Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

There has been a lot of speculation about how travel will be different in a post-Covid-19 world.

We should learn quite a bit in the next few weeks as countries, theme parks and that combo destination-theme park, Las Vegas, welcome back visitors. We'll edge to understanding what works and what doesn't, what's safe and what's not and what's still considered attractive in a restricted state. 

But it's not just the operational aspects of travel that have changed; we have changed. How have months of worry about our health and the health of our loved ones, job loss or job insecurity and lack of face-to-face socializing reformed our worldview?

It's natural to focus on the pandemic as the leading indicator of societal and behavioral change this year, but as we retool products for the eventual widescale resumption of travel, it's useful to consider that there are other things going on that are also affecting the consumer zeitgeist.

Simultaneous to the impact of the virus, we're going through a period of societal upheaval, with both demands for social justice and political polarization exacerbated, the latter perhaps because we're in an election year. Were there no pandemic in 2020, these particular forces would be analyzed for their likely impact on how travel offerings might evolve.

I think the term "opening up" could be applied to travel in this regard, as well. By changing the trajectory of our lives so dramatically, the events of 2020 have led us to question many assumptions. And that presents some interesting challenges and opportunities.

The parts of our industry that guide travelers through unfamiliar cultures rely on the presumption that, in as short as a week's time, a guest can have (pick one) an authentic, immersive or transformative understanding of the places they visit.

In this regard, the Black Lives Matter movement raises an interesting question: Will white travelers believe they can gain true insight into a foreign culture on a brief visit shortly after they became aware of how little they understood the lives of fellow Americans, ones whom, in many cases, live just a short drive down the road? Can they continue believing they'll access an "authentic" level of cultural understanding in distant lands after becoming aware of how unconscious bias, cultural blind spots and ethnocentric viewpoints have made it difficult to penetrate what goes on in familiar landscapes right under their very noses?

How might that realization change their approach to travel? An argument could be made that it's travelers' very detachment from foreign societies -- places where they have no emotional investment in day-to-day life -- that enable them to see the essence of other cultures, perhaps more clearly than even native residents can. Or, flipped around, has our position within our familiar society -- and perhaps the desire to protect our place in it -- hindered our ability to better understand the views and circumstances of other Americans? When we travel, that's no longer a consideration.

Detachment can be instructive but ultimately not enlightening. Arriving in foreign, unfamiliar surroundings, things jump out at us that residents long ago stopped seeing as noteworthy. But there's also a certain randomness to the surface qualities that first catch our attention. If we're lucky, we may see patterns that reflect something meaningful about the society we're visiting, but we're just as likely to be attracted to interesting trivia. Cultures are complex.

Raza Visram, AfricanMecca
Raza Visram, AfricanMecca

To help sort that out, there may be a rise in interest in working with suppliers that have roots in the destination visited. I heard recently from Raza Visram, a safari and tour planning director for AfricanMecca Safaris, Tours & Beach Vacations, which specializes in visits to his native East Africa. Visram said that one potential client, upon discovering that AfricanMecca had local ties, instead chose to go with a different company that was more "culturally aligned" -- with the travelers, that is, not the destination.

This attitude is ripe for change. What elements could be added to a travel offering geared toward someone who is newly "opened up"? Someone who, perhaps, concluded that the quest for authenticity in short-form itineraries is largely illusional, yet who still craves meaning in their travels?

Perhaps, in addition to traditional guides, we'll see the inclusion of mediators: people trained specifically in the art of facilitating intercultural exchanges.

I'm not suggesting that tours will or should morph into intercultural therapy sessions. The elements of travel that have always brought us joy -- food, entertainment, history, art, recreation -- deepen understanding. But I do believe that in travel, as in life, experiences are more meaningful when you approach them, to the extent possible, with not only open eyes, ears and mouths, but minds. 

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