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Travel psychology: Why do we visit the same places over and over again?

(CNN) — My travel bucket list before the pandemic: hike to Everest Base Camp, cruise to Antarctica, try to visit every prefecture in Japan.

My travel bucket list after the pandemic: go to my hometown and spend time with my parents.

I know I’m not the only one. While nostalgia has always played a significant role in determining where we travel and why, the forced separations and border closures during the pandemic have made nearly everyone in the world rethink where their next trip will be.

Before Covid-19, I believed there were two primary kinds of travelers — people who are always hunting for something shiny and new (hi!) and those who like to dig in deep and spend time re-exploring the same destinations.

Now, I know it’s not necessarily so simple.

How we choose our vacation spots

“Faces and locations can have really deep meanings for us, in terms of how we think of ourselves, and who we are, and how we situate ourselves in the world,” explains Karen Stein, a sociologist and the author of “Getting Away from It All: Vacations and Identity.”

Stein spends a lot of her time looking into how travel — where, how and why — shapes and affirms who we are.

“Everything’s out of whack [right now],” she adds. “And I think being able to go back and do these things from before, that we miss and that brings us comfort and that we enjoy, I think that that’s reassuring.”

Travelers have different reasons for going back to the destinations they know and love. Sometimes those reasons aren’t even things they can put into words — how a certain place stirs our emotions in a way nothing else can.

My own history bears that out. Every time I visit the Outer Banks in my native North Carolina I’m flooded with memories of my grandmother. We were very close, and she died when I was a teenager, so visiting a place that she introduced me to is as close as I can get to being with her again.

Meanwhile, I’m also planning a post-border reopening trip to London — which is more about catching up with relatives, friends and colleagues who live there than it is about going to museums or cafes. (Although, don’t get me wrong, I will also be going to museums and cafes.)

There was a similar mindset at play for Jayson Bautista, a Manila resident who goes to same vacation spot every summer — or he did, before the pandemic.

Bautista fell in love with Sagada, a town in the mountainous northern region of the country, when he visited with a group of his college friends in 2016. Until the pandemic, he returned faithfully every summer to escape the stifling humidity of the capital, each time bringing new “converts” like coworkers and his girlfriend.

“It’s like a religious pilgrimage for me,” he says about his annual trips. Each time, he likes to stay at the same hotel — the Masferre Country Inn and Restaurant, which is owned by a well-known Filipino photographer and has a small gallery displaying some of his work.

Bautista is a creature of habit on his trips, visiting the same waterfalls, hiking the same mountains and eating a local dish called pinipipikan.

“One of the reasons I keep going back is the comforting feeling of knowing exactly what’s going to happen.” Bautista says. And after more than a year of everyone on the planet living in a state of limbo, it makes total sense that travelers are craving a bit of comfort and familiarity.

“I don’t think I need to really plan [Sagada trips] anymore. I just want to do the same things I did before and have a vacation I really enjoy.”

Lingering pandemic-related limitations

Though these travel choices may seem like just personal whims, there is data to back up why we make the decisions we do.

Professor Nikolaos Stylos is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Bristol’s School of Management. His work focuses on the economics of travel and how businesses market their destinations to consumers.

“(There’s) one type of visitation that we call VFF, visiting friends and family. These will be the first trips we’re expecting whenever anyone would be allowed to do so,” he says. “In the short term, this will be definitely the first trips to be happening.”

But what about the second trips, and the third ones? Stylos points out that the long-term effects of the pandemic will add a new layer to travel planning, possibly forever.

After 9/11, certain measures — like removing shoes to go through airport security, or non-passengers being able to drop loved ones off at their departure gate — disappeared permanently.

Even for people who want something new, pandemic-related limitations will likely limit their options.

The usual factors, like cost, will still matter.

But not every country will open their borders to foreign tourists, or perhaps there are hotels and restaurants that had to close permanently, thus affecting availability.

Navigating the new world of travel, with piles of paperwork and potential last-minute cancellations, might inspire someone to pick the spot they already have familiarity with over the one that feels more novel.

What’s next?

Right now, it seems impossible to talk about travel cavalierly. Things like vaccination passports, rapid Covid tests taken at the airport and wearing masks on board planes could remain part of the travel experience forever.

Travel is already regimented based on class and privilege — availability of multiple airlines and providers to choose from, whether you need a travel visa, how the currency exchange works out for you — and the pandemic has only exacerbated that.

But that indescribable something that comes from a truly incredible vacation just can’t be duplicated.

Whether it’s on the other side of the planet or in your own backyard, the places that make us “ping” are like jewels. And everybody should be lucky enough to find one of those jewels in their lives.

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