COVID-19's economic impact on travel is matched only by the existential impact on the modern traveler. In a sign of the desperation of both, several airlines and cruise ship companies have been offering trips to… nowhere.
In Australia, Japan and Taiwan, passengers can book a flight that takes off and lands at the same airport for a scenic cruise in a cramped seat. Hong Kong's budget carrier HK Express recently joined the trend, with a flight carrying 110 passengers that circles the island before returning to the airport 90 minutes later. Royal Caribbean also plans to resume sailing in Asia with three and four-night "Ocean Getaways' for Singapore residents, at a reduced capacity of 50%.
There are of course no illusions that any of this can fill the void in either people's souls or travel company bank accounts. But the symbolism (and P.R.) of boarding these flights of fancy has apparently provided some sense of comfort.
But as someone in the "born traveler" category, I cannot help but wonder why. Having traveled with my boyfriend in a campervan across Europe for 14 months, I can tell you that, yes, it was the journey (driving through the fjords in Norway or the Carpathian Mountains in Romania) but also the destinations (Copenhagen, Sarajevo or Tallinn). I treasured the passing hours (and days) in our van we called Foxy, but it would have been rather meaningless to drive across the continent without having places to go.
Traveling is not just about hitting the road. It's the anticipation of discovering something new, planning your itinerary and the excitement growing as you get closer to your destination — and then finally plunging into the new playground of your next adventure.
Still, the current exceptional circumstances seems to be pushing people to the extremes of take-what-you-can-get. Qantas' scenic seven-hour flight around Australia sold out within 10 minutes, the fastest selling ticket in the airlines' history. "So many of our frequent fliers (...) have been telling us they miss the experience of flying as much as the destinations themselves," Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas told the The New York Times.
Still, Katherine Wei, writing in the Singapore-based The Straits Times, described her experience on a "moongazing" flight to nowhere in Taiwan. "There was no real destination to get to, which is really the best part about traveling. Because of this, I found the whole trip rather pointless."
The strict lockdown in my home country of France last spring meant our van (and the two of us) didn't get very far. We did have the good fortune this summer to visit Auvergne's volcanoes and explore the Pyrenees. Now, with the government introducing new restrictions of movement, it may be time to take Foxy for a quick spin — even if it means going back to where we started.