The summer of staying close to home

For cash-strapped vacationers, time off this years means exploring ... locally. A report from Europe, Japan, and the US on the return of the road trip, backpacking with a burro, and growing beets.

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A few years ago, the specter of space tourism captivated the world. That seems now, to say the least, a different planet.

This summer, leisure will be redefined across the globe from dreams of exploring the cosmos to the prospect of muddy knees from an afternoon in the garden.

Adventures like a walk through the Alps, a Spanish pilgrimage, or an evening at the softball park will replace cruises and Caribbean vacations for people riding out the recession in places like Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, London, and Atlanta.

Sure, Qatar is betting that tourists will buck the downturn and still flock to its bejeweled hotels. But in many parts of the world, this summer marks a season of lowered vacation expectations and forced time off (also called unemployment). Yet it is also bringing the hope of the curative balm of doing a lot of nothing, and even the return, especially for work-obsessed Americans, to the kind of leisure that Thoreau said can improve the “soul’s estate.”

Indeed, the slowdown in cubicles is forcing many people to reevaluate their hyperdrive lifestyles, a development that may even challenge government policies around the work-life dynamic, inspiring the first mandatory vacation bill to hit the US Congress since 1936. Moreover, scaled-back vacations could help curb, in the US and abroad, a longtime trend away from the great outdoors – and potentially force a new search for meaning in a downsized life.

“There’s a convergence we’re seeing right now with the economic downturn and a long-simmering desire to simplify our lives,” says Colleen Carol Campbell, a St. Louis-based writer who no longer checks e-mail on vacation. “People are being forced to turn more to simple pleasures and focus on family where there’s simply less ability to divert yourself with exotic vacations and brand-new gadgets.”

Others concur. “From what I’m seeing, this does seem to be a time when people are open to rethinking things,” says John de Graaf, a coauthor of “Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic.”

Unfortunately for many workers, free time doesn’t pay all that well. Around the world, time spent at work has declined, but so have paychecks. Life satisfaction levels in countries ranging from Turkey to the US have plummeted as workers face layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts, says Simon Chapple, an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In fact, with jobs so closely entwined with identity in some societies, the prospect of unbidden time off is hardly seen as an opportunity. “Leisure is terra incognita [for many modern workers], so we’re highly reluctant to embrace the possibility of free time,” says Ben Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “We want to save our jobs, and I predict we will. We’ll get back to work, and we’ll forget the possibility of leisure.”
Maybe in America, but not in many other parts of the world, where time off is still sacrosanct. Consider this emphatic statement from Diane Elkabach, a young secretary rushing home to her two children after a day’s work in Paris. “Anglo-Saxons put too much importance on earning money,” she says. “I don’t live for my job. I live for me and my family.”

That may not be a particularly surprising sentiment coming from someone from France. After all, the French – rich and poor alike – value their leisure time. They have long vacations – 37 days of paid annual leave and national holidays. They are the developed world’s champions when it comes to sleeping (an average of nine hours a night) and lingering over meals (two hours devoted to eating a day).

Symbolically, at least, they retain the European Union’s only 35-hour workweek, though the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has been systematically dismantling it. Companies now can negotiate longer hours with their employees, for instance, and workers can more easily convert their overtime into pay rather than time off.

Moreover, even before the changes, many people in white-collar jobs and small businesses worked more than the 35 hours. In 2006, the real French workweek averaged 37 hours – longer than the German one.

Still, the French appreciate their time away from the keyboard and cash register as much as anyone. Ms. Elkabach will be more modest with her travels this year – but will be away from the relentless ring of the work phone nonetheless.

She is planning to spend half of her three-week summer vacation in Paris, puttering around her apartment. She will spend the other half at a campground in Brittany with her children and husband.

Others, too, are being far more money conscious with their time-off itineraries. Frédéric Pinard, a tobacconist in southeastern Paris, usually spends three weeks in July at his parents’ house outside Clermont-Ferrand in central France, using it as a base for camping and hiking trips with friends.
He closes his store for vacation, like many shopkeepers in Paris. But this year, for the first time, he is looking for someone to run the place while he is gone.

“I’ve got rent to pay whether I’m here or not, and I don’t want to give up any income if I can help it,” says Mr. Pinard. “Who knows what the economy is going to do?”

That’s a common refrain being heard around the world as wanderlust becomes something closer to wanderbust. A recently published survey by the Ipsos polling company told a sobering story in the US: Half of those who normally go somewhere in July or August said that they would be staying home this year.
In Britain, at least on weekends, that means many people spending more time at the local library. Recent figures released by 118-118, the main telephone-inquiry service in Britain, suggest that residents are spending more of their weekend time indoors.

The number of callers seeking phone numbers for nightclubs, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, and bowling alleys – one gauge of out-of-home leisure activity – has fallen sharply over the past year. Yet inquiries about take-home pizza outlets have surged 22 percent, and, striking even for the land of Shakespeare, inquiries about libraries has jumped 50 percent.

“That might be one positive spin-off of the recession: our rediscovery of the joy of spending a damp Saturday in the book-borrowing haven that is a free library,” writes Monitor correspondent Brendan O’Neill.

In times of economic crisis, it is true that people tend to rediscover hobbies and leisure pursuits that have long been forgotten. Many, too, tilt more toward “values vacations” – trips that, if you have to spend money, take on more meaning.

