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The holiday is over

Who would have imagined, in December 2019, that we would witness the collapse of the holiday industry a few months later. In 2020 we can’t even go out for a day trip, let alone a holiday in another region or country.

Which prompted a ponder: why do people go on holiday? No other tribe on planet Earth does. Some creatures migrate, but none of them go away from their home environment for a few days or weeks, just for a change of scene. Historically speaking, it’s a recent phenomenon for humans, too:

“A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.” (‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari, p130)

Wealthy young Englishmen of the 17th and 18th centuries didn’t build tombs. They took the Grand Tour. They boarded the ferry at Dover, crossed the Channel to France, made their way to Paris, then on to Italy, where Venice, Florence and Rome were popular destinations. Along the way they learned new skills such as fencing and dancing, looked at ancient ruins, studied works of art, fell in love. Then they travelled back home and redesigned their homes and gardens based on what they had seen and learned.

Tourists at the Pantheon in Rome

For them, the trip was ostensibly to round off their education before they settled down to the duties that awaited them back home. In the following century, the educational holiday became available to the less well-off too, through the work of entrepreneurs such as Thomas Cook.

Seaside holidays started for medicinal reasons. The Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, suffered from gout. In 1783 his doctor recommended fresh air and seawater as a cure, so he rented a farmhouse by the south coast (which became the Brighton pavilion). As the prince was the style influencer of his time, the concept of trips to the seaside became popular.

As the fashion caught on, a problem became evident. How to change into one’s bathing suit without compromising one’s modesty? Enter the bathing machine. By 1800 there were about 30 bathing machines on the beach at Weymouth, the preferred seaside resort of the Prince of Wales’ father, King George III.

Then, during the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, the necessity of closing down the mills and factories once a year for maintenance was turned into an opportunity to send the workers for a refreshing and restorative week at the seaside. Each factory chose a different week, and laid on transport for the trip to Blackpool and other towns along the coast. ‘Wakes Week’ became ‘Factory Fortnight’ as the holiday period was extended from one week to two.

In the UK we talk of going away on our holidays. The word derives from ‘holy days’, the days in the calendar which were marked as religious festivals and the people were exempt from work so that they could go to church. The US word ‘vacation’ derives from the French ‘vacances’. The original meaning of this word was more like ‘vacancy’, as in job vacancy: something being unoccupied. Again, it meant that people were released from their usual chores. Both words, holiday and vacation, kept these meanings until those wealthy young men started travelling to Europe in the seventeenth century.

So far this tells us two things. First, that the idea of travelling for pleasure is just over three hundred years old, and second, that it resulted from searching for something that the home environment could not provide, be it education or healing.

Our holidays became a highlight of our lives. It was a major discussion topic at work, with questions like, ‘Are you going away this weekend?’ or ‘Have you booked your holidays yet?’. My childhood photos were mainly taken away on holiday. Almost the last thing an elderly family member said before he died was, ‘We had some good holidays, didn’t we.’

Then it all went exponential. Package holidays, cheap flights, cruises … the planet became a playground. Long-distance travel became affordable. It was cheaper for myself and my partner to fly to the south of Spain than take the train to many parts of the UK. People who did not have the means to buy a home could easily afford to spend a weekend in Barcelona or Amsterdam or Prague. For their grandparents it was the other way round: fifty years ago, putting down a deposit for a house was a priority but overseas travel was beyond the means of most. Within the last twenty years, ease of travel reached the point where many of us would fly to a beach on the other side of the world for a week or two. Some places became overloaded and had to restrict visitors. The Faeroe Islands decided to exclude visitors for a period each year, to let the place recover.

And in early 2020 the party was over. We all had to get used to being at home.

Where are we now? Is this time an opportunity to re-evaluate the place where we live, to find sustenance at home rather than waiting 50 weeks for the two weeks by the sea in Bali, or Turkey, or Spain? Will the skies again be crowded with contrails once the current restrictions are lifted? There is a part of me that hopes not, I confess. The part that looks with new eyes at the place where I live, that sees it changing each day as more spring flowers appear. The part that sees people smiling as they take a walk. The part that sees the walkers greeting each other across the road because the traffic no longer drowns out their words.

I suspect there is a restlessness that is hard-wired into the human. We are the species that galloped around the globe within a few millennia of leaving Africa. We settled on every available piece of land, every inhabitable island. One of the last was New Zealand, which the Maoris reached in the 14th century. Then the Europeans got there a few centuries later.

I wonder what we’re going to do with that restlessness now.

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