“These are not normal times” | Travel in the age of Coronavirus

Our ability to see the world may have been put on pause, but, yes, we will travel again says Tom Marchant, founder of Black Tomato – a man who has travelled the world and helped thousands of others do it too.

These are not normal times. These are not normal times for the people of Wuhan, Milan, Seoul, New York, London, or any other region hit hard by COVID-19. And these times are not normal for all those feeling the anxiety of battling the invisible enemy that’s rattling our world physically, emotionally, economically, and culturally. With the world under lockdown, many are asking how they can still plan travel—and have something hopeful to look forward to—in a time of ongoing and ever-accelerating shutdown.

My 15 years as the co-founder of Black Tomato, a luxury trip planning firm, has taught me that our global community is defined by mobility, by the promise of exploring somewhere new, and by the small world that manifests each time we pack our bags and leave our homes. Of course, it would be irresponsible (and practically impossible) for us to recommend that you travel now, so we won’t. Instead, we’re going to provide clear and useful information and advice to help you plan for your journeys in the months ahead and into 2021. Of equal importance, we’re also going to provide the needed inspiration to get you there.

Put succinctly, we’re suggesting that you hold onto your trips and your travel dreams—not cancelling but postponing, booking ahead rather than holding back. We’re recommending that you look ahead to the window of September–December 2020, when the experts are predicting that things might ease off: Autumn is the new summer. While this is not a cast-iron guarantee, it does provide us with an informed timeline, a best-case scenario that we can plan toward and look forward to.

Wanderlust in all its forms is going to be the fast pass to finding our way back to the world again, and back to the people—from the family-owned restaurant chefs to the drivers, hotel concierges, locals, and guides—who make travel so worthwhile. To ease worries, answer questions, and put things into perspective, here’s how we at Black Tomato are thinking about travel in the months (and year) ahead.

CAN I STILL PLAN TO TRAVEL IN THE SUMMER?

The most important thing to note, at this time, is that we sadly don’t know. Circumstances could get worse, or they could get better, should our global community commit to battling this pandemic through testing, social distancing, and other government-advised measures (and we are hopeful for the latter). It’s only natural from the condition of isolation to think about summer travel, several months away. Come summer, some countries may find themselves safe, and routes may indeed open, but it’s our responsibility to be prepared, and in turn prepare you, for the opposite.

Prepare a contingency plan for all the travel you have planned (or are planning) for the summer months, in terms of both timing and location. We may find ourselves needing to postpone travel altogether, but the likelihood is that you’ll find yourself itching to travel with limitations on where to go. Dream now about the places close to home that you’ve always wanted to explore, but never had the chance. Alternatively, think of how and when you would put this trip off in the future when things are more stable. Consider all the possible outcomes, ideally in collaboration with a trusted agent, and you’re less likely to face disappointment.

This might also mean planning a no-holds-barred staycation. The UK is blessed with some of the world’s most beautiful and dramatic country and coast – from the rugged splendour of the Scottish Highlands to the breath-taking World-Heritage Jurassic Coast, plus more cultural hotspots, historical wonders and cosmopolitan cities than one would expect for a nation of its size. These are the places we should keep coming back to, especially when dreaming, planning, and plotting in this period of isolation.

HOW SHOULD I BE THINKING ABOUT TRAVEL NOW?

Now is clearly not the time to travel. And yet, the travel industry—which includes everyone from major airlines to tiny street food vendors—is dependent not on your desire to travel and explore, but on your actually doing it. The spread of COVID-19, alongside its immediate health impacts, is causing untold damage to this vast, extremely diverse, and connected community. To put it more bluntly, and more passionately (because these are passionate times), when tourism is affected, the countries, cities, establishments, and small businesses supported by tourism are also affected, as are the people and communities who make them what they are. We’re talking about the places and people we’ve fallen in love with—that valley in Mongolia, that farmer on the Faroe Islands, that local restaurant in the backstreets of Hokkaido—if we draw back now, then the world we reconnect with will feel incredibly, and perhaps forever, different.

Ultimately, when done sensitively and carefully, there is enormous value in planning now —and planning flexibly—for your travels ahead. Not only will you be ready at the starting gate when conditions do improve, but you’ll also experience that powerful psychological boost of having something uplifting and inspiring to look forward to. The time you’re now spending at home is the time to plan that trip of a lifetime, that journey you always thought of taking but never did, that honeymoon, that girls or couples trip—or even just an escape out of your ordinary and into the wide wilds just beyond it. There isn’t a single seasoned traveller or travel expert who will tell you to stop dreaming—because there’s no reason why you should.

And there is a real way in which you can help: showing confidence. By reaching out and engaging with the travel community, in whatever way you can and however you are comfortable, you’ll ensure we can continue to travel in the way we’ve known or dreamed of after all of this is over. In our 15 years of operating, we’ve built relationships with thousands of individuals and family-run businesses—from boutique hotels to one-man-shows, who have (quite literally) walked us and our clients through places unknown. Take the communities of Iceland, no strangers to disruption and catastrophe, who survived the 2008 financial crash and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that followed on its heels, only to rebound by welcoming tourism full force, and showing off the natural and cultural wonders their country has to offer. If they can bounce back from near demise, so can we.