Consider Heinrich Nordmyer. He is among a booming number of Germans participating in the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where, tradition has it, the remains of Saint James, the apostle, are buried. Thousands of people make their way, on foot or by bicycle – sometimes also on horseback – along the ancient byways.

Similarly, another German, Milos Vec, says he is now abandoning his days of exotic adventure travel. He used to backpack in South America and visit Greenland’s glaciers. This summer, he intends to go hiking with his family (and a donkey) in southern France. “We’re hoping to find each other in a positive way, to discover something together,” he says.

His choice echoes a decided move away from the “status” vacation that many pursued in more flush times. “What matters isn’t to be able to say, ‘Look, I just spent five weeks in the Caribbean’ anymore,” says Martina Peters of the Foundation for Future Questions in Hamburg, Germany. “People long for inner peace, for a type of vacation that brings serenity. They look for ways to find themselves.”

For many Russians, that inner peace may come from growing beets. According to Komkon, a private Moscow-based consumer monitoring company, 73 percent of Russians described themselves in April as “cutting back” on major leisure and travel expenses. Around 60 percent said they have begun economizing on smaller diversions, such as cinema and restaurants, as well.

Those trends will probably translate into more Russians headed to their dachas this summer for more intensive bouts of gardening. In the recent boom times, Russians turned away from growing foodstuffs – potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, beets – and instead harvested decorative plants and flowers.
Now, in the balky economy, they’re spading rows of vegetables again. Studies have shown that, in hard times, Russians grow as much as one-third of their own food.

“Last year I didn’t know anyone who was growing potatoes,” says Andrei Tumanov, editor of a Moscow-based magazine, Vashi 6 Sotok, that provides advice for dacha owners. “But this year, they’re growing a lot more vegetables. Sales of vegetable seeds are up by 40 percent.”

Yelena Illinguina, for one, intends to spend her entire summer at the dacha this year. “Traveling outside Russia was something we only recently began to experience, and now it’s becoming more difficult again,” says the pensioner. “But the dacha is always there; it’s the place to escape to.”
Some governments, however, aren’t comfortable with citizens giving up travel – at least not domestically. The Japanese are usually among those who can be found, sophisticated cameras in hand, on the streets of Hamburg or the beaches of Hawaii. Not so much this year.

Many are rediscovering the road trip, with the aid of the government, which has slashed tolls on major expressways to help boost the economy. The reductions can add up to a saving of $80 or more on long trips. For Yoshihito Kobori and his family, it will be a group outing. “This summer, we will head off to the western part of the country to see my father in Mie,” says Mr. Kobori, who lives in Shizuoka in central Japan. “My relatives and our family, 10 of us, will go together in three cars.”

There’s only one problem with all the cars on the asphalt: even more of the country’s legendary traffic jams. During Japan’s Golden Week holiday, in early May, the government set up hundreds of temporary toilets for drivers in congested areas and even handed out disposable car potties. (No more description needed.)
Australians are taking advantage of government breaks for leisure as well. Pensioners received a $1,000 check this year as part of a government stimulus package. Eventually, all taxpayers received a $900 reimbursement.

Goran Andersson, a Swedish expatriate living in Sydney, used some of that windfall to take his wife, Anne, on a charter flight to Australia’s wine country, where they spent a week on a “budget holiday.” What’s more, the stimulus check covered half of Mr. Andersson’s ticket to his summer vacation spot: a quaint island fishing village in Sweden. “It’s like a small village from the olden days,” he says. “The modern infrastructure is missing. Pump your own water. No electricity. It takes you back to basic living and it works.”

Such idyllic ideas captivated American thinkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries “when leisure was centrally important in the discourse about politics and the economy,” says Mr. Hunnicutt, the leisure expert. The Great Depression changed all that and gave birth to the 40-hour workweek.
Now the fear among many workers is that the current recession will erode Americans’ leisure time even more. To help stop the slide, one lawmaker, Rep. Alan Grayson (D) of Florida, is going so far as to push legislation that would mandate that companies with 100 or more employees offer at least one week of vacation a year, even for part-timers. The bill would expand the mandate to smaller companies over time.

“Today, Americans are worried about being able to retain jobs, so I think, unfortunately, at times like these, leisure time with family is sacrificed first,” says Monika Stodolska, a leisure expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “What I’m hearing is that we like the European model – who wouldn’t? – but that we can’t afford to follow the European model.”

We can’t?

Whitney Crawford, a recent graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, has been reading up on Finnish cottage culture to see how Scandinavians relax. She says the Finns go to rural escapes to help “calm down and take stock of life.” In that same spirit, even though bereft of vacation money herself, she’s discovering the leafy joys of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park and a pair of rollerblades, as well as cheap dinners at home with roommates.

“I think this economy is tougher on my parents’ generation, because they’re used to creature comforts,” she says. “For me, cutting back means I’m appreciating my friends more, just knowing that everybody is in the same boat.”

And if that’s not appealing enough, Virgin Atlantic just announced it should be ready to begin its space tourism program – in two years.

Contributing to this report were Susan Sachs in Paris, Isabelle de Pommereau in Frankfurt, Fred Weir in Moscow, Takehiko Kambayashi in Tokyo, and Brendan O’Neill in London.

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