Travel and COVID-19: Problems with travel are returning

The sight of the 92,409 tonne, 294 metre MSC Orchestra arriving in Venice on June 3, 2021 caused alarm bells to ring. The problem was not so much the tourists on board, it's the route the vessel took across the city's lagoon, an unwholesome interjection in a majestic panorama. Adding insult to injury, the arrival of the behemoth comes barely two months after the Italian government announced a ban on cruise ships crossing Venice's lagoon. It's a reminder that a scourge from the past was once again knocking at the door.

Cruise traffic stalled in Venice in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The same happened in other Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean ports that had suffered from overtourism, such as Dubrovnik, Santorini, Kotor and Barcelona. Despite the damage to the local tourism industry, many locals revelled in the absence of tourists as they returned to their favourite cafes and strolled about without dodging camera-wielding hordes.

For all its horrors, the pandemic cured some things about travel that needed fixing – but are they fixed forever, or just suspended?

Bad behaviour in the skies

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Passengers and crew onboard a Qantas Boeing 737-800, flight number QF735 from Sydney to Adelaide at Sydney Airport on September 24, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Flights from Sydney to Adelaide have resumed after the South Australian government's decision to lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for NSW residents. From Thursday 24 September, travellers from New South Wales are able to enter South Australia without having to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. Flight from Sydney to Adelaide after South Australia border reopens to NSW residents.

Photo: Getty Images

Now that we're able to hop on board an aircraft and jet off to somewhere nice you might think air travellers would be grateful and compliant, but not everyone feels that way. Instead, the pandemic has added yet another source of grievance to flyers with an elevated sense of entitlement. Some folks object to having their civil rights violated by being told they have to wear a mask when they fly, and they're prepared to go a few rounds with anyone who tells them otherwise.

The gold award for bad behaviour goes to a passenger on a JetBlue flight from the Dominican Republic to New York who refused to wear a mask, threw food and an empty alcohol bottle, screamed obscenities and fought with cabin crew. Instead of New York, she ended up back in the Dominican Republic when her flight made a turnaround, where she faces a possible fine of over US$30,000.

At the other end of the scale, some ultra-cautious travellers have flown wearing head-to-toe PPE gear. One germophobe was booted off a United Airlines flight after attempting to board wearing a Narwall Mask, an airtight full-face covering with a snorkel type air filter. Russian carrier Aeroflot now has a dedicated section at the back of the aircraft for passengers who decline to mask up.

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Nature returned, but is retreating again

LLANDUDNO, WALES - MARCH 31: Mountain goats roam the streets of LLandudno on March 31, 2020 in Llandudno, Wales. The goats normally live on the rocky Great Orme but are occasional visitors to the seaside town, but a local councillor told the BBC that the herd was drawn this time by the lack of people and tourists due to the COVID-19 outbreak and quarantine measures. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Mountain goats roam the streets of LLandudno in Wales during lockdown measures in March last year. Photo: Getty Images


Fewer travellers, cruises and flights gave mother nature a time out in 2020, and wildlife was quick to take advantage. Wild goats strolled through a quietened village in North Wales, pumas haunted the streets of Chile's capital, Santiago, and wild boars turned dumpster divers in Israel's Haifa. After an absence of decades, sea turtles returned to some beaches in Thailand and Malaysia to lay their eggs in sand burrows. Fewer cruises along Canada's western seaboard meant less propeller noise to interfere with whale communications, and marine scientists picked up whale songs they'd never heard before.

It wasn't all good news. Poaching increased in parts of India and southern Africa. Some animals that rely on tourism for their daily bread – riding elephants in India and Thailand, pigeons in Europe's cities – were put on short rations that sent them close to starvation, where some still hover.

The air was fresher. The Year Earth Changed, a documentary narrated by David Attenborough, reported that people in the northern Indian city of Jalandhar caught sight of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, more than 150 kilometres away, for the first time in decades. According to climate research data, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by seven per cent as a result of lockdowns and the slowdown in business and leisure travel. That's already changing. In May 2021, a monitoring station in Hawaii detected the highest level of atmospheric carbon dioxide ever recorded at the facility.

See also: Think 'nature is returning' without tourists? Think again


The Mediterranean and Caribbean ports that suffered most from overtourism fuelled largely by giant cruise ships will be quieter this year, but the appetite for cruising remains strong. If all goes well this northern summer and there are no fresh uncontained outbreaks on cruise ships, expect the industry to ramp up over 2022 and return to close to full strength in 2023. That's despite pandemic-influenced attrition which hit the cruise industry, causing a number of ships built as recently as the 1990s to sail off to the knackers' yards.

Carnival Corporation, the name behind the Princess, Carnival, Cunard, Costa and Holland America cruise lines, downsized its fleet by 19 ships, although some will be rebadged to sail under the flags of other cruise operators. Locals in Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik might howl but protests will be drowned out by the local tourism industry.

Air travel is unpleasant again

Air travel fell off a cliff after the pandemic bared its teeth in 2020. For anyone who took a flight after April, flying felt like a joy and a privilege. Queues evaporated, flights were near empty, security processing was swift and friendly and airline staff smiled – at least as far as you could tell about someone wearing a face mask. It was like travelling in a distant era, but it hasn't survived. Pent-up demand for travel and the return of business travel means the crowds are back, while COVID-19 protocols add another layer of checks to the business of flying.

See also: Good riddance: Seven things in travel that won't be coming back

See also: If you're not a 'high value' tourist, some places don't want you any more