What springs to your mind when you hear the word travel? For some, it might mean the cramped suburban trains and buses they use for commuting to work. Others may be reminded of having to wait in traffic and the snail-paced movement of vehicles near signals. But for free spirits, travel is nothing less than liberation. Just escaping somewhere to break the monotony of regular programmed life.
Like some other sectors, the travel industry bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also affected travellers psychologically, making them even more cautious as they plan that much-awaited getaway.
The pandemic forced us to act against the basic human desire to explore as we were asked to stay at home while governments across the world battled this invisible enemy. With only essential travel, that too with proper documents, allowed, what initially seemed interesting as a welcome break from the noise and chatter on the roads slowly changed into an eagerness to get out of the cage called home.
The initial days of the lockdown saw strict enforcement across the country with very limited vehicle movement. All public transport systems were stopped and there were several restrictions for both intra and inter state travel. More than 200 countries worldwide had also imposed travel restrictions of different severities.
However, as the lockdown started to get extended on a monthly basis, the curbs were slightly eased and soon vehicles were back on the road. Resumption of public transport, however, was graded, with some states, which were able to keep COVID under control, reopening first and others following suit later. Haryana reopened public transport in mid-May while government buses in Tamil Nadu were allowed to ply only in September.
The lockdown's impact was felt in the decline of air pollution, reminding us that our much enjoyed connectivity comes at the heavy price of environmental damage. There were even reports of people from nearby villages being able to see the majestic Himalayan ranges for the first time in decades due to the reduced air pollution.
Migrant travel woes
The pandemic's impact on nations and individuals was felt worldwide. However, the ones to be immediately affected were daily wagers. When their source of livelihood was locked down, many labourers, who were mostly migrants from villages in the same state or other states, tried to return home.
Due to the travel curbs and non-availability of transport, this huge reverse migration was often undertaken by foot. Stories of perilous journeys by migrants started to pour in from different parts of the country. Images of people carrying their belongings and children and walking for hundreds of kilometres shook the conscience of the nation. The government, on its part, operated special trains to aid the travel of these workers.
However, the reverse migration numbers were just too much to handle for the government machinery with long queues of people seen at stations across the country, waiting desperately for the chance to board trains. The government's lack of empathy also came under question when the already cash-strapped workers were charged for train travel.
Now that the number of COVID cases in the country has come down and with businesses restarting, nearly two-thirds of migrant workers have either returned to their workplaces or wish to do so. According to a collaborative study by organisations working for rural development published in August, 29 per cent of migrants, who had left for their villages, are now back in cities, while 45 per cent want to return.
No more free-spirited biking
Free spirits who see travel as a tool of freedom suffered a huge setback in 2020. From cross-country riders to mountain bikers, those seeking a getaway from their mundane lives were forced to live indoors for a good part of the year. The whole essence of tourism -- travelling to a new place and meeting new people -- was a huge no in the corona world. For people who love the outdoors, even if it's just a long weekend drive, staying at home was a bitter pill to swallow, which they had to endure for their own safety and that of others.
With the interstate and instrastate travel bans lifted, these travel enthusiasts have resumed their passion with extra attention to hygiene. Some states have issued guidelines for visiting tourist spots. In Tamil Nadu, tourists are required to e-register with valid IDs to visit travel hotspots like Kodaikanal and Ooty.
Travellers in the corona world were introduced to the 'demon' called e-pass. Online passes were issued to those undertaking essential travel. However, this became a huge barrier for the public as the cumbersome application process usually ended with rejection by district administrations who were battling rising corona numbers and had to cut down on the entry of visitors.
With trains off the track, buses off the road and flights off the sky, people had to resort to taxis for long-distance travel. In Tamil Nadu, there were several reports of fake e-passes being issued for a price till the government finally decided to automate the process.
My personal travel experience in the corona world
My first long-distance journey in the 'new normal' COVID world was in August, almost five months after the lockdown was announced. Initially, I had planned to take a cab from Chennai to my hometown in Kanniyakumari but multiple e-pass applications were rejected for want of proper documents.
This 'curious case of rejection' was the fate of several people who had applied for travel passes with genuine reasons. Finally, I decided to take a flight from Chennai to Tuticorin and travel further by bus. This time my e-pass application was accepted.
The entire operations at the airport were streamlined in a manner that minimised contact between people. Social distancing and mask rules were enforced strictly and even passengers seemed to be extra cautious. The flight was a pleasant one and from the Tuticorin airport, I was guided to a government bus which dropped me at the COVID testing centre at a checkpoint in Kanniyakumari district. Everyone entering the district had to undergo a mandatory test here.
After surviving long queues and a waiting period, I was offered the option of paid or unpaid quarantine facilities till my test results came the next day.
Having to stay in a hotel room in my hometown, with my house just a few kilometres away, was something I had never imagined. However, this was a time when public support for the government's effort was a necessity, with the healthcare sector still trying to understand how the virus works. A day later, I was allowed to go home after my test results came out negative. Those who had tested positive were directly shifted to COVID treatment centres.
2020 has reimagined travel, with hygiene becoming the priority. Travel and tourism agencies have already started brainstorming for ideas to provide safe journeys for passengers. The current situation is also an opportunity for new players to emerge with safer travel solutions. Experts predict that rural tourism might see a rise in numbers with people trying to avoid crowded urban areas.