COVID-19 and the future of travel:

What will the socio-political consequences of the global pandemic hold for the future of travel and individual travellers? 

By Bob Rehorst, Security Consultant & Analyst Dyami B.V

Over the past few months, the Covid-19 crisis has been making its way all over the world, resulting in states, governmental bodies and individuals being rapidly forced to come up with various coping strategies. At Dyami B.V., we have been working day and night to keep individuals safe and advise larger governing bodies on how this situation might develop. We continuously explore the options that the world of travel has for the future by directly applying well-known high-level research in order to make certain predictions. Dyami’s founder, Eric Schouten, is a former liaison for the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service and his insights in the world of aviation provided contributory knowledge to the context of this article. In this article, I will elaborate briefly on how Dyami tries to understand the state of the world.

Firstly, a brief analysis will be provided on the effects of states’ measures through a socio-political looking glass. Then I will move on to what this can mean for the world of travel and travellers in a time characterised by uncertainty due to an ever-changing environment. Lastly, this article will provide an argument for future individual travellers on how one will be required to navigate through their environment to ensure their security.  

Until now, what we have seen is that states are generating emergency measures and are exercising their power on their respective nations in order to ‘save’ their countries. For example, we see how the Netherlands chose for an ‘intelligent lockdown’ (Reuters News Agency: “Dutch PM Rutte: ban on public gatherings is "intelligent lockdown") as a strategy, whereas France opted for a military lockdown (Global News: “We are at War”. March 16, 2020). However, in our neoliberal free market economy, we have been developing a globalised interactive world in which the borders of nation-states seemed to matter less and less. We had the luxury of a world in which, contrary to popular belief, crisis and violent conflicts were at a historical low point (Max Roser. Our World in Data: “War and Peace”).

From this perspective, our former luxurious manner of operating in a globalised neoliberal market is changing. At this moment, we can observe that states revert back from a ‘globalised modus operandus’ towards a more localized focus. This notion is exemplified by the abundance of news headlines in which ‘this state shuts its borders to foreigners’, or ‘that state asks all non-nationals to leave’. Indeed, in a time when health care systems are being challenged, the states are forced to take care of ‘their people’ first. In order for us to understand what these measures can mean for the individual traveller, we must first understand how the state, as a governmental body or security actor, and its effects work. In order to understand direct effects of state measures in a localized fashion on travel, we should not regard the state as an actual structure, but as the powerful effect of practices (Mitchell, T., & Steinmetz, G. 1999. Society, economy, and the state effect. pp. 76-97. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press). The landscape in which states operate in the times of Covid-19 are changing, they are being contested and renegotiated.  

It is by studying these new designs of state focus, these shifting topographies of power, that we can understand how people react. What does it mean for inhabitants of a nation when your state is enforcing a measure in which, suddenly, foreigners are deemed as a ‘risk’? How would you react? A state’s power is exemplified by the widely accepted definition of “[…] the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality" (Gourevitch, P. 1998. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rivanda. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux. Pp 48). This means that the power of a state rests in its skill of successfully transmitting their narrative of the world towards its population. The measures that are currently being taken by states are partially based on knowledge, but as Donald Rumsfeld famously stated, there are currently too many ‘unknown unknowns’ (" News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United States Department of Defense (") to be sure that your state is making the ‘right’ decision when dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. Because of this, the future is in many respects very uncertain for states and individuals. However, the uncertain and unpredictable nature of the current times is making individuals latch on to the information that they deem legitimate, of which the state’s information is an example. As such, a state’s power in narrating their approaches in the Covid-19 crisis increases when they manage to have their inhabitants ‘inhabit the story of their reality (Gourevitch, P. 1998. Pp 48).  

These are ideas that anthropologists, conflict analysts and many other scholars have been exploring for decades. It is evident that the current crisis is a major global event, which continues to affect the lives of everyone involved, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable time. Indeed, we have already seen how nations are closing borders to foreigners and there is a tremendous increase in anxiety, xenophobia and fear towards the ‘other’ whom may be carrying the disease, or at least occupy much-needed hospital beds. As a security consultant, Dyami has encountered an example in which one individual was threatened in an Asian nation for being European. Similarly, there are case examples of those from Asian descent being the victim of hate and xenophobia in Europe. Such manifestations of fear in a very tangible manner are almost certainly a direct result of the mass panic that the Covid-19 crisis has carried with it.   This continuous ‘finger pointing’ might seem like only an initial panic reaction. However, in the long term this may have more dire consequences to intercultural interaction. One major observation made is that in times of crisis, the individual’s pertinent point of identification of ‘themselves versus the other’ can be one’s nationality. In other words, in times of crisis, one’s identity solidifies, it crystallizes. This observation shows us that the formation of solid groups of people are often the direct result of a crisis. A set of people as a group are often distinguished by two main features, namely the rules of membership (who is in, who is out), and characteristics (that which is thought to be typical for members of the group) (Fearon and Latin 2008, 848). When we understand group formation in this manner, we can understand how the state’s power of having their inhabitants inhabit their story of reality, results in group formation based on nationality, or ‘those who are in’. As a consequence, ‘those who are out’, can be ostracised for not being qualified to be a member of the group. The passive acceptance of one’s nationality can become dangerous as evident by the cases that Dyami observes. The world is operating on uncertainty and therefore grasping to the few things that are or seem certain. By briefly examining the possible social and political effects of this crisis, we can make more palpable speculations as to how this will affect the world of travel.

