New and Now

How — Not Where — to Travel in 2021

by Pavia Rosati
The dawning of a new day. Photo: Mohamed Nohassi / Unsplash.

Right around now, Team Fathom is usually finalizing our Where to Go This Year feature, which highlights the destinations that deserve a spot on travelers' lists for the year ahead.

While objective factors like exciting openings or new airline routes will nudge a location up the rankings, the process of deciding what makes the cut — like so much trend forecasting and lifestyle reporting — is more art than science, a mix of crystal balling and personal preferencing.

This year, we've decided not to publish such a list.

It's so ridiculous an understatement to say that Covid had changed everything everywhere that I have a hard time even finishing this sentence. But it has, and this impacts fundamentally how we think and write and talk about travel.

On the one hand, Fathom remains an enthusiastic cheerleader for travel as pursuit and an industry. We firmly believe that travel should be one of life's fundamentals, with "travel" defined not only by long-haul flights and well-stamped passports, but by any experience that lifts us from our usual routine into a new world. Visiting a local neighborhood you've never explored, paddling a canoe across a nearby lake: This is travel. So too are at-home activities like watching Korean movies on your sofa in Des Moines, learning to cook Sri Lankan hoppers on a Tuesday night, and following a lioness on a virtual safari tour from Botswana.

Travel, in other words, should be democratic, inclusive, creative, and broadly defined. Our mission at Fathom is to connect our community with these experiences and inspire your own adventures.

On the other hand, since the pandemic began, all the smart medical advice has recommended the same thing: Stay home. Unless, that is, you and your work are essential. Last spring, I read a scientist's comment that if the entire world could stay put for three weeks, the virus would disappear globally. An unrealistic recommendation, sure, but instructional as we considered how to define who and what is "essential." Travel, at least the way we used to think, is no longer an essential but a luxury.

So we spent the summer reporting on experiences that were socially distanced, with the caveat imploring you to travel "only when it's safe!" We've been walking an editorial tightrope between holding stories (because telling you about places you can't visit anytime soon feels futile and a little disingenuous) and sharing what's happening in the world (because it's fun to see what's flourishing in an emptier world — hooray for swans and dolphins replacing hideous cruise ships in the canals of Venice! — and also because our travel industry colleagues are desperate to get back to work). But there's only so much inspiration you can bank for the future. And as I write this, the pandemic gets worse even as vaccines are deployed (what cruel irony).

It's hard to know when we'll really be in the "safe" zone, but a brighter day is on the horizon. A brighter day!

Which brings us to travel in 2021.

If 2020 was the pause, 2021 will be the reboot. It probably won't get underway until the second half of the year, if vaccinations continue at a better pace, but it's imminent. Imminent!

So instead of talking about WHERE to go, let's think about HOW to go. If the upside of an unwanted pause was time to think about what really matters, let's put that thought into practice.

Travel Less, But Better

Instead of racking up bragging rights about the many places I've been, I want to go to fewer places and experience them more deeply. To use a writer's metaphor, if my old model was a to-do list to check off, my new model is an immersive novel. On one of my last big trips, my husband and I hopscotched around Italy for four weeks, spending no more than two nights in any one place. Much as I love a breakneck pace, I'm embarrassed by that memory now.

Reduce Impact

If we want those swans to keep frolicking along the Grand Canal, we have to make it possible for them to stay. Who is responsible for over-tourism, garbage-filled beaches, candy wrappers on Cascade Mountain trails? We are. Let's be the fixers, not the problem.

Spend Thoughtfully

When I think that every travel dollar I spend helps re-enforces a set of values, it makes me more careful about where I spend it. Plastic water bottles? Wasteful buffets? Air conditioners freezing hotel rooms instead of cool ocean breezes? No thank you, no thank you, no thank you. I'm going to ask more questions before I book a hotel room. When consumers demand better behavior, companies will have to adapt. This applies to who they hire, how they treat their employees, whether they respect the environment, and...you get the idea.

Respect Locals

When we travel away from home, we're guests in another place. What should guests do? Behave. When someone does something for you — check you in at the airport, bring you a coffee at breakfast, give you directions — show your gratitude with a smile, with thanks, with whatever gesture expresses your appreciation. The way you would want other people to treat your space is how you should treat theirs. The Golden Rule never gets old: Do as you would be done by.

Get Into Nature

A walk on the beach, a stroll through the woods, a picnic along a river, a hike in a valley. You don't need to be an REI power camper to experience the restorative powers, the freedom, the beauty, and the simple joy you'll feel when you spend time in nature, even for a little while.

Stay Healthy

This year taught us how interconnected we are, and the dangers that can unfortunately entail. We learned new habits around masks and sanitation, which in turn gave us new understanding of how we can keep ourselves and others safe. As we begin once again to travel, insurance will likely no longer be an afterthought, nor will ensuring we have all the medicines we might need, and health-focused vacations will be increasingly appealing. This year will likely bring more developments — testing, immunity passports, yet-to-be-released apps, technologies — that keep us focused on good health.

Be Curious

You're out in the world. Don't you want to know about it? So read a book. Ask questions. Be curious, because it will most likely lead you to interesting and unexpected places and ideas that you will be happy to discover.

When we frame travel in these terms, it doesn't matter where we go. The places you can travel and put these principles into practice is where you should go in 2021.

Happy travels, wherever the road takes you.