SINGAPORE: When I first learnt about the concept of staycations, I thought it was just another newfangled term that would disappear from our lexicon within months.
I had so many questions and no answers.
Wasn’t the whole point of a holiday to leave the country to experience new cultures and seek out exotic places?
Why would anyone spend the same amount — or more than — a holiday abroad to stay in the country?
Who were these people with ridiculous amounts of money and leave days to waste, when they could explore their own country anytime without booking another place to stay?
In my mind, staycations felt like rainbow cake: Another pretentious fad that masked a grim reality. Like the enticing multicoloured layers that concealed often inferior cake, a staycation was merely window dressing to make those who had to remain in the country for one reason or another feel better about their dismal predicament.
Then I gave in to a good friend’s plea to take a staycation together last year — and I have never been happier to eat my words.
TAKE A HOLIDAY AT HOME
Given the severe impact of COVID-19 on our tourism industry from retrenchment exercises to drastically falling visitor numbers, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) recently partnered other agencies to launch a S$45 million marketing campaign over the next nine months.
The campaign encourages Singaporeans to take a local holiday and rediscover our country while supporting local businesses through various initiatives, including promotions for attractions, tours and hotel stays.
One of these ways is the good old staycation, which has proven it’s here to stay.
Admittedly, I would’ve scoffed at this effort pre-coronavirus and think it a gimmick. Prior to my own staycation, I couldn't fathom that anyone would willingly spend time and money in their country if they’d rather be away. The old me would say it seems more prudent to save the money until we can travel freely again.
THE UNEXPECTED BENEFITS OF A STAYCATION
When I went on my first staycation, I didn’t expect to feel rejuvenated. Even though I only spent a weekend away and my staycation was barely 30 minutes from home, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so well-rested.
Perhaps it was the lack of hassle — no stalking the SkyScanner site for cheap flights, no cumbersome airport security and immigration clearances, and no time difference. No pre-trip anxieties over planning this and booking that, and no post-holiday blues.
Yet somehow, despite being so close to home and work, a staycation removed me from the bubble of my regular life, allowing me to check out of work, family and social obligations and be someone else for a day or two.
These rose-tinted glasses were entirely necessary to help me truly relax. Suddenly, I could rewatch Mean Girls for the 10th time just because. I could take a nap simply because I felt like it. And when I woke, I could get some glorious sunlight by the pool and pretend I wasn’t shackled to my work laptop or enslaved to my iPhone.
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See, before COVID-19, we’ve become so obsessed with productivity as a society that even when we’re on vacation, we subconsciously believe we must constantly do something to make a vacation worth our time, whether it’s shooting photos, visiting attractions or dining at fancy restaurants. We felt we had to check these boxes, partly for our social media followers, because otherwise, it didn’t happen.
After almost every holiday, I often craved taking another to recover from the one I’d just returned from.
Ironically, one of the most amazing ways to spend one's annual leave is to do absolutely nothing.
From my experience, being in your own country allows you to do just that. It gives you a degree of mental freedom starkly different from the high-powered headspace you’ve got to be in while overseas, since there is little to no pressure to jam pack as much exploration as you can into your itinerary.
Here’s the dirty secret for those of us already booking the hotels in Singapore that have recently reopened: Staycations are the perfect middle ground.
They allow for a genuinely relaxing holiday, without jostling with crowds of tourists, struggling to appreciate what year this castle was built and for which wife, navigating foreign streets whose names you cannot pronounce, and other logistical nightmares.
With COVID-19 still in the background of our lives, staycations will likely become an even more attractive option now. Ensconced in a cosy hotel room, we can return to the quiet life pre-COVID, taking a break from the "new normal".
Aside from general escapism, staycations are also practical.
As someone who loves solo travelling, one of the perennial worries I had pre-COVID was falling ill in another country and having to navigate their healthcare system alone.
I’ve heard enough horror stories of travel gone bad, like paying thousand-dollar medical bills for antibiotics for a foot fungal infection and fainting in the middle of a tour in North Korea only to wake up in a hospital where no one spoke English … in North Korea.
No matter how developed the country I was heading to and how well regarded their society is, nothing beats the comforting familiarity of our healthcare system.
Falling sick outside the comfort of one’s own country can also be a horrifying and incredibly stressful experience that may be an entertaining story only in hindsight, but would otherwise turn a holiday into an obstacle course to be traversed.
In a post-COVID world, travel would inevitably be fraught with a heightened wariness, not least regarding how the country we’re visiting has dealt with the dreaded disease.
It is also easier to practise safe distancing in Singapore even at local attractions, since most of us have gotten used to these stringent measures, not to mention the thoughtful markings everywhere.
While I deeply miss the anticipation of being in an airport before take off and the thrill of adventure, the travel bug hasn’t bitten hard yet.
Even as the COVID-19 crisis has forced me to learn how to stay put, I know I’ll get more antsy as months pass without any travel plans.
Some days, I catch myself looking at listings on Airbnb, revisiting old travel photos, vicariously scrolling through Instagram accounts of outdoor influencers or searching for air tickets to remote mountains and beaches halfway across the world.
But mostly, I’m surprisingly content with the thought that my next holiday could well be in a hotel room in Katong.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.