An interview with our local partners in Panama
9th August 2021
When Tom, Mark and I started TravelLocal the options for booking a complex tailor-made trip were restrictive - one way or another you ended up in the arms of a bigger, more corporate travel brand than you had perhaps hoped for, and got a more generic holiday as a result.
Or you had to atomise everything, forced to book hotels through massive websites with too many pixels and not enough people. It all got a bit soulless.
This was always a cul-de-sac, one that would be exited once someone worked out how to combine online convenience with real human interaction, and a true commitment to ethics (lots of fine words on this subject in the travel industry). Reader, I confess this has been harder than we imagined... But TravelLocal is, as they say, “the change we want to see”, and meaningful change is hard.
Fast forward to now and the Covid-19 pandemic feels like a pivotal moment for our industry. I have set out some thoughts about what the new coronavirus has revealed about travel, and what the future might hold.
NB: There are many comment pieces out now writing about exactly this, and the customary conceit is that the future looks very much like the travel company that the writer would most like to promote. Where I cannot resist doing that I have indicated in brackets how TravelLocal is relevant - I am only human after all.
Now we know - all that talk about the effect that we have on local economies when we travel is true. We can see the void left behind when the travel industry shuts down. We thought travel was an important part of the global economy, and now we understand that, in many countries, it is the global economy. Perhaps we should rename it “the pangolin effect” to demonstrate just how intertwined travel makes us, for better and for worse. It may honour the pangolin too - an animal that deserves our respect.
Covid has made globalisation more real, visceral even. Something as benign to us as a holiday leads directly, in a bright straight line, to prosperity on the other side of the world. When the holidays stop, so does some of the prosperity. It is prosperity that pays for a vaccine to be developed, for hospitals everywhere to be built, and for the next generation of doctors to be trained. That is as true here as it is in Peru, or South Africa, or Cambodia.
A central conceit of the digital economy is that it is the fate of humans to have their civilisation eaten by their own invention - the computer - one job at a time. This has always felt to me like projection - “I have invested in some software to replace lawyers, so would quite like lawyers to lose their jobs”. It is a long-standing prediction for the travel industry, of course. One day, so the thinking goes, we may not even want to go to a destination at all, or meet anyone, or eat out, or go to a concert, or take some fresh air, or see an ancient ruin with our own eyes. Instead we will put on a headset and the world will come to us. There is a problem with this - nobody wants it. This may change, and the shareholders of Big Tech will smite me for my skepticism, but to my eyes the evidence thus far is not that technology will displace us, but that it will instead supplement us.
Covid has given us a good example of the limitations of technology and our need for human connection. The parts of the travel industry that seem to have come through with their reputations intact are those companies that retained actual real people to answer emails and phone calls from concerned - sometimes distressed - customers. Who could have possibly predicted that travellers in a pandemic might not find online FAQs reassuring?
Our brilliant local partners, alongside our fantastic customer team at HQ, are the ones that care for our travellers when crises happen. They make sure you get to the airport on time, book you the standby flight ticket, refund you the money you paid for things you couldn’t do and send you messages to check you’re OK once you are home. Forget, for a moment, that booking directly with local companies in your destination (such as our Brazilian partners pictured above) means a better, richer trip; or that supporting local entrepreneurs around the world, as distinct from large, corporate players is fair, equitable and good. It actually makes practical sense as well. Read our many reviews for corroboration.
For the foreseeable future, it all makes sense. Stay away from crowds, especially indoors, and cocoon yourself instead in a rural villa with no other human contact. (Full disclosure - this resembles what my family and I are doing in August). Is it really travel, though? It looks more like respite from a complex and chaotic year. This format may suit us now, and perhaps until there is a vaccine, or we accept we must live with the coronavirus, it may be what we all do. But I yearn for bustle, colour, spark, inspiration - above all, people. A lifetime of isolated holidays that look like a David Hockney painting teaches us nothing of note, apart from the myriad ways you can tile a swimming pool.
I think the rural villa bit will be retained - and rightly so - but that villas work best when there is a counterweight - experiences nearby, activities to try, culture to delve into.
(Disclosure: we are developing our own range of “villas with interest” in various countries around the world).
For the travel industry, climate change is no longer the “Far Enemy” - it’s all too close. We all need to be as focused on solving it (and mitigating the damage from it) as we have been with the pandemic. At TravelLocal we are evolving our own thinking on this. Why do we travel? What is its purpose? How does it affect the destination, in good ways and bad? What does it mean to be a “good travel company”?
Every travel company needs to embody an answer to those questions.
I think a big part of the answer must by necessity involve local people in the countries we visit. The vast majority of the world cannot trade their time for money on Zoom - those that work in travel are part of the greatest interaction of people and culture yet devised, and they need human contact to derive an income. If we travel in the right way - meaningfully, with consideration for the environment and people we encounter - the world is better off as a result. We are bound together by it - it strengthens us, and the trade it engenders contributes to the public health infrastructure the whole world has needed these past few months.
(Disclosure: this autumn we will announce our own initiative on carbon mitigation for all trips booked on the TravelLocal platform).
Perhaps you have your own thoughts and predictions? You will have to take our word for it that we are genuinely interested to hear from you about this. Email me directly (huw@travelLocal.com) and have your say.