The travel industry worldwide ground to a halt in March after a decade of sparkling growth, but 2020 had begun on a bright note.
In January, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation reported 1.5 billion tourist arrivals globally last year – a record. For the months ahead, growth of 4 per cent was projected. Then the Covid-19 pandemic created total disruption.
My own hiking trip in May in the Rodopi mountains of Bulgaria was cancelled by the tour company, but with a refund credit note for rebooking next year.
The company also stayed focused on the future, noting that it will come up with more tours and acknowledging the benefit that travellers bring to communities when exploring remote places.
Indeed, so have other travel companies. Despite hitting the pause button on much of travel for the rest of the year, many are rolling out next year’s programmes at discounted rates and with greater flexibility to cancel.
Poignantly, my plan to watch the Passion Play in the German alpine village of Oberammergau, after the hike, was also canned. In late March, Oberammergau announced the postponement of 103 performances of the play till 2022.
Ironically, the first play had been triggered by a pandemic, the Bubonic Plague, in 1633. Its population made a pledge to God that if they were spared from the worst ravages, they would stage a play every decade depicting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They staged the first play in 1634.
It has taken another pandemic for the village to cancel this year’s edition. With restrictions on mass gatherings, there was no way the spectacle, expected to attract half a million visitors from around the world, could be staged.
In this, the Passion Play was not alone. Other cultural mass events such as the 65th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest in May and the Glastonbury Music Festival, which would have celebrated its 50th anniversary last month, have been mothballed till next year.
The rebooted performances will not be diminished versions. If anything, their return will be sweeter for fans.
The signs of disruption were emerging in mid-February, when my plans to spend Carnival in Limassol, Cyprus, were nearly upended.
It seems surreal now, but at the time, Cyprus and much of Europe appeared free from Covid-19 woes.
Still, a day after I landed in Cyprus, it was reported that a permanent resident, originally from China, had returned after a Chinese New Year visit and was suspected of having the virus. It turned out to be a false alarm, however.
The Mediterranean island is replete with Roman mosaics, splendid mediaeval fortresses dotting the coast, Byzantine churches hidden in the mountains – and also an enticing border crossing into Turkish Cyprus. It even has enough snow in winter to make skiing possible.
It was packed with tourists when I was there. But conspicuous by their absence were the Chinese vacationers for whom Cyprus had started to become a holiday draw in recent years. All the Chinese restaurants in the main towns of Paphos, Larnaca and Limassol in Cyprus were shut.
In the last week of February, as the nine-day Carnival was about to start, Cyprus was on tenterhooks with the pronouncement of the first infections in Italy and news that the Venice Carnival had been shut prematurely after only two days.
Fortunately, with no cases of the virus reported in Cyprus, the festive event kicked off on Feb 20.
It was a riot with street parades. Among the crowd favourites were, weirdly, those impersonating coronavirus patients wearing N95 masks and walking around with medical paraphernalia. At the time, South Korea and Italy were being swamped with the most cases. It was rather disconcerting to watch.
The Carnival hosted nightly parties in front of the 16th-century Ottoman-style Limassol Castle. As I danced with the crowd in the tightly packed Castle Square, it dawned on me how perfect the situation was for a virus to spread. Thankfully, it was safe then.
When I left the island for Athens in early March, Greece had reported three cases, but apart from seeing a few people on its underground trains wearing face masks, life went on normally. Athens was also buzzing with tourism.
Around that time, there were reports of Asians or anyone looking like an Asian facing discrimination in various parts of Europe because of their association with China.
In Cyprus and Greece, I did not encounter any incident. Perhaps the locals were used to seeing Asians – there are many Thais and Vietnamese, for instance, working in Cyprus.
But it was interesting that on one night in a Paphos hotel, when I was with a group of fellow walkers listening to live music, two Chinese women appeared. The first thing they did was to announce that though they were native Chinese, they were living in London.
Could this be a sign to come? That Asians would be viewed askance wherever they go? The test will come post-Covid-19 when the Chinese, keen to travel again, go abroad. Will they be welcome in hotels, restaurants and shops?
Initially, there may be some hesitance but, with Covid-19 affecting so many countries, the nationality of tourists should not matter.
The Chinese, the biggest tourism source market since 2012 and the world’s biggest spenders, contributing one-fifth of global total spending in tourism, can only help destinations recover more quickly.
A week before I was due to return home, Qatar Airways had been issuing advisories against travel to Singapore and I was not sure if I could get home on the airline.
As it turned out, the airline switched to a smaller plane flying from Athens to Doha and, even then, the flight was half-empty.
It was the early days of Covid-19 so neither the cabin crew nor passengers wore face masks, but I could not help noticing a Singaporean couple next to me assiduously cleaning their seat trays and earphones with disinfecting wipes.
This will likely be the face of future air travel, with airlines taking the lead with safe practices such as disinfecting all cabin surfaces before embarkation and providing passengers with hygiene kits.
I had planned a trip to Raja Ampat in mid-March and, given its remote location, it seemed the perfect place to escape from all news of the virus. But Indonesia withdrew visa waivers and, coupled with Singapore’s advisory to defer travel, that trip was scrapped as well.
I have more trips in the pipeline – to watch grizzly bears fish for salmon in Alaska this month and to explore the gorgeous Tusheti mountains and wine regions of Georgia in September – all planned ages ago. They may be canned as well.
It is a topsy-turvy world of travel that people now live in and it will continue to change.
The plus side is it will make travel less rigid in some ways. Airlines, for instance, in trying to woo passengers, are offering flexibility such as ticket validity for two years, unlimited changes and with no change fees – as the coronavirus has shown how travel plans can suddenly alter.
But one thing will not change. The yearning for travel will not be quelled.
• Tan Chung Lee is an award-winning travel writer.