To say that 2020 was not a great year to be a travel writer is an understatement. The very career that involves moving around freely, conversing with new people and finding inspiration in foreign places is definitely not compatible with an unprecedented global pandemic. But here we are, at the end of a year of non-travel and I’m somehow still claiming to be a travel writer and blogger. So, how does that work exactly? Here’s my reflection on the year that most of us would rather forget.
When I look back at my life before 2020, it now seems to exist in a sort-of parallel universe. I’ve spent most of the last six years living in and out of a backpack, with just enough time at home in between trips to save money but never long enough to get too restless. In fact, I spent the entire of 2019 travelling full time, mostly in remote corners of Asia and off the beaten track countries from Bhutan to Iran.
I only arrived back home in time for Christmas at the end of 2019 to enjoy my first Aussie summer at home in years. Then at the beginning of the new decade that was initially so full of hope, we all know what happened next. Like everyone else, it turned out to be very different from what I had hoped.
Then and now
When I was travelling in 2019, I spent my spare time pitching exciting travel stories to publications, compiling notes I had taken from conversations with people I met and worrying about the strength of the Wi-Fi so I could somehow send high-res photos to editors. I sat at my laptop in a different room every few days and sometimes at cafes with views that stretched across the snow-capped Himalayas. It’s certainly a far cry from what my life looks like right now.
At the start of 2020, I had high hopes for the year ahead, like so many people. I decided to give this ‘freelance’ thing a go properly and I thought 2020 was going to be my year to work it all out. I wanted to work on building this blog up to reach a bigger audience and I wanted to continue writing travel stories for various publications and websites from around the world. But, here’s what actually happened…
Lockdown at home
As COVID took hold back in March last year and we were forced into an ongoing lockdown in Melbourne, I definitely wondered what that might mean for not only my work but my entire life. My freedom has been something that I have relished and exercised as much as possible over the last few years. The independence to move and explore new places has defined my entire existence, and that sense of freedom seemed to all but disappear overnight. I definitely had days in lockdown when I questioned my choice to build my life around travel.
Because, who is a travel writer if they can’t actually travel?
I’ve got travel stories that will likely go unpublished now and any ideas I had for future trips have all been shelved indefinitely. However, if my years of travelling have taught me anything, it’s to be flexible and to expect the unexpected and there are always ways to adapt.
So, with that mindset, I decided to just put my head down and keep doing what I had originally planned to do (even if that meant doing it all from the dining table at home instead of somewhere more exotic). And that meant continuing to put myself out there as a ‘travel writer’, despite the ongoing restrictions around the world preventing me to actually do the travel part.
Productivity vs procrastination
So, with a year of non-travel and plenty of time to actually get things done, I’ve managed to be somewhat productive (and I mean that very loosely, there was plenty of procrastinating in between sentences).
I’ve been able to build a bigger content writing portfolio for a range of websites, which is something I wouldn’t have considered even a couple of years ago. It’s certainly been surprising that I’ve managed to maintain some travel writing contracts that I had before COVID, and even picked up new ones during lockdown.
Of course, I’ve also lost some work over this time with many people and companies losing their income and the travel industry all but grinding to a halt the world over. But it worked in some kind of way that when I lost a client I somehow managed to pick up a new one.
That’s not to mean that I made a lot of money in 2020. But no one actively decides to be a travel writer expecting to make a lot of money anyway! However, I have learnt that there is money to be made in the travel industry, even during the height of a pandemic, just not necessarily a lot of it. And I suspect it’s going to be a while before publications and websites return to their pre-COVID budgets.
But this has also given me time to work on other projects such as this travel blog which is usually neglected when I’m moving from place to place. My blog has actually had its best year to date, with visitors per month increasing fivefold in 2020 compared to 2019.
There’s a lesson to be learnt: people may not be travelling, but they’re still reading about it and looking for inspiration for the future.
I also had time to watch too much Netflix, bake, run, walk, watch sunsets from the backyard and drink wine. So it wasn’t all that bad at home in Melbourne.
My desire for freedom
At the end of the day, I feel very lucky to be riding the pandemic out in Australia, while other countries have been impacted far more severely. However, the lack of freedom has undoubtedly been something that I’ve had to contend with (tears were shed when lockdown 2.0 was announced). I definitely recognise my privilege in that I was able to be in lockdown in a comfortable home, but I still found myself staring out the window over my laptop screen letting my mind drift off to faraway places which I would otherwise have been.
For a while, we were restricted to just a 5km radius from our homes in metropolitan Melbourne. We all got used to this so-called hard border between regional and metro Victoria; a border that I usually experienced between two different countries rather than within my own state. Although I live in a more rural-type setting with nature and hills at my front door, a lot of that still seemed too far away.
On my daily exercise during lockdown, I caught myself gazing towards the surrounding hills with a sense of longing that some people reserve for an ex-lover. I so badly wanted my freedom back, to be able to go and spend days in nature, even if it wasn’t necessarily somewhere new.
I just wanted to return to the freedom that I had not appreciated enough before.
So the first thing I did when we were allowed to move freely again within Victoria was to dust the cobwebs off the old van and backpack and hit the road heading for the coast. But it wasn’t just enough for me to explore some new places again. I longed for the extreme sense of freedom that I had missed so badly, which is why I headed out to complete the 104km trail of the Great Ocean Walk over six days.
Although I’d spent so much time in lockdown by myself, it was nothing compared to the feeling of being able to simplify your life down to putting one foot in front of the other with everything that you needed on your own back. The six-day multiday hike was the best thing I could have done after spending months within the same four walls.
So, what now?
So, what now? What happens to travel now, in 2021 and beyond? Of course, no one really knows the answer but here’s my two cents. Firstly, the travel industry is certainly hurting but it’s definitely not dead. My journey through foreign lands in 2019 is almost like a distant memory now, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t travelled. I was at least able to explore the Grampians, Wilsons Prom, the Great Ocean Road and more of the Yarra Ranges in 2020 (all in my home state), which I’m so appreciative to have had the chance to do.
Most of my life over the past few years has been focused on foreign countries, but now I’ve been forced to focus on my own for a change. Instead of planning my next overseas trip, I’m busy thinking about exploring different parts of Australia. Even where I live in the Yarra Valley is a major tourist destination and I’m starting to appreciate what my home region has to offer and how I might be able to use that to fuel inspiration.
Life as a travel writer in 2021 is still going to look very different compared to a pre-COVID world – and that might not be the worst thing. It’s going to be about looking for the adventure near rather than far, road-tripping rather than flying, going slow and staying local. And, none of that is a bad thing, in fact, it’s a more sustainable way of travelling after all.
Secondly, as a travel writer, I still hope to be able to jet off to another foreign country soon enough. My heart hurts for all the people around the world who rely on tourism for their livelihood. I think often about the people I’ve met over the years; the guesthouse owners, the farmers, the shop keepers, the waiters, the hostel managers, everyone and anyone who showed me even a little kindness. The long-term challenges for the global travel industry and the loss of livelihoods for so many people are going to take many years to recover. Lonely Planet has already declared that undertourism is the new challenge for many countries.
But at least, as a travel writer, I’ll be the first one to encourage people to get back out there when it’s safe, to help the local businesses and communities hit hard by this virus and to take more conscious, sustainable and mindful trips in the future.
But for now, travel writing for me is going to be all about finding the adventure in the near rather than the far, and I’m okay with that.