Is Portland Ready to Travel Again? Modern Adventure Thinks So.

Tourism will come back, but amid the pandemic and overtourism, what is our responsibility to travel ethically?

By Gabriel Granillo August 18, 2021

Luis Vargas of the Portland-based travel agency says we're headed for a "golden age of travel." Amid a still-raging pandemic, what lessons have we learned?

In the age of the coronavirus, it’s hard to say what will happen a week from now, a month, a year. But there’s one thing Luis Vargas is betting on: travel will come back in a major way. 

Vargas, the founder of the Portland-based Modern Adventure, a tour agency that curates travel experiences in the US and abroad, envisions a resurgence in the tourism industry, with a philosophy that harkens back to Modern Adventure’s own—that travel can be a “force for good” and that we’re moving from an “age of things to an age of experience.”

Vargas calls it “a golden age of travel.”

“I mean, [we’re] just finding our way back from the cold dark night, you know, particularly for what we do. Pretty much within the span of about two weeks, we went from cruising altitude to being on the ground,” Vargas says. He notes, however, that Modern Adventure has seen some of its best sales in recent months, “which I think underlies the deep desire people have to just get back out in the world, and where people's heads and hearts are after quarantining and not having that human connection.”

Luis Vargas (center) during a recent five-day excursion to Oregon's Willamette Valley. 

But, of course, we’re not out of it just yet. The delta variant, which accounts for most new coronavirus cases, continues to increase case rates and hospitalizations in Oregon and in much of the US, and it’s causing travelers to rethink or even cancel their long-awaited trips. Though White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci says shutdowns likely won’t return due to a rise in COVID cases, the delta variant is on the front of Vargas’s mind as Modern Adventure plans its future trips.

Vargas says there’s a rigorous process to ensure folks booking trips with Modern Adventure are fully vaccinated, haven’t tested positive for COVID ahead of their trip, and are following state or country COVID safety guidelines. Two trips—one to Japan and the other to Portugal—were both canceled and pushed to 2022, when (fingers crossed) things might feel a little more stable.

So the road back from the cold dark night is bumpy, and for Vargas, “it's [about] remaining optimistic, but pragmatic, what I do believe is that travel is already starting to and will roar back in, frankly, an unprecedented way.”

But once we get back to whatever normal looks like after such devastation, tourism may be on track for a change.

"The desire for people to travel is back in a meaningful way," Luis Vargas says. "Operationally, we're still very much in the weeds of the pandemic with everything happening with the delta [variant]."

Tourism on a large scale has been directly linked to housing affordability issues  (something Portland is no stranger to), and mass tourism has had a destructive effect on local, sometimes sacred, sites in Mexico, France, India, and Rome. More recently in Hawaii,  locals have been begging tourists to stop travelling to the islands.  That kind of overcrowding that comes into direct conflict with locals is called overtourism, and in 2018, it was shortlisted as one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s words of the year.

Overtourism prices out locals in many places, but it also has major impacts on the environment, and it’s on global travel companies like Modern Adventure to double down on ethical and sustainable travel. And their trips don't come cheap. (Prices for Modern Adventure trips range from $3,500 to $12,000, not including airfare.) Vargas says global travel companies like his should think about who they’re working with and how those investment dollars will flow through to the local economy and not mass chains.

“What are the short-term and long-term effects of the experiences that we're planning?.... I think that that travel can be net positive on a lot of levels,” Vargas says. “But it has to be intentional, and it has to be responsible.”

Global travel companies need to bear the brunt of the responsibility of ethical and sustainable travel instead of simply focusing on the economic gains of the travel industry with little to no regard for its impacts on the local economy or the environment.

Companies like Modern Adventure won’t solve the problem of overtourism, but Vargas still believes travel can be a force for good, something of a slogan for the company, and something he repeats often during our 40-minute conversation. If done right, he argues, travel can be a lifeblood for some local communities. Travel can change lives and create long-lasting friendships, memories, and perspective shifts. He sees it in the handwritten letters he receives years after a trip.

Travel is not only Vargas’s career, but it’s how he found himself and connected to his Mexican heritage. Growing up with immigrant parents near the US-Mexico border in San Diego, Vargas in many ways felt in between. In America he was called “a beaner.” In Mexico, his cousins called him “a gringo.” Add constant coverage of drug cartels, a border crisis, and journalist killings, and Mexico seemed like a dangerous place according to US news. But it took a trip in his early 20s to Mexico “to be able to unlearn and shed the bullshit that I was fed around what Mexico is and isn't, and to be able to own [the fact] that Mexico is fucking incredible. And being Mexican is just an incredible gift—as it is to be Indian or Brazilian or Chinese.”

Is travel headed for a golden age? Maybe. But it could be more of an enlightenment, should we choose to care.

“I think as purveyors of travel, we have the opportunity to be truth tellers, myth busters, stereotype killers,” Vargas says.

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