Nomadic Matt | On Having COVID-19 & The Future Of Travel

Nomadic Matt photo on street.

Travel guru and blogger Nomadic Matt needs little introduction. Matt Kepnes first burst onto the travel blogging scene in 2006, when he quit his job to embark on an around the world trip long term. After over a decade of travelling which has seen him release several successful books about travel on a shoestring, Matt has traded his fast-paced budget backpacking life in favour of a more stable home base.

Recently, Nomadic Matt hit the news after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Luckily, he only had a mild case of the virus, so we caught up with him to hear about his recovery and his predictions about how this pandemic will impact the travel industry.

Nomadic Matt interview
Nomadic Matt was one of the first to make travel blogging a career.

Interview with Travel Expert Nomadic Matt

Nomadic Matt on COVID-19

1. First of all – how are you? Are you fully recovered from COVID-19?

I’m back to normal now, fortunately. I was lucky that I only had a mild case (fever, cough, lethargy). I’ve been symptom-free for over two weeks so now I’m just self-isolating like everyone else. That said, even a mild case was not enjoyable so I hope everyone is staying inside!

2. I heard in your recent interview with Rolf Potts on his travel podcast, that you think you may have contracted the virus in Paris. Has anything come to light to since that has made this clearer?

Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to know exactly where or when I picked it up. I was also in New York City, which has been hit by a massive wave of infections. So it could have happened anywhere. No single incident really stands out, which just goes to show you how invasive and sneaky this virus can be (so stay inside everyone!).

3. How do you feel COVID-19 will affect global travel and how long do you think it will take to recover?

The pandemic is going to have a huge and lasting impact on the industry. We’ve already seen publications and tour operators shutter. 10% of the world’s workforce is in the travel industry, and over 75 million layoffs are expected. Even if travel re-starts later this year, it’s going to be a long time before things return to normal. Likely years… And there will be fewer hostels, tour companies, and travel magazines/websites because of it.

4. Do you think backpacking will bounce back in a way that other kinds of travel may not? 

I think there is going to be a lot of people out of work, which means more people will have the time to travel (once borders reopen). As long as those people also have savings they can use for their travels then I expect we will see a small resurgence of backpacking post-COVID — especially since we will likely also see a ton of cheap flights as airlines desperately try to recover. There will also be fewer job opportunities out there, which might spur people to travel.

Nomadic Matt in jungle.
Nomadic Matt on one of his backpacking trips in Southeast Asia.

However, many people just won’t have the money. I don’t expect to see as many people traveling for the next year or two as everyone works to recover lost income and savings.

5. What are your thoughts on climate change? Do you think that COVID-19 is just the beginning of a series of crises that could affect our lives and ability to travel in the future?

The climate issue is one of the most important issues of our generation. It’s also an important topic for travelers since so many destinations are being impacted by it — from pollution and smog to deforestation to droughts. As destinations lose their natural beauty or see an increase in natural disasters, they lose out on the benefits of tourism and eco-tourism which will lead to less travelers visiting those places, impacting their economy.

It’s a multifaceted issue that I’ve been writing about more and more — and one that more and more travelers are starting to become invested in. Hopefully, in a post-COVID-19 world, we will see more and more sustainable travel.

6. How do you think travel / the world could change in a positive way post COVID-19? 

I think we will see a larger emphasis on cleanliness. Travelers will be more mindful of it, as will companies. Before COVID-19, airplanes were only deep-cleaned every 4-6 weeks. That will likely change after all of this.

Additionally, we will see fewer cruises as there is going to be a much smaller demand for them. Cruises are one of the most carbon footprint-heavy forms of travel and one of the biggest contributors to overtourism. Fewer cruises will have a positive impact on many destinations around the world.

Lastly, many cities are already seeing a positive decline in rental prices now that short-term Airbnb’s can no longer be rented. Those short-term rentals (preciously marketed on Airbnb) are now going to long-term local tenants, driving the price of rent down in places where it has skyrocketed thanks to Airbnb pushing up prices and driving out locals. So that’s another huge benefit that’s contributing to a more sustainable and ethical travel industry.

