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Tourism under COVID-19 siege: a sophronic investigation

Written by Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli


Breaking news: UNTWO secret proposal to facially stigmatise naughty tourists comes under attack by interpersonal relations experts. Dr Hannibal Lecter warns that disciplining the ludic body may be rather parochial and ineffective! (meme by quotes_of_me_9, Facebook)

 Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli explores the moral and political ramifications involved in the rushed relaxation of border control and the reinstitution of tourism mobilities without any effective protection from COVID-19.

Virulent rights and duties

That human freedom and autonomy should be respected is a given in those parts of the world that embrace humanist and democratic values. This respect includes the facilitation, or at least non-obstruction, of physical, ideological and material movement –but also, inversely, the right to immobility. Among these predicaments one may include the right to travel for any non-utilitarian objectives: to tour the world for self-growth, go on holidays for fun. A hard-won good, the right to have free time away from work was recognised first by authoritarian regimes in Europe, which wanted to have happy and productive workers. When in 1948, paid holidays became a right instituted by international coordinators, the separation of ponic (pònos: effort, work) time from vacant time (vacuum: space devoid of matter) became a structured reality.

The impact of the coronavirus on our lifestyles forces us to reassess our attitude towards this reality: leisure is a right that should not impinge on our fellow humans’ right to space - literally and metaphorically in the COVID-19 context. Attending to such a vacuum certainly involves how vacations will be managed institutionally at both the sending and the receiving ends of the tourism-hospitality spectrum until a viable SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is made globally available. However, until this happy moment, we will be walking blindly a rocky path, because risk management in tourism mobilities will have to acquire a distinctive sophronic dimension.

Mind the Gap: touring and sensible thinking (image credit: Hartwig HKD, Flickr/Creative Commons)

I refer to the original meaning of the word (sōas: safe, intact + phèn: mind, thinking) as an indication of sound thinking that attends to the pragmatic dimensions of navigating the world, but also the service of solidary sensibility (e.g. I care about the welfare and health of my fellow humans) as a disciplinary compass (e.g. if I do not, I will be rightly punished). The Greek term sofronismòs (:disciplining) certainly found a particular application during the last Greek junta (1968-1974), when especially young rebels (dubbed ‘teddy boys’) engaging in questionable, at times anomic or even criminal leisure activities, would be imprisoned and physically humiliated by authorities (e.g. head shaving or being made to parade in the streets wearing shameful tableaux). However, this use of the term obscures its pure function in democratic spaces: thinking logically and with respect for others is both a duty and a right, so their violation should be punishable in sensible and modern ways.

As some countries contemplate opening their popular tourist resorts to international clientele for the summer season, a series of ethical - and yes, legal - questions make a shy appearance on the global scene: what does it mean to enforce social distancing in ludic spaces, where people tend to relax their attitude towards others and ‘spread large’ across the physical environment? How are authorities going to impose such regulations on physical contact and proximity en masse? Above all, what sort of sanctions are states dependent on tourism revenue prepared to impose on foreign nationals for whom they will be acting as hosts? Hosting in such contexts involves conditionality, therefore rules that visitors need to observe at all times; tourists are not dispossessed vagabonds to be embraced and protected unconditionally.

If we acknowledge such complications, we put the flag of a potential victory over biomedical circumstances on the tip of a very high iceberg, already crumbling unpredictably under the burden of environmental degradation and climate change. Recently, social theorist Bruno Latour alerted us to the ways virological concerns began to supersede, if not completely replace environmental ones, for which we still faced a deficit in international policy coordination. In this post, I want to show why, by the time I finish this short post, the iceberg has melted, pulling the brave explorers and their flag into the cold ocean. I am pretty certain that talking about environmental urgency in the COVID-19 contingency will not be enough – for the simple reason that we have moved on to an unprecedented epochal entanglement. The Virus – the first to defy scientific wisdom to such an extent – has inserted itself into environmental and political ecologies.

Ecological overlaps: Virocene, Anthropocene, Moronocene

I am working on an understanding of what it means to experience and record a collection of biomedical events as a single epoch. Since this particular collection centres on the spreading of a new SARS virus strand, I have termed this epochal rupture ‘the Virocene’. There are a number of characteristics involved in defining this term, which I reserve for future elaboration (for those interested, there will be publications to come soon, at least one of which will focus on tourism). What matters here is how the Virocene does not really replace our unfortunate journey through the Anthropocene, it just amplifies its problems, by diverting their itineraries.

