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Will COVID-19 end the era of overseas school travel?



2020 has been a year of upheaval like no other in recent memory. COVID-19 has brought the entire world to a grinding halt, affecting the way we live, work, eat, socialise, and travel. It’s almost uncanny to think back to life pre-March 2020 when we would pack into crowded restaurants, commute to work every day, and stand shoulder to shoulder at concerts.

For those with the means, almost any destination in the world was just a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. And for the vast majority of everyday people, the notion that the freedom of movement and travel we had taken for granted for so long could be taken away was simply unfathomable.

While almost every industry has seen a drop in revenue since the pandemic struck in March, none has been hit as hard as the travel industry. With the exception of repatriation flights and a handful of half-empty domestic legs, our once-busy skies are now eerily quiet, and scores of planes sit idle at airports all around Australia. Our cities are empty of international tourists, and we’re all being told to hit the road and explore the rural reaches of our home states for a new, exciting way to holiday. Meanwhile businesses who relied on tourist trade to remain profitable such as restaurants, bars, shops, guided tours and travel agents are closing down or battening the hatches, waiting for the proverbial storm to pass.

As 2020 marches on and the rolling lockdowns of cities and states across the world and in Australia continue, more and more of us are asking: what will the ‘new normal’ look like in a post-vaccine world? This question is especially pertinent to me, Red Earth, and the wider educational tourism industry. Will COVID-19 put an end to the South East Asian service trips, the Italian Art and Language trips, or the Irish rugby tours that so many schools have been running for decades? And if it does, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Schools are notoriously risk-averse, slow-moving organisations who value tradition and standing, which in the context of offering travel experiences to students means sticking with the familiar rather than trying something new. COVID-19 will cause many longstanding international school trips to fall by the wayside as border restrictions and the unmanageable risks associated with the virus limit us to domestic travel for the foreseeable future. 2021 and 2022 will see domestic service learning immersions, STEM, history, and sporting tours grow enormously within Australia. After all, COVID is the perfect excuse to try something new, but what will happen once a vaccine is rolled out across the globe?

It will certainly take a while for consumer confidence to return to the international travel industry – especially in risk-conscious schools – so an immediate return to how things used to be is very unlikely, but over time the old familiar trips will gradually return. I mean, how much could students learn on a French language tour to Tamworth?

The most significant lasting change is likely to be in cultural immersions and service learning travel experiences. Australian society, curriculum, and the culture in our schools has come a long way since the build-a-village mission trips were established in our schools 30 years ago. Young Australians have a thirst to know more about Indigenous culture and history, and parents want their children to have experiences they weren’t able to have at school themselves. The meaning of service has evolved from the bricks-and-mortar approach to a more holistic concept tying together notions like privilege, understanding, ambassadorship, caring, and giving, and service learning immersions have evolved accordingly.

COVID-19 may not be the end of all international school travel, but it will bring about massive change both in the short and long term. While some long-running trips will be sorely missed during the pandemic and will surely return to schools’ calendars as soon as possible, other will be forced to reckon with the changing culture and values in our schools.

The big question for educators in a post-vaccine world will be: Why would we take students overseas when there’s so much to experience here in our own backyard?


September 10 2020  |  Posted by Daniel Carson

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