I am a career travel journalist. I have encouraged people to explore the world for nearly 25 years. Over the last six months, however, our planet pressed pause; the idea of exploration has become irresponsible at best and, in some cases, forbidden. For my part — even though 2020 has meant no work — I agree with pressing pause on travel. More accurately, I agree with rethinking travel.
To prepare for a cycling trip along the Croatian coast last month, I stretched a map across the desk in my apartment in Zagreb, the country’s capital. The route along the D8 motorway, which hugs the contours of the Adriatic Sea’s indented shore, didn’t look challenging. Immediately to the west of the red line, which the map’s legend called a main road, a string of more than 1,000 barrier islands would pace the journey. To the east of the path, topographic marks indicated the rise of the Dinaric Alps.
On paper, however, the world is flat — as was my trip-planning. Two dimensions don’t account for the unexpected and the discomfort. The ride became a metaphor for my year thus far.
My actual journey on a bicycle laden with gear at the Balkan Peninsula’s western edge was anything but flat. Each day I climbed thousands of feet with craggy limestone mountains above and sheer cliffs below. Sweat puddled in my sunglasses. The islands turned into mirages in the heat. The sun burned my arms, neck, and nose. Just a few days in, the simple question: How would I roll with my negligent trip-planning algorithm?
During the hours on the bike saddle, I brooded and then released. I contemplated the concept of travel and debated my relationship with the future of tourism. The open road was a place to ruminate on months of pandemic-epoch isolation and craft a new mindset.
The result of this inner dialogue: It was time to understand why (or, perhaps, if) travel should be important to me. What I needed was a fresh perspective about what it means to experience — and write about — new places. Through this investigation, I embraced a version of my inner Emily Dickinson and realized: I like to travel, but I don’t deserve to travel.
I live in Croatia. During normal times, I travel between European locales, research story angles, interview sources, pitch ideas to magazines, and live on a timetable governed by editorial calendars and deadlines. This March, my focus shifted from assignments, which were either cancelled or put on hold, to — like all of us — making the best of the situation.
Between quasi-drunken zoom gatherings, half-heartedly teaching myself guitar, and almost meditating, I made a pact with myself: I will no longer cover mindless travel stories. I won’t write articles that, even tangentially, promote mass tourism. I won’t cover destinations that tout visitor numbers over preserving natural resources.
Whenever possible, I will write pieces that align with cultural responsibility and self-locomotion — such as trekking, walking, and, yes, cycling routes — rather than car travel. Report after report has shown these types of travel will bounce back first. The reason, I believe, is because we inherently gravitate to real tourism that puts communities first. We see the best of ourselves in it. We learn about ourselves from it.
Image: Ziga Koren
What I realized — again using myself as the example — is that travel had become too easy. I had taken tourism for granted. I had fallen for the societal hoodwinking that I deserved to hold travel up as a mirror to peacock and watch myself grow as I counted the countries conquered. However, as most old school travel writers were taught, a journalist’s job is to report as if looking through a window, not into a mirror. If that window is dirty from years of egoism, it is time to press pause and clean it.
To this end, this column, “Future Travel,” will take a closer look at destinations celebrating authentic experiences. Rather than cheap trinkets and conveyor belt tours, I want thick coffee cooked on an iron stove in a remote village. I want to smell fresh-baked bread as the sun breaks over the mountains and illuminates the kitchen table at a locally run B&B while I gather my gear for the day’s trek. I’m seeking conversations with sustainability-focused old timers who teach a new generation to protect the fragility of the nature-culture balance.
I am not discouraging travel; I make a living from it. I am, though, asking myself to be more mindful, more compassionate. The future of travel depends on a collective understanding that the world and reality are not flat. I have no choice but to respect the unexpected.
Alex Crevar is a travel journalist and contributing editor at Paste Travel. He lives in Zagreb, Croatia.