International travel has become so commonplace nowadays, some people do it just for a long weekend. Others go for two-year backpacking marathons. And with good reason, too. Travelling has never been easier, it's never been cheaper, and it's never before been so accessible. I, for one, do not hesitate to take advantage of all this.
One other thing, though. It's also never been easier to inadvertently take it all for granted. To forget that just one generation ago, there were no budget intercontinental flights, no phrasebooks, no package tours, no visa-free agreements. And, of course, snail mail and telegrams were a far cry from our beloved modern Internet.
But that's not all. The global travel that many of us enjoy today, is only possible thanks to a dizzying combination of fortunate circumstances. And this tower (no less) of circumstances is far from stable. On the contrary: it's rocking to and fro like a pirate ship on crack. I know it's hard for us to comprehend, let alone be constantly aware of, but it wasn't like this all that long ago, and it simply cannot last like this much longer. We are currently living in a window of opportunity like none ever before. So, carpe diem — seize the day!
Have you ever before thought about all the things that make our modern globetrotting lives possible? (Of course, when I say "us", I'm actually referring to middle- or upper-class citizens of Western countries, a highly privileged minority of the world at large). And have you considered that if just one of these things were to swing suddenly in the wrong direction, our opportunities would be slashed overnight? Scary thought, but undeniably true. Let's examine things in more detail.
In general, these are at an all-time global high. Most countries in the world currently hold official diplomatic relations with each other. There are currently visa-free arrangements (or very accessible tourist visas) between most Western countries, and also between Western countries and many developing countries (although seldom vice versa, a glaring inequality). It's currently possible for a Western citizen to temporarily visit virtually every country in the world; although for various developing countries, some bureaucracy wading may be involved.
International relations is the easiest thing for us to take for granted, and it's also the thing that could most easily and most rapidly change. Let's assume that tomorrow, half of Asia and half of Africa decided to deny all entry to all Australians, Americans, and Europeans. It could happen! It's the sovereign right of any nation, to decide who may or may not enter their soil. And if half the governments of the world decide — on the spur of the moment — to bar entry to all foreigners, there's absolutely nothing that you or I can do about it.
This is (of course) always a problem in various parts of the world. Parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are currently unsafe due to armed conflict, mainly from guerillas and paramilitary groups (although traditional war between nations still exists today as well). Armed conflict is relatively contained within pockets of the globe right now.
But that could very easily change. World War III could erupt tomorrow. Military activity could commence in parts of the world that have been boring and peaceful for decades, if not centuries. Also, in particular, most hostility in the world today is currently directed towards other local groups; that hostility could instead be directed at foreigners, including tourists.
War between nations is also the most likely cause for a breakdown in international relations worldwide (it's not actually very likely that they'd break down for no reason — although a global spout of insane dictators is not out of the question). This form of conflict is currently very confined. But if history is any guide, then that is an extremely uncommon situation that cannot and will not last.
This is also a problem that has never gone away. However, it's currently relatively safe for tourists to travel to almost everywhere in the world, assuming that proper precautions are taken. Most infectious diseases can be defended against with vaccines. AIDS and other STDs can be controlled with safe and hygienic sexual activity. Water-borne sicknesses such as giardia, and mosquito-borne sicknesses such as malaria, can be defended against with access to bottled water and repellents.
Things could get much worse. We've already seen, with recent scares such as Swine Flu, how easily large parts of the world can become off-limits due to air-borne diseases for which there is no effective defence. In the end, it turned out that Swine Flu was indeed little more than a scare (or an epidemic well-handled; perhaps more a matter of opinion than of fact). If an infectious disease were contagious enough and aggressive enough, we could see entire continents being indefinitely declared quarantine zones. That could put a dent in some people's travel plans!
There are already large areas of the world that are effectively best avoided, due to some form of serious environmental contamination. But today's picture is merely the tip of the iceberg. If none of the other factors get worse, then I guarantee that this is one factor that will. It's happening as we speak.
Air pollution is already extreme in many of the world's major cities and industrial areas, particularly in Asia. However, serious though it is, large populations are managing to survive in areas where it's very high. Water contamination is a different story. If an entire country, or even an entire region, has absolutely no potable water, then living and travelling in those areas becomes quite hard.
Of course, the most serious form of environmental contamination possible, is a nuclear disaster. Unfortanately, the potential for nuclear catastrophe is still positively massive. Nuclear disarmament has been a slow and limited process. And weapons aside, nuclear reactors are still abundant in much of the world. A Chernobyl-like event on a scale 100 times bigger — that could sure as hell put travel plans to entire continents on hold indefinitely.
The offering of long-distance international flights today is simply mind-boggling. The extensive number of routes / destinations, the frequency, and of course the prices; all are at an unprecedented level of awesomeness. It's something you barely think about: if you want to get from London to Singapore next week, just book a flight. You'll be there in 14 hours or so.
Sorry to burst the bubble, folks; but this is one more thing that simply cannot and will not last. We already saw, with last year's Iceland volcano eruption, just how easily the international aviation network can collapse, even if only temporarily. Sept 11 pretty well halted global flights as well. A more serious environmental or security problem could halt flights for much, much longer.
And if nothing else grounds the planes first, then sooner or later, we're going to run out of oil. In particular, jet fuel is the highest-quality, most refined of all petroleum, and it's likely to be the first that we deplete within the next century. At the moment, we have no real alternative fuel — hopefully, a renewable form of jet propulsion will find itself tested and on the market before we run out.
Compared to all the hypothetical doomsday scenarios discussed above, this may seem like a trivial non-issue. But in fact, money is the most fundamental of all enablers of our modern globetrotting lifestyle, and it's the enabler that's most likely to disappear first. The fact is that many of us have an awful lot of disposable cash (especially compared with the majority of the world's population), and that cash goes an awfully long way in many parts of the world. This is not something we should be taking for granted.
The global financial crisis has already demonstrated the fragility of our seemingly secure wealth. However, despite the crisis, most Westerners still have enough cash for a fair bit of long-distance travel. Some are even travelling more than ever, because of the crisis — having lost their jobs, and having saved up cash over a long period of time, many have found it the perfect opportunity to head off on a walkabout.
Then there is the strange and mysterious matter of the international currency exchange system. I don't claim to be an expert on the topic, by any means. Like most simple plebs, I know that my modest earnings (by Western standards) tower above the earnings of those in developing countries; and I know that when I travel to developing countries, my Western cash converts into no less than a veritable treasure trove. And I realise that this is pretty cool. However, it's also a giant inequality and injustice. And like all glaring inequalities throughout history, it's one that will ultimately fall. The wealth gap between various parts of the world will inevitably change, and it will change drastically. This will of course be an overwhelmingly good thing; but it will also harm your travel budget.
Sorry that this has turned out to be something of a doomsday rant. I'm not trying to evoke the end of the world, with all these negative hypotheticals. I'm simply trying to point out that if any one of a number of currently positive factors in the world were to turn sour, then 21st century travel as we know it could end. And it's not all that likely that any one of these factors, by itself, will head downhill in the immediate future. But the combination of all those likelihoods does add up rather quickly.
I'd like to end this discussion on a 100% positive note. Right now, none of the doom-n-gloom scenarios I've mentioned has come to fruition. Right now, for many of us, la vita e bella! (Although for many many others, life is le shiiiite). Make the most of it. See the world in all its glory. Go nuts. Global travel has been one of the most difficult endeavours of all, for much of human history; today, it's at our fingertips. As Peter Pan says: "Second star to the right, and straight on 'till morning."