Why I’m Completely Changing Where I Travel Next Year

In 2021, I probably won't go to the grandest, most popular, bucket-list vacation spots. There's a good reason why.

Sally FrenchDecember 10, 2020
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To call 2020 a strange year for travel isn't exactly a hot take. But here's what I'll say about 2020: Rather than focusing on all the restrictions you felt, focus on the opportunities you gained.

While others lament the international travel restrictions, seize the chance to explore places a little closer to home.

While others grumble over canceled flights, remember that 2020 is what (finally) instigated better change and cancellation policies.

While others are disappointed that holidays and summer vacations were canceled, delight in the new traditions that this year’s holidays might generate.

I was scheduled to spend Thanksgiving 2020 hiking to the Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan. Instead, I spent it hiking Mount Tamalpais near my home in San Francisco, then eating Chinese takeout at a picnic table in a park. It was a lot cheaper, a lot less stressful and didn’t entail any jet lag.

As a travel writer, much of my life is naturally defined by travel. When borders reopen, I’ve gotten my COVID-19 vaccine and it’s once again deemed safe to travel, you can bet I’m jumping on the first plane I can. But I learned a lot from watching travel come to a halt in 2020. I discovered places I never would have otherwise. I became conscious about how my travel impacts others. And as I prepare for travel to pick up again, here are my three travel New Year’s resolutions:

Be open-minded to locations

Reflecting on my pre-COVID travel self, I think I subconsciously believed that the harder a destination was to get to, the better it was. I favored international travel and offbeat locations.

One of my favorite parts of Hong Kong was the food. But after five months of sheltering in place, I realized that San Francisco’s Chinatown (just a 20-minute walk from my house) has enough tasty, unique dishes that I could try something new every day and still not cover it all.

I was dazzled by the landscapes during a recent trip to Oman and thought no country could possibly have such diverse scenery. In August 2020, I took my first COVID-era vacation: a road trip through southern Utah and Arizona (never mind the fact that I dislike driving). I considered it only because it seemed like a hiking-focused trip would make for easy social distancing, but it turned out to be one of the greatest trips of my life. I was shocked that I could drive from the massive, red rock arches of Moab, Utah, to the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the sparkling Emerald Pools of Zion within one day.

Prior to COVID-19, I would have never considered a staycation, or even a road trip. But I realized that any travel can be delightful — even if it’s not the grand, bucket-list trip you had in mind.

Go where my tourism dollars have an impact

This has been a painful year for many, especially those in the hard-hit travel industry. Tourism-focused businesses like hotels, restaurants and attractions have shut down. A November 2020 survey of American Hotel & Lodging Association members found that 71% of hoteliers said they won’t make it another six months without further federal assistance, and 77% said they will lay off more workers.

The Walt Disney Co. plans to cut 32,000 employees by the end of March, and the Orlando Weekly estimated that 1 in 7 Orlando Disney employees will be laid off by New Year's Eve. In South Africa, poaching is up — and experts attribute it to the lack of a tourist presence making it easier for poachers to operate, as well as fewer tourist dollars supporting conservation efforts.

It’s hard to find a tourist destination that hasn’t been hit by the pandemic. But I’ll be conscious about spending money where my dollars can be used meaningfully, such as ensuring someone else has a job.

I’m not sure where I’ll travel in 2021, though the World Economic Forum has a list of places that rely most on tourism for jobs, which might be a good place to start.

Travel for me, not for anyone else (or the internet)

Perhaps it was one minute too long of coronavirus doomsurfing or reading another dispiriting Instagram post, but I deleted Instagram for a good chunk of 2020, including the period during my southern Utah road trip. Suddenly I wasn’t rushing through my hike just to see the Delicate Arch at sunset for the perfect Instagram picture. I wasn’t ordering the most photo-worthy ice cream sundae just for my Snapchat Story. I hiked when and where I wanted to. I ate what I actually craved. I didn’t come back to my hotel each night racking my brain for a witty or inspirational caption to go with my photo.

I found that I lived in the moment, and I lived for me — not for what would get me more Instagram likes.

The bottom line

Years from now, I’m sure I’ll have returned to the monotony of slugging through airport security lines, packing my bags again, checking (and double-checking) that I have my passport and hoping that I won’t miss my layover. And when that time comes, I’ll finally have an appreciation for what it all means.

Post-pandemic, I’ll seek out places I might not have considered in the past. I’ll be open-minded to traveling close to home, and I’ll be conscious about how my tourism affects local economies. I might not travel the way that the guidebooks say I should, but I also now know that every destination is good in its own right — and sometimes even better than the places you see in magazines.

This year was a time for growth and change. Though by Thanksgiving 2021, I still hope to be hiking to the Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan.

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