By Susan & Simon Veness
What do travel writers do when they can’t travel? Somehow, that’s a question we never really expected to have to answer, but it is fairly close to the top of our thoughts right now.
In the existing COVID-19 landscape, travel is not a commodity in current currency. Tourism, as such, has ground to a halt, along with many of the things we tend to take for granted, like doing our own shopping, going to the cinema and getting a haircut.
Oh, and writing travel blogs. At a time when we are all being urged – quite sensibly – to stay at home, our usual routine has been completely derailed, driven off-course by a worldwide health situation that is truly all-encompassing.
So that has left us casting around for ways to be useful and productive in a world that currently has no space for holidays, travel agencies or attractions like Florida’s theme parks, beaches, shopping centres and restaurants.
It has been a shocking experience, seeing the places we love and support closed down, en masse and fairly conclusively. Walt Disney World is empty; Universal Orlando is shuttered; SeaWorld is also a no-go zone.
Living where we do, just a few miles from the Magic Kingdom, we’re used to hearing the fireworks each night, the toot of the ferry boats on Bay Lake, and the whistle of the park’s railroad train. Now, the silence is stunning.
But it is not so much the large-scale events that really hit home as much as the small-scale ones.
Seeing our favourite little diner where we often pop in for lunch reduced to an employee on the street corner holding a hand-made sign advertising their curbside service, an indicator of the ‘new normal’ where none of our restaurants can open their dining rooms but have had to resort to offering take-out or delivery in a last-ditch bid to stay in business.
Or the Amazon delivery van that seems to be an almost permanent fixture in our neighbourhood. Or petrol at an outlandishly cheap $1.70 a gallon.
Great swathes of tourist Orlando are dark, the lights turned off by a virus we had never heard of just a few short months ago, while Florida’s great tourist engine – 130 million visitors a year, and counting – is at a standstill.
And here we are in the middle of it, looking at a drastically reduced revenue and wondering what to do.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. We got inspired, not discouraged; stimulated, not dejected. We are highly motivated by the world around us.
From the remarkable example of the front-line health workers actively dealing with the virus to that little guy on the street corner desperately trying to drum up some business (while wearing a mask over his mouth and nose), we are inspired to find new ways to work, new areas to explore and new ventures to start, even if it can only be from behind our PCs.
Virtual travel has become our new watchword, a mantra taken up by many tourism authorities in an effort to stay relevant and consumer-focused. If we can’t physically GO to all these wonderful places, we can see them online, in images, videos and travelogues. We can highlight our favourite destinations, from the beaches to the nightlife, and revel in the thought that we WILL go there again, when things return to normal, as they surely will.
To that end, we have delved into our video vaults and photo files, looking for suitably exciting and aspirational material to post online, both here with America First Coast Travel, and elsewhere, on social media, discussion forums and travel groups. It is our new daily task, highlighting the highlights and showcasing the showcases of Florida – and beyond – as we all stick to our socially distanced worlds.
That has been just the starting point for us, though, the beginning of a slowly-dawning awareness that COVID-19 is forcing us to re-evaluate not just what we do but who we are and the space we occupy on this great Planet Earth (copyright, Sir David Attenborough).
The more we look around – as we have to do – the more we see people working in unison, in collaboration and collectively. From those heart-warming videos of the residents of Turin staging impromptu concerts on their balconies to the epic One World: Together At Home online musical event last weekend organised by Lady Gaga, life has taken on a new, urgent dimension that asks us to be more inclusive in our thinking, more comprehensive in our actions, and more empathetic in our outlook.
We now live in an era of hope and anticipation; when we are challenged to develop new ways of business, and try to bring everyone along with us. An era when the spirit of individuality has to give way to the ethos of ’Ohana, the Hawaiian concept that we are all bound together, and no-one gets left behind.
It’s a wholly different mindset to get used to, and a shared outlook that could, if carried out on a societal level, provide actual benefits from this long, painful experience we are all undergoing right now.
It is one of the reasons we have started the Central Florida Tourism Collective, involving a whole raft of small attractions and other businesses that are fully involved with our tourism infrastructure in its many facets. It is a firm nod in that collaborative direction, and a sincere acknowledgement that we need to think cooperatively in the way ahead.
Now, the task is in trying to broadcast a joint, positive and productive message of support and assistance; of rallying people to the flag of concerted action with communal results. The Disneys of the world will certainly be able to weather the virus-induced financial storm, but hundreds of small, family-owned businesses will not. Unemployment applications are soaring and the tourism landscape could look very different if we are not thinking and acting in unison.
It may not generate an income in the short-term, but we are convinced initiatives like the Collective will have a long-term pay-off, not just for us, but hopefully for many, many tourist-related concerns, hence this is now a big part of our daily working routine, one that needs constant attention but which offers a definitive way forward.
But that is also why we are so heartened and moved by the actions and activities around us. In many instances, we are seeing the best of people; the most creative out-pourings, and the most inclusive of activities.
Just today we switched on to the YouTube account of Some Good News, as created by actor John Krasinski, an absolute 24-carat source of positive energy and inspiration, highlighting uplifting stories from around the globe that provide a genuine emotional boost. We don’t mind admitting to a little sniffle or two as we watched John reveal some of his discoveries and revelations, and we highly encourage readers to look it up online.
It all serves to underline what we firmly believe is a move away from the more negative aspects of daily life to a more holistic and optimistic outlook; less doom and gloom, more up and at ’em. This virus is trying to rob us of our freedoms, but we can actively deny it in any number of ways if we are minded and motivated to do so.
That brings us back to the question we started with. What do we actually DO in the absence of any real travel? Much to our surprise, the answer is – more than ever before.
We do still have several of our weekly tasks, including this blog for AFCT, who we are keen to support as one of the tour operators who ‘gets it’ in terms of thinking universally and creatively. But, more than anything, we have a mission to explore and promote, a new model for travel in a more broad-based and empathetic way.
We think the world is ready for a new way of travel thinking. Are you with us…?
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.