The “great pause” created by the coronavirus pandemic means that the Earth Day 2020 theme of climate action will actually involve a whole lot of resting in place and plenty of time for reflection on how past travel experiences can get us through what’s ahead. As for the future, it undoubtedly will be a more sustainable one as travelers, more aware of the health dangers associated with overtourism, take a new approach to vacationing.

Earth Day at 50

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020 was supposed to involve a bigger bang: a celebration on the National Mall in Washington, DC; the kickoff of a “Food Is Life” food and sustainability festival in Napa, CA by the Culinary Institute of America; and all sorts of activities geared toward the 2020 theme of climate action. And now, well, Earth Day observances have been cancelled, moved online, or postponed, and the vast majority of us will be celebrating in situ.

It’s as if the Earth said, “Let’s not do anything big this year,” but in opting to sit this celebration out managed to have the greatest positive impact of all.

As much of the world stays at home, with planes around the planet pretty much grounded, and with traffic in major cities all but nonexistent, the air is cleaner, the water is clearer, and wildlife is making a bit of a resurgence. And a whole lot of us now have a big chunk of time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we might possibly be headed.

With so much in flux right now—work, health, freedom of assembly—it seems almost self-indulgent to be daydreaming about any sort of recreational travel any time soon. Some of us are barely allowed out of the house to exercise.

As a practical matter, the Earth Day 2020 theme now seems to be travel in place.

Koi fish crowded together in a pond

Fish that are not social distancing

What travel teaches about sustainability

But even if I cannot go much farther than my own back yard right now, I rely on memories of my own travels as I plot my more immediate future: planting a victory garden and minimizing food waste so I can avoid as long as possible those ghost-like trips to the supermarket in mask, gloves and as much ad hoc protective wear as I can pull together to remain socially distant from every other human being. Food scraps I do have go right into my outdoor composter.

How has my traveling past informed this effort? In Belize, I took a jungle survival tour that gives me confidence I can grow what I need to now and, if I cannot, I might possibly learn how to forage successfully. On a visit to EARTH University in Costa Rica, administrators showed me student experiments that involve planting gardens in circles rather than in rows. My own gardening efforts historically have involved more random placement of seeds, but in seasons past, I was just gardening recreationally without any eye toward actually having to consume what I grow. Now, I will take a lesson from the experts on growing food in small spaces.

Hiking on islands inhabited only by animals in the Galapagos reminded me that people are guests in wildlife’s habitat. I respect the role of animals now, even the currently unpopular bats, who some believe had a role in the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe so, but I still appreciate their ability to consume insects.

A visit to the Tenement Museum in New York City helped me understand why my forebears escaped crowded conditions for the fresh air of the suburbs. On a cruise between St. Petersburg and Moscow, I viewed Russian dachas with yards full of vegetables rather than grass.

Even when my thoughts grow darker during the uncertainty about the reach of the COVID-19 pandemic, I find some comfort remembering my trip to El Salvador where I see a vibrant society that survived a brutal civil war. On a trip to Hamburg, Germany, I toured a former Nazi bunker turned into a green energy power plant and saw that even something inherently evil can be transformed.

Participating in a despacho ceremony with a shaman in Peru, I am reminded to give thanks to what he calls Pachamama, or Mother Earth. We make wishes and place on a paper some sweet offerings to Earth, and the shaman bundles up these goodies with twine and burns them to show gratitude to the planet.

The author poses with a statue of a man carrying buckets of water in Hamburg, Germany.

The author with a statue of Hans Hummel, who carried water to homes in Hamburg, Germany before they had running water

The future of travel, green or not

In this season of rebirth, travel, inevitably, will be transformed, too. Some of us staying at home right now may forego frenetic efforts to check off destinations on our bucket lists in the future in favor of the more laid-back vacations of yesteryear. Think lakeside resorts or glamping. Rather than jetting off to parts unknown, we might revel in a week in the 1000 Islands in upstate New York or stay in an oceanside house in California’s Mendocino County.

How highly touristed destinations will rebound remains unclear right now. Personally, I always relished Venice in the off-season. Yes, the temperature was cooler, but Piazza San Marco at times would be almost tourist-free. Requirements for social distancing, should they need to be long-term, may limit the number of visitors allowed to overtouristed places at any one time, an idea that had been bandied about for years anyway as an effort to preserve frail buildings and infrastructure. Limitations on the number of visitors was one aspect of the Galapagos islands I particularly enjoyed.

Cruising may become a less crowded experience, and, eventually, smaller ships may be preferred to larger ones. My favorite cruises have involved smaller vessels anyway: a weeklong riverboat cruise along the Seine carried about 80 passengers; the capacity of the partially solar-powered boat in the Galapagos Islands I was on held about 16 tourists plus crew.

And I don’t think anyone would be sad if airplane seating became more roomy.

It’s nice to travel more softly and, in so doing, improve the health of the planet’s climate.

But the tourism industry has been hard hit by this Great Pause, and I will be thinking about how large employers in the travel business treated their workers during this most distressing time. Are executives taking a pay cut and trying to preserve jobs of the rank-and-file? Or is something more untoward going on with little appreciation being expressed for the often low-paid workers who keep everything functioning smoothly? I’ll remember when deciding where to spend my own travel budget in the future.

Thatched-roof cabins and a wooden boardwalk at the Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize

Thatched-roof cabins at the Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize


What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • After the threat from COVID-19 dissipates and Earth Day 2020 has passed, “luxury” may take on a different meaning. Travel with minimal impact on the environment may be favored over the sort that generates pollution or involves overcrowded, germy scenarios.
  • A slower pace involving visits to less touristed destinations may be more fulfilling to luxury travelers than highly planned itineraries. And the environment—and local economies—likely will benefit, too.

Take note

  • To participate remotely in Earth Day 2020, head to Earthday.org on April 22 for the Earth Day Network’s live event between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET. Tweet about it using the hashtag #EarthDay2020.
  • Join the Earth Challenge 2020, an effort led by Earth Day Network the Earth Day Network, the Wilson Center, and the U.S. State Department’s Eco-Capitals Forum. Download the Earth Challenge 2020 app on your phone and help track air quality and plastic pollution.
  • NASA, the space agency, is offering Earth Day at Home activities. Tweet about your participation using #EarthDayAtHome hashtag.

Photo credits: All photos by M. Ciavardini


Disclosure:

The author was hosted on press trips at some of the destinations mentioned in this piece: El Salvador; Hamburg, Germany; Galapagos Islands, Ecuador;  Mendocino County, CA and 1000 Islands, NY. The government of El Salvador and Avianca airlines sponsored the trip to El Salvador. Hamburg Marketing sponsored the trip to Hamburg, and Ecoventura sponsored the trip to Galapagos Islands. The Little River Inn, the Brewery Gulch Inn and the Inn at Newport Ranch hosted the author’s stay in Mendocino County. Hart Hotels Harbor Hotel Collection sponsored the trip to the 1000 Islands.


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The phrase "Earth Day 2020"superimposed over a photograph of a sunflower.

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