Holidaying in the aftermath of COVID-19

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Holidays are a strange topic to discuss at the moment. Where can we go? Should we go at all? What would the trip even look like? Our Editor-in-Chief Amy Cartledge recently travelled to Cinque Terre, northern Italy to find out how one of the worst affected regions of, what was at one time the worst affected country in the world, is slowly coming back from COVID-19.

Never did I think I would arrive at a hostel and have my temperature taken. Yet it is 2020, and it has certainly been a year of change.

After climbing several flights of stairs, sweating bullets, I did not expect to be confronted by a woman in a mask and UV thermometer. Alarmingly, but unsurprisingly, when she took my temperature, the machine made a threatening beeping noise and flashed red.

It was, after all, about 28 degrees outside and I had just schlepped up four flights of stairs with a heavy weekend bag. But still. What was I going to do now? Wait to cool down and try again? Then what if my temperature doesn’t go down? Do I, in fact, have coronavirus? Have I just travelled on a social distanced but still busy train only to inadvertently infect hundreds of people?

Turns out, whether or not the three of us who “flashed red” had coronavirus was of little importance. The hostel volunteer still ushered us inside, masks on and hand gel out.

This was not going to be the first moment of apathy toward COVID-19 measures this weekend. Yet, it certainly was the most surprising. We had failed the first test — but here we were, entering the hostel anyway.

Hostel life during COVID-19

We were told to keep our masks on, follow the one-way system around the hostel, we had a bathroom to ourselves et cetera, et cetera. Apprehensive, we were unsure what to expect from a situation which is, fundamentally, a hive of infectious disease.

Although each group was allocated a room to themselves, we all crushed onto the one balcony for a cigarette — no masks, sharing lighters, filters, snacks and a spare beer here and there. In this first hostel in Genoa, a large city on north-western coast of Italy, we encountered people from all over the world.

One of the hostel workers, a French student living and studying in Edinburgh, had decided to fly out to work there just three weeks previous. Another, an older man from Seattle, had been trapped in Europe since lockdown happened. One Argentinian man was permanently based in Milan, coming to Genoa for a few days’ worth of holiday before returning to his workaway.

It was an interesting group – a man from Cuba, a Brazilian, a woman from Germany, a man from Bordeaux. Plus, us four British and Irish workers from Nice. They had all either relocated to Italy prior to lockdown, and taken the brave (read, only) option to stay. Or, like our travelling cohort, had opted to take advantage of Italy opening its borders on June 3rd.

Technically, there is nothing legally wrong with this. Yet looking at how far each person had travelled, where they had come from, all the people we had crossed and were crossing along the way, was a difficult truth to ignore.

Édouard, the hostel worker, was incredibly relaxed. “It has been different, but not stressful. I’m young, everyone who works here is too, and so is everyone who visits. It’s not an excuse, but it’s something. I’m here for another five weeks. I guess we’ll see how it goes.”

Bars, restaurants and cafés

Genoa is relatively museum-free. Culture seems based around the very small old town, which in recent decades has been swamped by the industrial port that overrides the typical landscape you’d expect of an Italian city. This meant that, for the few hours we were there before travelling down the coast, there was little to do but drink.

Of course, the climate allowed for relative drinking ease. Terraces were open but socially distanced, so other guests were rarely crossed. Masks had to be worn inside. Follow the one-way system. Use hand gel upon entering. A certainly monotonous, albeit crucial, cycle.

Revelling in the cheap(ish) prices, even cheaper tobacco and overall great company of our fellow travellers, the atmosphere would not suggest we had all just experienced the single most unprecedented event in our lives. There it was again — morally, should we be enjoying ourselves when the country’s death toll stands at 34,889 deaths?

One bar worker, a Venezuelan who had moved to Genoa a year before, spoke of his experience in the aftermath of COVID-19 with a poignant simplicity.

“What can I say? Tourists are always going to come back whether it’s safe or not.”

Why so many American voices?

Briefly in Genoa, the next day we travelled to Riomaggiore, a small Italian town about two hours down the coast. It happens to be just a few hours by train away from Lombardy, the once epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. A place that people had described as like a bomb had gone off.

Part of the Cinque Terre National Park, Riomaggiore attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year. So why was it that, despite stringent travel restrictions and case numbers rapidly rising in the country, so many Americans were there?

We heard the accent on the labyrinthine streets of the city, on the coastal paths of the park, on the beaches, in the bars and restaurants. Of course, they could be living here in Europe. But the number of them was overwhelming. I went as far to check flights from the US or Canada to Europe and back. Nothing; so, were they also enjoying the open borders, every American migrant in Europe convening in one place for the weekend?

Holidaying in the aftermath of COVID-19

In the hostel in Rio, again, we came together as another large group of travellers from various corners of Europe. Many were Italian nationals, exploring parts of the country they had never thought to do so before. Given the intense coverage of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, a naïve part of me expected to see some kind of reluctance to holiday and wind down from those that we met. Like everyone else, they discussed the crisis as if it were a distant memory from this haven perched by the coast.

This is where the problem lay for me. Restaurants ran as normal. Bars and cafés too. Despite social distancing measures, it was a calm and overall wonderful experience travelling once again. Yet, it was all too soon for me.

People were friendly, a slight tinge of wariness with each cough, with each movement too close to them, every furtive glance hidden by the blue cloth. Public transport did well to keep up with social distancing measures. Rarely was it that we sat close to another group or were forced to cross many people. However, tourists and holidaymakers intrinsically do not come under the umbrella of essential travel.

The future of the tourism industry

When googling “holiday COVID 19 what to expect” an array of government websites pop up explaining the legal parameters of how tourists can go abroad. The odd article outlines certain destinations to visit, where will be quiet and where precisely British citizens can go without self-isolating. Yet few have written on those working in the industry, and those taking part in jaunts abroad.

According to Statista, 100.8 million people working in the tourism industry will lose their job before 2020 is out. It seems an inherent problem that governments have not thought to tackle — this aforementioned “distant memory of coronavirus” is what the industry can hope to profit from. In turn, the apathy displayed and different whims of travellers will only put key industry workers at increased risk.