From these itineraries and problems, I want to single out one that is barely explored as part and parcel of the Anthropocenic longue durée: the management of viral mobilities via civic responsibilisation. To clarify, I do not refer to the unacceptable neoliberal ethics of individualising responsibility by separating it from that of the state’s towards its subjects. I refer to a trend that seems to apply more (though not necessarily exclusively) to the mobile citizens of the advanced northern hemisphere. The reasons I point the finger to the ‘advanced’ Western societies, have to do not just with privilege, but a convenient cultural oblivion.

The pseudo-libertarian demonstrations against lockdowns in developed countries, such as the US and Germany, are evident tools in the hands of populist parties. I find, however, that, aside from the damage they cause to the meaning of democracy as the sensible assent of the demos over both national/sovereign and global solidarities, they suggest a particular dangerous return to ideas of the human monad. According to the logic of this distorted appeal to an allegedly constitutionally-sanctioned right to movement in home territories, violating personal vacuum at home under COVID-19 circumstances is fine. Ergo, doing the same in the ludic time one spends abroad becomes an unquestionable given.

Emotional luggage (meme: Jerry Toppings, Facebook)

I am speaking about a crisis in the design of tourism mobilities under COVID-19 that goes (conveniently) unnoticed. The ludic time most tourists from developed countries spend abroad involves visits to less developed countries and pretty corners, where people have to cater for strangers in order to put some food on their families’ tables. It feels like the world is caught in a colonial loop, whereby natives/hosts are decimated by the diseases brought into their ecosystems by alien aggressive societies. Indeed, today the situation is far worse, as tourist hotspots afford international population movements including both people enjoying a holiday and international labour. The countries that may be hosting COVID-19 ‘teddy-boys’ in the coming months are not economically or politically equipped to turn their back on the tourist hordes. Dr Kamalika Jayathilaka provides a convincing account of the misfortunes that befell a war-ridden Sri Lanka ever since its decolonisation. The country’s tourist industry has displayed incredible resilience to terrorist threats and ecological disasters, but she wonders now how it will cope with the spread of COVID-19, which had ground economic and cultural activity to a halt. After experiencing a staggering 28.9 per cent drop in tourist arrivals due to COVID-19 during February and March, the Indonesian government contemplates reopening Bali’s resorts to international tourists. Indeed, health minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, told his country's people that they shouldn't fear the virus, even as tens of thousands around the world were being infected or dying. For a country heavily reliant on tourism revenues, closing its borders to tourists would amount to economic suicide; it is fine if some of its citizens are sacrificed for their homeland.

Edutourism redux: Dr Lecter proposes to UNTWO and international tourism business that, from now on, this definition is displayed in travel books (credit: @goodgodabove)

Only a couple of weeks ago Greek tourist minister Harry Theoharis urged Britons to go on a holiday to Greece to escape the UK's much more dangerous reality, while also adding that social distancing rules will apply. Let me refresh the international ludic clientele’s memory a bit: this is a country plunged into deep recession by the harsh EU troika policies that favoured international lenders, when itself found itself borrowing more and more to keep afloat on the back of the 2008 global economic crisis. A new Virocene-induced recession is now looming large on the global economic horizon, by which weak countries such as Greece will surely be doubly hit. This is one of the few countries that has succeeded in implementing social distancing, coordinated by the centre, thus keeping the spread of the virus under control – the other equally inspiring example being New Zealand, another popular international tourist destination.

(In)conclusion (alas)

Generally, it seems that the ‘developing’ world scores high on pragmatism and good sense, while two of the most developed countries, the US and the UK, continue to lose the viral battle due to disorganised or particularly lax lockdown policies, suiting, if not actively endorsing, irresponsible citizen behaviour. The new term ‘covidiot’ bears the geopolitical mark of development, positing interesting questions concerning the management and complex causal pathways of the Virocenic epoch. The danger is that these developed countries’ COVID-19 teddy boys and girls, who travel the world with a sense of entitlement to consume it with impunity and no (self)control, will happily put their signature on a novel planetary version of neo-colonial genocide – just because they can. WHO is going to put an end to such an UNprecedented disgrace?

Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology and Current Chief Editor of the Northern Notes Blog, School of Sociology & Social Policy at Leeds. She is currently working on a hypothesis regarding the formative impact of the Virocene on the social philosophies of mobility.


Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli

Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology