Roger Marolt: The new equilibrium in travel costs
I felt a swell of anxiety and then, thankfully, it was punctured impotent by a bout of confusion. First, I read about the plan to carefully and cautiously open Aspen’s tourist accommodations. Shortly thereafter the Chamber of Commerce unveiled a big, bold marketing plan to entice visitors to come here. It seemed like caution and then wind, a common capitulation to probable disaster.
The grand reopening guidelines were humanely aimed like a bean bag at a bear intending to slow down the microscopic monster under our fingernails — keep patrons 6 feet apart, require face masks when not chomping or sipping, limiting capacities, wiping germs off buttons in elevators, discouraging nose-picking, washing hands afterward, etc. Then came details of the marketing plans shouting the words, and seemingly virus aerosols along with them, that all are welcome, the more the merrier, the only thing to fear is fear itself, which we will gladly mask-up and shove beneath the counter out of sight.
I took a deep breath and felt a slight tightness in my chest and maybe a burning sensation in my tracheal tract, then glanced at my watch and realized it was only the daily bout of hypochondria flaring, right on schedule. A deliberate exhale and the seemingly contradictory plans suddenly made perfect sense. Through social-distancing requirements we are limiting the supply of what we have to offer. Through the marketing campaign we are drumming up demand. According to the textbooks, the shifts in these curves should result in fewer visitors paying higher prices.
It could be a good economic answer for our resort community. We will be safer for fewer visitors from all parts of the infected world with those showing up paying an even bigger premium to be here. Less people, more money; it is enough to conjure up good memories of the “uncrowded by design” theme, except this time it’s as intentional as it is purposeful. It could be the experiment proving once and for all that the “right kind of people” for Aspen are the ones with fat wallets. Rich people are essential for our economic and physical health. Mental and spiritual wellbeing are hypothetical icing on the devil’s food cake; blueberry pie in the sky, if you prefer.
If the plan works here like it does for many country clubs, we’ll have it made. We end up with a quieter town while maintaining a strong economy. We’ll see.
But, stepping back and looking at this from a selfish view, I see a downside for one thing in life I enjoy immensely. What I see on the horizon is that traveling may become very expensive. It looks like a hazy sunset on lots of plans to see the world.
It was good while it lasted. It feels like the past 20 years have been a bonanza for tripping, trekking and discovery. It seemed relatively cheap compared to what it was back in my 20s when I didn’t do all that much of it due to budgetary constraints. Research confirms that there is something to this. Several studies conclude that airline travel today, at least before COVID-19, was between 36% and 40% cheaper in constant dollars than it was in the mid-1980s. I also think it’s fair to assume that technology in the forms of web searches, travel apps and online listing/booking services has reduced the cost of travel accommodations since then, too. Throw a relatively strong dollar into the currency converter and away we went. Maybe it’s partially justification on my part, but I think recent family trips abroad were not appreciably more expensive than domestic summer vacations, like the kind my family took in the station wagon when I was a kid. All in, going to Cuba last spring was cheaper than a week in Texas.
Jam-packed filthy airliners with minimal services in flight and fees for everything imaginable, and some not, were certainly annoying and inconvenient, but that setup allowed us to travel far and frequently. Some are now predicting that future airfares are going to be at least 150% more expensive after middle seats are removed, leg room stretched, and planes having to be disinfected between every flight. And, still no peanuts. We were probably spoiled. Maybe the idea of traveling to broaden our world view was nothing more than a justification to indulge curiosities. Travel for education. Travel for service. Shrinking the globe. Maybe we were dreaming. It was a good dream, though. No doubt about it.
Roger Marolt thinks he sees economic walls going up all over the world. Email at email@example.com.
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