THINKING BACK: Past, present and future

Like everyone else, I know where I was when it happened. On the morning of September 11, 2001, shortly after 9 am I was driving south on Highway 400 just outside Toronto. Conversely, other than that I was in Florida, and it was January 2020, I have no idea when I first heard the words ‘coronavirus’, or ‘COVID 19’ or even ‘pandemic’. 2,977 people were killed in the tragedy now known as 9-11. As of this morning, September 11, 2020, there are 909,927 (and still counting) people dead from COVID-19.

This is not a comparison of catastrophes. Every life is precious, every death is a devastating loss, especially to loved ones left behind. What I find interesting is our response as individuals to such events.

With 9-11 the impact was immediate and emotional. We actually saw those planes heading into the towers, we saw the explosion of smoke and flames, we saw the towers collapse, the smoke, the ash, the people fleeing the buildings. Later we saw dazed people searching for their loved ones, we saw the signs and pictures on the rails of Trinity Church on Wall Street. We saw the tears. Perhaps we even shed them. We saw the first responders. We heard the sirens – the unending wail of firetrucks and ambulances.

We learned that another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, brought down during heroic attempts by the passengers and crew to take control from the terrorists. We learned US airports were closed and flights diverted – many to Canada. We learned the words, ‘Al-Qaeda’.

We watched and watched and watched.

At that time 36,000 to 40,000 flights took off daily in the US. All planes were grounded and no flights were allowed into US airspace.

On September 13, civilian air traffic resumed. Airport security was stricter, knives (the hijackers had used ‘box-cutters’) were no longer allowed on board, cockpit doors were gradually reinforced and as time went on more and more safety and security regulations were enforced.

Travel and tourism were hard hit. Demand dropped and the winter (traditionally high season) of 2001 was a washout. The years that immediately followed saw many companies involved in travel – wholesale, retail or aviation, being sold, consolidated or closed. It was not the best of times.

The bust had preceded 9-11. SARS followed it – a big issue especially in Canada for the 2002-03 winter season. In 2008 there was a global financial crisis, then along came the H1N1 Swine Flu, followed by Ebola, MERS and Zika. In the midst of all this, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted shutting down European airspace for several days and affecting approximately 10 million passengers.

The industry survived it all, coming back stronger as people’s desire and need to travel, both for business and pleasure, outweighed the issues of cramped seating, higher prices, surcharges for fuel, currency, extra bags, meals … whatever.

And then came COVID-19.

There are some comparisons to 9-11 but then there are none. If that sounds weird – it is what it is.

9-11 was a visceral hit. It happened in front of us in real time (or in unending reruns). It was dramatic, breathtaking, powerful, sensational – all of that. Even if you knew no one on those planes or in those towers, you could feel the horror and anguish unfolding in front of you.

COVID crept up on us. A strange flu in Wuhan that was apparently hugely contagious and was spreading to other countries. Not all countries reacted the same way. Some responded immediately instituting various travel protocols, warning citizens to return home, and advising social distancing, the wearing of masks and washing of hands.

Once again, we watched. We watched tragic scenes of people on respirators, sobbing relatives, exhausted health care workers, bodies being loaded into vans. But the impact – while initially shocking – was different. As tragic as these scenes are, as horrific as the news is – and both are devastating – unless we know someone, unless we are personally impacted, we often seem to be somewhat removed from the reality of the truth of it all.

Sure, many of us wear masks, social distance, bump elbows (though Namaste is much smarter), but we are also more casual.

Even those of us not going to wild parties, or political rallies, or crowded beaches seem to have relaxed our vigilance.

We meet friends on patios, in restaurants, sit side by side on park benches. We visit friends without masks. We are opening schools. Are most of us just not that afraid anymore? We’ve lived with it all year, perhaps humans cannot maintain that high level of tension for that amount of time.

So, the big question is, are we ready to travel?

Perhaps. The industry certainly hopes we are. Realistically however, travel is likely to increase only slowly this winter season.

Where will Canadians travel? Some will certainly choose to revisit their favourite destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico. River cruising is seen as a safe alternative to a number of travellers who mention not just smaller numbers and easier distancing, but the sheer tranquility and peace of the experience after a chaotic year. Ocean cruising has taken a huge hit, but people love those big cruise ships and have short memories, so with some obvious social distancing and safety measures … expect them back.

As for Canadian snowbirds who usually head south to the US – this may be the year you actually see snow.

For those of us in travel and tourism it has been a devastating year. For the airlines, the cruise lines, the tour operators, hotels, transportation companies, the theme parks and attractions, the destinations, and those who represent them, and the travel media – for us all – it has been brutal.

But most of all for travel agents and those who work in tourism-related call centres. For those who have been laid off, or permanently let go, and just as much for those who have worked tirelessly to help their clients. They have navigated the rapids of cancelled reservations, insurance issues, credits over refunds, and borne the brunt of frustrated, angry clients lashing out at the very people working hardest on their behalf.

These frontline workers are the backbone of this industry and we owe them a huge debt.

On this day as we cannot help but reflect on the tragedy of September 11, 2001, let’s also give some serious thought to the time we are living in. Let’s have some consideration for the people around us. If we are going to travel, or sit in a restaurant, use public transportation, or buy groceries, please, please, wear a mask, wash your hands, social distance, if only to protect the men and women who selflessly put their lives on the line every day to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Let us also remember that people continue to be infected and continue to die. It could happen to our friends, our colleagues, to the people next door, to people across the country or around the globe. To those we know and those we don’t. It could happen to us. Be vigilant. Be safe.

It’s not over yet. As of this morning, 9,213 Canadians have died of COVID-19.

Source: Travel Industry Today
THINKING BACK: Past, present and future

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