7. Where is the first place you will travel when all this is over?

I’ll be happy to just get anywhere that isn’t inside!

Nomadic Matt on Travel

1. Has the travel changed a lot since you first hit the road? In a good way or bad way?

Travel today is almost a completely different beast than it was when I first started — for better and for worse. Back when I started traveling, there was no Wi-Fi and there were no smartphones. Everything had to be researched in advanced via guidebooks or online forums. You had to talk to people to get up-to-date information. And if that information wasn’t correct, you had to improvise — you couldn’t just whip out a phone and look it up. You’d get lost more and have more misadventures, which made travel much more difficult and frustrating at times. But it also made it more rewarding when you succeeded.

Technology has made travel easier and more accessible, which is a good thing. And no matter where you go you’re just an email away from home. You can easily keep in touch with friends and family and other travelers you meet and you can solve any issues that arise thanks to helpful apps like Google Maps or Google Translate.

But it also means that we’re less likely to engage with the places we visit because it’s so easy to just be connected to your phone and never really leave home. Even though you’re 1,000 miles away, you’re not immersed in the places you’re visiting. So that’s one of the challenges modern travelers need to be aware of.

2. How can we be a more sustainable traveller in 2020?

I think the key here isn’t just to be a more sustainable traveler, but a more sustainable person. The environmentally-friendly choices you make at home are just as impactful (if not more so) than those you make on the road because you’re likely spending more time at home than you are traveling. So, start your journey toward living a more sustainable life at home.

That said, there are tons of things you can do — both big and small — that will lower your environmental footprint.

  • Bring a reusable water bottle to avoid single-use plastic
  • Bring a water filter bottle like Lifetstraw or Grayl Geopress so you can filter water abroad and use less plastic
  • Limit your short-haul flights (short-haul flights have a higher carbon footprint than long-haul flights)
  • Limit your flights altogether — take more trains and buses
  • Avoid destinations that are struggling with overtourism
  • Stick to eating local/seasonal foods
  • Limit your meat consumption
  • Bring a tote bag, Tupperware, and reusable utensils so you can carry leftovers with you and avoid plastic shopping bags and single-use utensils
  • Skip taxis and use public transportation
Matt with monkey
Responsible travel has never been more important than it is now.

3. Do you prefer to travel alone or with company?

While it’s always fun to travel with friends and family, solo travel is what I love. There’s a freedom there that you can’t find anywhere else. You do what you want, go where you want, and don’t ever have to compromise.  It can be intimidating at first, but it’s absolutely liberating too. I really think you learn a lot about yourself when you travel solo, which is why I encourage everyone to try it at least once.

4. Your book is called ‘Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home’ – where is home for you?

These days, home is Austin, Texas. I have an apartment now (with furniture and everything!). I still travel often since I can never really stay put for more than a couple of months. That said, I still feel at home on the road and am just as comfortable wandering about in Europe or Southeast Asia as I am here in Austin. But it is nice to have my own space so I can work, cook, and get a good night’s sleep. After years living out of hostels, it’s a nice change of scenery!

5. Why did you start the Nomadic Network? 

While The Nomadic Network does have a Facebook group, we wanted to also have a stand-alone website so we weren’t dependent on the algorithms of other platforms. Social media platforms change often. And they come and go. We wanted to make our own website so that we could create it the way we wanted without having to worry about other companies impacting it. And we wanted to do more than just have a group where people can chat and share stories. We host meetups in cities all around the world and wanted to make it easy for people to connect with travelers near them. Having a website of our own was the best way to go about doing that.

We’ve already started hosting events in dozens of cities around the world — and we will be hosting more once the pandemic passes as well. In-person meet-ups are the best way to make connections and stay inspired so it’s been a fun project to get off the ground!

