Can’t travel because of Covid-19? There’s always the inner journey

Unthinkable: The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for armchair tourism, says philosopher Emily Thomas

Prof Emily Thomas: ‘There’s a long history of arguing that armchair travel is better than real-world travel.’

This week normally sees legions of holiday-makers rushing to the ports and airports for an Easter getaway. But that’s all changed. Countless short breaks have been cancelled, and summer holidays look doubtful too, with the coronavirus pandemic yet to peak.

Are people missing out by being stuck at home?

Yes and no, says Emily Thomas, assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University, England and author of The Meaning of Travel (Oxford University Press).

“As soon as you step out into an unfamiliar place, the world hits with you all kinds of information: new sights, languages, foods, smells. Processing all that can lead to dramatic jumps in understanding (and) help you shake assumptions you didn’t even realise you were making,” says Thomas whose book engagingly explores an at time baffling human custom.


René Descartes' travels "helped him to become more open minded", she argues, and Edmund Burke gaped at mountains to appreciate the sublime.

But staying put has its advantages too, and Thomas – who proclaims to enjoy “getting lost around the world” – acknowledges the merits of “virtual” travel against the backdrop of culturally and environmentally damaging mass tourism. “All capitals are just alike,” moaned Jean-Jacques Rousseau – long before Ryanair brought in all the hen parties.

Thomas, who – handily in this Brexit-era – has grandparents from Cork and Offaly, cites the growth of “doom tourism” as a particularly worrying trend. There is a new marketing of “places to see before they vanish”, like Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef, yet visiting such sites increases their at-risk status.

People need to think about travelling sustainability, says Thomas, this week’s Unthinkable guest. “You want to see the rainbow, not destroy it.”

Being a tourist is an odd predicament. You queue a lot, you take selfies, you spend lots of money. What’s the point exactly?

Emily Thomas: “Different people enjoy different parts of being a tourist. I love finding the new, the novel. Others focus on learning history, taking Instagrammable pictures, trying local foods.

“I suspect the worldwide growth in tourism is partly fuelled by the now-established psychological research showing that experiences bring more happiness than possessions. It’s possible to avoid spending tourist dollars on souvenirs entirely, pouring it all into sightseeing and eating exotic treats.”

What’s the best trip you’ve been on?

“I’ve spent several years backpacking by myself, through parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas. The long trips were the best. The aloneness made them harder, and I was forever getting lost, but it also helped me to absorb more. My favourite place remains Antartica. It was dazzling, icily alien, and as close as I will ever come to leaving planet Earth.”

The tourism industry assumes freedom of movement. But can we assume that freedom will remain?

“Freedom of movement is a privilege. When Western tourism got going during the so-called Age of Discovery, it was mostly for the wealthy elite. Today, many more people can travel, but not everyone. Although I hope this privilege lasts, and more people come to enjoy it, I do worry about the future.

“On the one hand, our planet is changing rapidly – Covid-19 has led to unprecedented travel restrictions. On the other hand, tourism has been going for centuries, surviving wars and natural disasters, so there’s reason to believe it is resilient.

“On very hopeful days I wonder if space tourism will open up to the masses in my lifetime, but this may remain science fiction forever.”

Is there a way of getting some of the benefits of travel while staying at home?

“Definitely – armchair travel has been around for as long as tourism, and for good reason. Humans are always going to be curious about the world, and there are many ways of learning about it: reading travel books; studying maps; watching documentaries.

“There’s a long history of arguing that armchair travel is better than real-world travel: it’s safer, and you can research cultures in depth rather than skimming the surface. Socrates once said, ‘you can lead me all over Attica or anywhere else you like simply by waving in front of me the leaves of a book’.”

Have you tried “virtual” travel yourself?

“Virtual reality tourism may become popular in the future, and it may allow us to do things we can’t do in real life: climb the Pyramids, or fly around the Eiffel Tower. Personally, I’m drawn to video games involving travel. In walking games like Firewatch you can hike through wilderness; in open-world games like the Elder Scrolls or Witcher you can explore mountains, moors, high seas. It’s a different form of travel but, to my mind, it’s still travel.”

Greta Thunberg says "everyone is a climate change denier" – a comment that alludes to our continued addiction to air travel. Can flying away for a holiday be justified anymore?

“I’m in awe of Greta Thunberg, and bloody delighted she’s put climate change under the spotlight it deserves. I don’t feel conflicted about travel generally, which can simply involve walking or riding buses. I do feel increasingly conflicted about air travel.

“As an academic, international travel is an expected part of my job, and flying certainly seems inescapable. I think carbon offsetting is part of the answer: compensating for, say, the carbon footprint of a flight by funding tree planting elsewhere. But I worry it’s not enough.

“Years ago, I signed up to the British Philosophical Association’s business travel guidelines, and one of its suggestions is to avoid short-stay, single-purpose high-emissions travel. So rather than fly to the USA for a single, three-day conference, I always stay longer, chaining multiple conferences with archive visits. But perhaps these business travel expectations will change further.”

Ask a sage:

Where exactly can you go during the Covid-19 crisis?

TS Eliot replies:

We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.