The coronavirus epidemic is hitting all of us. It has done damage, and it will continue to do damage. But we can limit its impact in an act of impassioned solidarity. We can show faith in the world and in the people who inhabit it. For these people and their communities, each itinerary, planned trip, and future journey booked today will offer them real, tangible funds to stay afloat at a time when many are at risk of closing their doors for good. By simply dreaming of being somewhere else today, you can help these communities in a very real and practical way. The world would be a lesser place without its local communities, just as our own cities and towns would devolve should our independent stores, family businesses, local guides, and industries not weather the storm. Companies big, small, independent, and artisan will rely on the help of those who can pay today and travel in the months or even years to come.

We’ve currently pressed pause on travel, but it should be our common goal to come back to a world just as vibrant, inspiring, and ready to explore (if not more) once we press play.

WHAT ABOUT TRAVEL TO HOT SPOTS, LIKE ITALY?

From fresh pastas eaten and bespoke tailoring fitted in the bustling streets of Milan, an Aperol Spritz (or three) enjoyed on the majestic terrace of Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lago di Como, and the grounds of Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, we have sent thousands of our clients to Italy over the years and have enjoyed its splendour ourselves. It is heartbreaking to see somewhere where we’ve felt so much joy become a place of such hurt and despair. But one thing’s for sure: As soon as those borders open, we’ll be packing our bags and heading back once again.

With that in mind, fill your dreams with these visions: We’ll eat in the trattorias of Ostuni. We’ll drink espresso in the cafes of Matera. We’ll celebrate weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and more with boats on the waters of the Amalfi. We’ll gaze at the mountaintops of the alps from the harbour in Bellagio, and we’ll swim in the hazy, turquoise waters of Polignano a Mare. These places and their people—warm, welcoming, passionate, irreplaceable—are our friends and most trusted local advisers.

They rely on travel; it’s their lifeblood, and it supports their communities. As the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) put it in its 2019 Economic Impact report, “Yet again, the strong economic performance of travel and tourism proves the power of the sector as a tool for governments to generate prosperity while creating jobs around the world.” A massive 319 million people across the globe rely on tourism. That is one in nine (or 50 million) jobs, and these are not jobs in the abstract. They’re the jobs of every hotel concierge, boat driver, and bartender in Italy, but also that acclaimed sushi chef in Tokyo, that expert guide on the isles of Lake Titicaca, that housekeeping manager in the Seychelles, and so many others in between. We must ask ourselves the difficult question: How can we enjoy their homes if their homes are hollowed out?

NOW IS THE TIME TO PLAN YOUR TRAVEL WISH LIST

We will travel again. And when we’re finally released from our self- and government-imposed isolations, we’ll feel the urge to travel like never before. We’re going to need a vacation, and the world will still be there as long as we look after it and support it.

Why not dream big for when that day finally comes? Dream up a journey that will transform and immerse you—whether that involves an inspiring physical feat like the ascent of Kilimanjaro or time spent learning about sustainable, local agriculture and traditional cooking in Peru from the people who practice those very lifeways. Think of a trip that will, in some small way, counterbalance the drama and uncertainty of these recent months, and chart a path ahead for the rest of your life. You don’t have to go all out, but you don’t have to go home either. That desire to travel—and to travel differently, roundly, and well—will always be there. Answer the call.

Revamp your bucket list. What of the wilds of Argentine Patagonia? A place of jaw-dropping, near-hallucinogenic beauty. Come the 14th of December, we hope to set up a luxury camp in one of its most dramatic, secret spots to enjoy the solar eclipse beneath one of the most spectacular skies in the world. What better way to shake off the cramp and smallness of isolation than to celebrate the magical world at our fingertips?

Or what of India—particularly during Diwali, its Festival of Lights. Taking place this year on the 14th of November, this enchanting, enriching celebration is a riot of colour and sensuality. Picture every street washed in light; the Diwali fireworks, along with golden, bobbing lanterns filling the sky above the silhouette of the Mewar and Mughal-era City Palace. This vibrant and vast country, with so much to explore and experience, is perhaps one of the world’s most remarkable and otherworldly locations.

And – closer to home – the European mainland may currently be going through incredible turmoil, but you can help stitch together the cities of Budapest, Prague, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, and more in the most romantic fashion. Celebrate the 250th birthday of Beethoven in his home country; tour the chocolate factories and beer cellars of historic Brussels; stimulate every sense with a tour through the South of France. This is an opportunity to experience just how diverse and distinctive each of the world’s many countries are, and the best way to say good riddance to the borders that currently hold us apart.

This much is true: Though our borders are closed today, they will open again. We have seen the world, and we will see it again. But for now, let’s continue talking and sharing. Let’s make sure we show care and solidarity along with the communities, people, and places where we’ve been, and for those we are dreaming of from the solitude of quarantine. Place by place, and face by face, we’ll find that connection again—if we commit, responsibly and passionately, to doing so.

Tom Marchant is the co-founder of luxury travel company and trip planner Black Tomato, which delivers high-touch experiences around the world via inspiring itineraries and access to the globe’s up-and-coming, exclusive, and remote destinations.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in US Harper’s Bazaar.