David McWilliams talks about the impact of the pandemic and the environment on travel

David McWilliams has worked all over the world, and speaking on the Travel Tales with Fergal podcast, the top economist says that people need to be aware “of the impact of air travel on the environment” — and reckons he was a bad example with all his jet-setting before the pandemic.

“We have to be cognisant of the impact of travel on the environment. I was probably a bad example of not worrying about the environment, as I travel a lot by plane for work. But I don’t like going by boat and taking two days to get to France, but if we have to do it, we have to do it, to help the environment.”

McWilliams has a great eye for seeing cultural trends and often sees them before anyone else, and he shares prescient insights into the future of business travel in the era of the pandemic and reflects on the age-old power dynamics of travel in the workplace.

Business travel may never be the same after the pandemic, according to McWilliams. We could be seeing the end of the business trip. Companies now realise people can meet over Zoom and make huge savings on travel costs, but this will affect cities like Dublin.

“It is estimated that while business travellers constitute less than 10 per cent of passengers, they generate three quarters of airline profits. However, right now business travel is down 96 per cent since the start of 2020.

“2019 was what they call 'peak take off', which was the year when more planes flew than any other year. But everything has a link, and therefore half of Dublin rents have been driven up by airline leasing companies. I hope business travel doesn’t stop completely. You do business with people you know, and it is hard to get to know people over Zoom.”

David McWilliams notes that powerful people do not collect air miles as they make others travel to them.

He said: “It goes back to ancient times, and if you look at the Roman emperors like Caesar, they never travelled anywhere. I call it the cosmology of the table. The power dynamic was come to my house, eat my food, sit at my table. That still plays out in human behaviour.

“What you notice is that the really, really, important people never travel. It’s Muhammad and the mountain — basically, people come to them. Really posh people don’t have air miles — because they don’t have to travel, as people come to them.”

David McWilliams gives fascinating socioeconomic, cultural, and historical insights into the Caribbean and the impact of slavery still felt today on the islands. He recalled a trip to Barbados where he encountered the ‘Redlegs’ — descendants of Irish men and women rounded up by Oliver Cromwell and expelled into indentured servitude.

McWilliams said the group based in St John’s Parish on the island was “the last remnants of the least feted and arguably most interesting parts of the Irish diaspora”. He revealed: “So forget your St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, or Boston Irish and all that malarkey.

“The Redlegs are very interesting, and they’re very, very poor. But they are the last remaining link that we have to the Cromwellian expulsion of people from the island. It’s very fascinating stuff.”

McWilliams talks about his student days in Russia learning Russian from ex KGB. He also reveals how he concocted an American aunt so he could go work in the US without a J1 during the 1980s and outlines why America lost its lustre as a holiday destination during the Trump era.

He shares great tales of working for a French bank early in his career and chasing financial disasters around the world in Serbia, Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, and Hong Kong for the Asia crisis.

“I worked in the 1990s as an economist for a large international bank. It meant I ended up anywhere there was a financial crisis. What happened was a financial crisis would flare up so the bank would send over economists to try to figure out what was going on there.

“When the boss would ask who wants to go to some troubled spot, then all my European colleagues would have their heads down, and I would always stick my hand up and say, yes I’ll go. The Irish are nomads by nature so it was natural I would always want to go. I loved it and it gave me a great sense of how world economies worked.

“The Irish need to get off this island. I love travel and that is why I find the lockdown such a pain. I find it very hard to just consume Irish opinion all the time. I am very much a citizen of the world and feel more comfortable outside this country in many ways. Not so much more comfortable but a curiosity clicks in when I’m away, that is not always there when I’m in Ireland.”

Fergal O’Keeffe is the host of Ireland’s no 1 travel podcast Travel Tales with Fergal which is a weekly interview series listened to in more than 50 countries. He interviews a special guest about his/her travels, adventures, and experiences living abroad. The guests all have inspirational stories that enable people to armchair travel in their imagination.

The Travel Tales with Fergal podcast is available on all podcast platforms and people can follow all his updates on @traveltaleswithfergal on Instagram and @FergalTravel on Twitter. The website is shows.acast.com/travel-tales-with-fergal


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