to acknowledge that it is not necessary to go that far to have new experiences. Before the pandemic, many of us were taking for granted many things that are actually very special. And besides, once this is all over, we will appreciate even more the opportunity to travel again.
I have met many people that have travelled abroad more than in their own countries. I remember when during my fourth year of senior school in Rome, my history professor decided to take my class to visit the Colosseum. We were a big group of teenagers, 16 and 17 years old, and had always lived in Rome. And yet, many of us had never visited the monument before.
Many of us dreamt of exploring the unknown, but we now have the chance to rediscover the places in which we live. We were excited to meet new people, but now we have more time to really get to know those we live close to. We hoped to embark on a journey that would revolutionise our lives, but now it is being sedentary at home that is changing us for the better.
We are missing something and we cannot deny it. If travelling is becoming more difficult again, just as it was in the now distant past, then we have to learn from the older generations how to cope with, and even appreciate, that situation. In the meantime, while we are waiting for this long nightmare to pass, we can discover the world by reading books. This is what people in the past used to do. If we do not have the chance to start a new adventure, then we can still discover Paris by reading ‘Les Misérables’, or London by reading ‘Oliver Twist’, or even Venice by reading ‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann. And, as we are lucky enough to live in the era of TV shows, we can even transport ourselves to London by watching ‘The Crown’ or ‘Sherlock’, to Paris with ‘Lupin’ or even to Jerusalem with ‘Shtisel’.
Second, just as our grandparents did, we can learn to find beauty everywhere. Sometimes travelling is about collecting stories to tell the people we love: to our parents, to our friends, or possibly to our future children or grandchildren. But even if we are unable to talk about our travels, we will still be able to teach them that, when travelling is not possible, we must try and appreciate our immediate environs.