As we try to return to ‘normal’, Rodanthi Tzanelli FRSA argues that we need to rethink tourism and build on people’s experience of local areas during the pandemic.
Last week saw the lifting of Covid-19 related restrictions in the UK. With some restrained optimism, we are told that we are close to getting back to normal. In reality, we are turning a sharp lifestyle corner without being able to check for incoming traffic behind the so-called ‘step 4’. What comes ahead is largely left to speculation and a great dose of hope that vaccinations will reduce deaths and restore British national and international mobility freedoms.
Between the Spring 2020 and now, my experience of leisurely movement was largely restricted to my lush neighbouring surroundings. I am fortunate enough to live almost next to Roundhay Park in England’s West Yorkshire, one of the biggest parks in Europe and an international destination for people loving the greenery and a few hours next to a lake, enjoying their lunch. This and some other smaller park facilities, even closer to my house, have helped me retain my sanity.
Over the same months, I noticed how others adopted the same ritual of visiting such spots for a break from work and some moments of makeshift contemplation or their weekend family picnics. It occurred to me that this is the new tourism: slow and contemplative, safer than long-distance automobilities and mingling in airport spaces, where the virus can wreak havoc with one’s immune system. Now we are getting back to ‘normal’: no masks, no local peregrinations and lots of carbon footprint to reach remote exotic destinations for our holidays. For some people with health problems there may a few extra months of caution, but we will get there: the ‘normal’ of human short-sightedness.
At about the same time, I read a complaint about the ‘new normal’: the anger of the critic related to the fact that this ‘new normal’ will not include better NHS funding, less commuting, or more sustainable living. The writer was right to consider institutional practices in so far as these give shape to individual habits. For me, this is not about psychological individualism but rather collective cultures of creating the everyday and its rules: how we get to work, leisure, travel and relax.
The failure to institute a viable ‘new normal’ is a failure of conceiving of and implementing a creative vision. Ruth Hannan of the RSA recently explored this issue in relation to the ‘good life’. To me, it seems that the future of living better, even during a pandemic, involves devising sustainable alternatives to what we used to take for granted before Covid-19: physical mobility to other parts of the world.
Around the world and throughout pandemic lockdowns, local leisurely mobilities had to take over international organised tourism; in the UK this turned the prettiest parts of our country into very popular destinations. Those with limited physical mobility or economic means became the new romantic travellers who could enjoy green areas with friends or family locally. Out of necessity, most of us began to view especially lush suburbias and nearby rural areas as escape options from the unbearable present in which we were trapped. If this is the case, we need to ask why as we are able to contain the virus, we seem to look to so many habits that are unsustainable and ultra-consumerist.
Slogans matter, especially when national leaders use them. The so-called ‘Step 4’ focuses on the widely circulating ‘Freedom Day’ concept, which threatens to erase alternative policy imaginaries of travel. Specifically, ‘step 4’ coerces employees to return to the dreadful long commutes to work, which reduce relaxation at home but also local socialisation and leisure. Such imaginaries of homeliness could find sustainable implementation at regional, if not local levels in the form of local travel. Instead, cultures of control over workers will be ‘back to normal’. However, we know that blends of working from home and from the office as well as reduced hours allow workers to establish friendships and networks within the workplace, and thus generate small support enclaves that produce more and happier creative employees. Within such imaginaries of work and leisure both employers and employees can agree more sustainable variations depending on personal commitments, health and other constraints.
Because ‘Freedom Day’ favours a return to normal work patterns, it also threatens to annul the forward-looking corporate blends between leisure and work, such as the ones favoured by Microsoft, which created a ‘virtual commute’ programme to provide its employees with time to set goals in the morning but also reflect back on the workday at its end.
As a Western society, in the absence of such diversification we slowly descend to a state of de-civilisation: having lost control over our daily routines, we proceed to lose our sanity and eventually our manners. The ‘Freedom Day’ narrative teaches us that everyday routines are chores, so when we have time off them, we are entitled to binge on our carbon footprint and impact on environmental pollution. We can go back to disrespecting our hosts, because we are too drunk to be polite, and generating noise pollution in the neighbourhoods of tourist destinations we get to visit. Covid-19 or not, we are infected with indifference for what happens to a world that dies.
How to design hopeful tourism
‘Freedom Day’ is not about the corporate-tourist management of death but the politics of life. But, as a slogan about our post-Covid-19 futures, it threatens to swallow up the slow travel movements to the local park. This happens because it ‘teaches’ ‘consumers’ to not be pilgrims of natural destinations or indeed respect them as such but treat them as objects. Above all, it shunts aside local policy initiatives to develop such places into eco-tourist destinations.
My aim is not to endorse romantic localism or anti-tourism, only to argue that we may miss the opportunity to promote more blended (local-global) travel/tourism leisure. This is the moment at which we can turn previously preventative policy measures – the short recreative walks of lockdown periods, for example – into a new aesthetic vision for the masses. However, for this we need local policymakers to think differently. We also need national leaders to speak differently to the nation, not in a language that appeals to insensitive globetrotters.
To provide such new local vistas of travel, fresh narratives of place are needed, which are inclusive and sensitive to social difference and ecological priorities at the same time. Here is a design proposition: we need to ask the local pilgrims what made them happy about their walk in the local park to redesign them as sustainable tourist destinations. These conversations should also focus on those values that Covid-19 threatened most: human life, sociocultural equality and diversity, and a respectful connection to natural environments.
Rodanthi is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology and Director of Mobilities, Bauman Institute, at the University of Leeds. She is one of the Editors of Northern Notes Blog, a member of the Advisory Board of Global Studies based at the University of Urbana-Champaign and Visiting Scholar at CEMORE at Lancaster University’s Department of Sociology. Her latest monographs, Cultural (Im)mobilities and the Virocene: Mutating the Crisis will be published by Edward Elgar in November 2021.
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