Nomadic Matt on Travel Blogging

1. As a pioneer of travel blogging, how has the industry changed since you started your blog?

When I first started blogging, there was no real “industry” — blogging was brand new territory. Over the past decade, it’s evolved into a full-on industry with conferences, competition, best practices, and more. Back when I started, you didn’t need to worry about social media or SEO — you could just write. 

Today, posts need to be optimized for SEO, shared and marketed on social media, and blogs need to have a well-defined niche and topic in order to get ahead. In short, travel blogging is a business these days and a far cry from what it was when I started. 

Nomadic Matt photo on street.
Nomadic Matt says that the industry has changed dramatically over the years.

2. When you started Nomadic Matt did you ever imagine it would become so big? What do you think is the key to your success? 

Not at all! When I started to focus on my blog, my goal was to just make enough money so I could keep traveling. It was a means to an end. Back then, I didn’t really know that I could even make a living from a travel website; the idea didn’t really cross my mind at first. However, after a while, it was clear that people like reading my site. Forums were hard to navigate and guidebooks were often out of date. But blogs? They were up-to-date and personal. That’s why they were able to carve out a space in the industry.

As my traffic started to grow and I started making money, I began to realize that there could actually be an opportunity here. That I could make blogging not just a hobby that allowed me to travel but a legitimate career in the travel industry.

3. Would you still recommend that people start a travel blog in 2020?

Absolutely! Travel is on pause, but it’s not going away. And the industry is always looking for fresh perspectives and unique content. There’s always room for more if you’re willing to put in the work — because it is a lot of work. Fun work, but work nonetheless. There’s no getting rich quick overnight here.

The best part about the growth of travel blogging is that we can now hear from so many different people who may not have had a voice in traditional travel media. There’s no barrier to entry, so anyone can dive in and share their thoughts, advice, and experiences. It’s led to a much more diverse and rich industry — and there is always room for more voices.

Read this post all about how to start travel blog. It is a great article for beginner bloggers who have no idea where to start!

4. What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, since the travel world is on pause, we’re focusing on updating old contents since that’s a task that always gets pushed to the back burner. We’re also working on TravelCon, our annual travel conference, that has been moved from May to September due to the pandemic.

But our newest project is our Patreon. Over the past year, we’ve been transitioning to a more community-supported business model. Part of that has been the launching of The Nomadic Network. The most recent expansion has been our Patreon. Readers can join the community and get tons of exclusive content, live Q&As, postcards, free books and guides, access to our events and courses, and much more. It’s just a fun way for us to better connect with our top fans and offer them something unique and fun.

5. Tell us about your charity FLYTE and what you have achieved so far.

The Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education (FLYTE) is a nonprofit organization that I started in 2015 to empower students living in underserved communities through transformative travel experiences. 

Each year, we send a class from the US abroad so they can have an educational, insightful and fun travel experience. So far, we’ve sent students to Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, and Guatemala.

It’s an amazing project that I’m incredibly proud of. Being able to give back to the community is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Nomadic Matt on Southeast Asia

As our website is about Southeast Asia, we thought we’d ask you some quick-fire SEA related questions:

1. Where is your favourite island in Southeast Asia?

Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta, Thailand
Beautiful empty beaches of Koh Lanta, Thailand.

2. What is your favourite food in Southeast Asia?

I’m a big fan of Thai food so maybe pad krapow or khao soi (found in Chiang Mai).

3. What’s your favourite city in Southeast Asia?

Bangkok. It’s not just one of my favorites in Southeast Asia — it’s one of my favorites in the entire world!

4. What’s your favourite hike/adventure in Southeast Asia?

Hiking in Khao Sok National Park in Thailand.

5. Is there anywhere you feel has been ruined in SEA due to over-tourism?

Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

6. What’s your favourite book about Southeast Asia?

The Beach by Alex Garland (the movie was fun, but the book is better!)  Read more of our favourite books about Southeast Asia here!

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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