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‘Travel is good for the soul’ — how limitations on our movement affects us psychologically

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The flights and jabs were booked, my backpack was ready to go. “So long mundane, working life,” thought pre-pandemic me, “I’m off to see the world.” But then, just a couple of weeks before I was due to fly to South America, well, you can guess what happened next.

Cancelling my year abroad was a necessary decision given the impracticality of country-hopping during a pandemic, but a crushing one nonetheless. It’s left me feeling conflicted – and I’m not the only one forced to give fresh consideration to the social and environmental consequences an international adventure might have.

With the biggest global health crisis in living memory affecting almost every aspect of our lives, attitudes towards travel are changing. For some that means itchy feet and a feeling of malaise caused by ever-changing travel restrictions; for others, the pandemic has completely shifted attitudes towards holidaying and adventure. Visiting far-flung destinations is no longer something to boast about on social media, but a potential trigger for guilt and anxiety.

According to Dr Michael Brein, a travel psychologist and former professor at the University of Maryland, it is no surprise that some of us are feeling gloomy about it all. “Travel is just about the single most human experience that we can have, because it’s a unique opportunity to make new connections with other people and other cultures,” he explains.

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Tourists in the Greek resort of Agios Nikitas on the island of Lefkada, Greece. We are missing making connections through travel (Photo: Getty Images)
Tourists in the Greek resort of Agios Nikitas on the island of Lefkada, Greece. We are m issing making connections through travel (Photo: Getty)
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Feelings of grief — and guilt

“With Covid-19, making those connections has become more difficult, and so what we are experiencing is a kind of grieving process.”

Modern travel has evolved to signify excess and luxury – which may help to explain the recent rise in travel shaming social stigma attached to holidays during a time of pandemic.

One friend tells me she kept a recent holiday to Spain “secret from pretty much everyone I know. Normally it would be all over Instagram, but I was too scared people would judge me for it.”

Another recently passed up the opportunity to go to Greece, and will not be considering a foreign honeymoon for her 2021 wedding. “I don’t think it would be worth quarantining and I generally don’t see travel as a priority right now. Hopefully I can do that in the future when I wouldn’t feel guilty about it.”

Our changing social attitudes towards travel can be traced back to “our instinctive need to be liked”, Dr Brein suggests. “Let’s face it, travel is about bragging rights – I’ve done something you would love to do. But Covid-19 is putting a dampener on that – travellers are suddenly seen as exposing themselves to negative risk.”

Travel is written into our DNA

Scientifically speaking, our desire to travel is not selfish – a growing body of evidence suggests it is deep-rooted within the human psyche, dating as far back as early human existence when nomadic tribes explored across land and sea for new resources. Even today, in Australian Aboriginal culture, among others, it is traditional for young people to embark on their own wilderness tour to mark their coming-of-age.

“Some researchers are searching for the ‘wanderlust gene’ – maybe there is such a thing, but I think travel is tied to psychological needs,” says Dr Brein.

Travel broadens the mind, whether by visiting the Acropolis in Athens or encountering wildlife (Photo: Getty Images)
Travel broadens the mind, whether by visiting the Acropolis in Athens or encountering wildlife (Photo: Getty)

Travel broadens us because we learn by our successes. When you’re in a new place you are having all kinds of new and exciting experiences: communicating in a different language, ordering a meal, visiting museums – all stimulate intellectual interests and increases our confidence and sense of self-worth.”

Travel is believed to play an important role in creativity and problem solving, too. When researchers at the University of Indiana asked two groups of people to solve a series of practical and logistical puzzles, those who were told the task had been set by students from Greece – as opposed to students closer to home – found more creative solutions on account of the “psychological distance” introduced.

It’s one of the reasons why the co-author of the study, Lile Jia, who is now a professor at the National University of Singapore, believes Covid-19 could be responsible for a drop in our creativity levels. “Travelling can create psychological distance between the person and the problems he or she faces at work or in daily life. This allows them to view the same problems from a different perspective that is conducive to creating unusual creative associations,” he explains.

Exposure to diverse experiences and cultures can have a lasting effect, increasing creativity in the long run, he adds. “Hence, prolonged travel restriction limits people’s opportunity to sample novel life experiences and, subsequently, reduces potential to become a more creative person in general.”

Given the benefits and joy to be taken from travel, it seems unlikely that the Covid-19 pandemic will leave lasting damage to our willingness to go abroad. Experts do believe that the way in which we go about travel could change more permanently, however.

Milly Whitehead is the co-founder and director of The Leap, a travel company specialising in sustainable gap-year programmes for groups of all ages. In her experience, there is still “huge demand for travel in 2020” albeit mostly among younger clients.

Etosha National Park in Namibia (Photo: Getty Images)
Etosha National Park in Namibia (Photo: Getty)

“They are prepared to take the risk – and it’s a quantified risk,” she says. “But while the gapper of yesterday wanted to go on an Asian tour or South American journey, jumping from country to country, they can’t do that anymore. So they are adapting their plans and interests.”

Whitehead believes one fall-out from the pandemic is that it will become more common for people to travel to one place for longer, for example.

“And that is a positive. You could spend months in one country and have a more rewarding, authentic experience that is also better for the planet,” she says.

Travel is not just a luxury or whim – it’s good for the soul, it’s good for mental health, good to experience other cultures. So I hope that travel – sensible, responsible travel – will recover.”

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