It has often been said that unpredictability is an integral part of the human experience and travellers often seem to associate the unpredictable with the notion of adventure. Common phrases like ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ espoused by those who make a business out of travelling. While it is true that the most intriguing tales of the world come from travellers to whom the unexpected happened, the risks of travel are often overlooked in contrast with the potential gain from a venture. If these notions weren’t true at the time they were written, they sure are now. Regardless of the health risks that the spread of Covid-19 implies, there has been an unprecedented decrease in availability of travel options ( “Covid-19 Outbreak: Analysis of global aviation operation”. April 5, 2020) accompanied by an increase in securitising measures by states. This means that our common (usual) modes of travel are changing, which is increasingly hard to keep up with. Thus, what does that mean in practical terms? 

Additionally, at the time of writing, there are already numerous reports of airlines suffering from the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. Major airlines like Air France-KLM and Delta are likely to require governmental aid in order to survive this crisis. However, governmental support does come with strings attached. It will be the state that buys stock in these airlines as means of assistance. However, given the analysis above, states are continuing to apply a more ‘localized focus’ in their respective policies, which means that ultimately the political factor in internationally operating airlines may become problematic. This is because the involvement of states in international airlines may carry with it the exercising of political agendas which, in turn, could affect international collaboration. As such, the possibility exists of a mjor decrease in the availability of international flight routes and businesses. 

Now, what does all of this mean for the individual traveller in terms of mobility and security? In terms of mobility, it is almost certain that, due to the decrease in availability of flights, and the health measures taken by airlines (e.g. 1 person per three seats), flights will become more expensive. This can result in companies thinking twice before sending someone on a business trip, and it might not even be necessary anymore due to the increase in virtual interactions. This applies to the individual as well, in the sense that one would carefully reconsider travelling if one knows that the airplane will be very full, or that they might experience more danger by travelling in the future. When we consider the analysis above for the individual’s security, we can speculate about his/her experience through both optimism and scepticism.  

One prediction for the future is understanding that everyone in the world will have been affected by the Covid-19 crisis in some way. The optimist would claim that ‘this is something we all share’. This could indeed become the ‘characteristic’ of group forming that creates a sort of transnational community of, what can be called, inclusive comradeship (Banks, James A. 2014. “Diversity, group identity, and citizenship education in a global age.” Journal of Education 194 (3): 129–139).  

However, one should tread carefully making such an assumption. Countries will experience the Covid-19 crisis differently, and sceptics could argue that this can result in a distorted global society of aversion and exclusion. More specifically, if the individual traveller ventures to a nation that suffered from more severe consequences from the Covid-19 crisis, one might not possess the characteristic to be part of ‘their’ group. We are already seeing hostility being performed towards ‘outsiders’ from inhabitants of nations all over the world. Therefore, the notion that an individual traveller would automatically be welcomed in a new place is no longer a given fact.     In short, the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis in terms of politics and group formation may become severe for the world of travel and travellers. Those that will travel in the coming months, or even years, will require a specialized set of skills in order to manoeuvre their way through the changing landscape and rely on themselves to complete their operations in a safe and fruitful manner. One cannot make the assumption that the Covid-19 crisis will connect us, but neither should one make the assumption that all travels are dangerous. What will be required from the individual traveller is a careful navigation of their security. This term, ‘security navigation’ is a direct approach of Dyami B.V. as a response to the Covid-19 crisis and it implies the skill necessary to travel safely through unfamiliar places. We believe strongly that this skill is teachable and transferrable. This is why Dyami helps by training organisations in developing the necessary policies and protocols for travel. 

Bob Rehorst is a security analyst and consultant at Dyami working on the Covid-19 crisis and its repercussions on individual travellers and security. He is a field-tested anthropologist and conflict analyst. He has extensive field experience in the Levant-Middle East region, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.