by Dr Heather Skinner
Almost overnight the travel and tourism industry has gone from focusing on the problems of overtourism to undertourism, and in many cases, the real prospect of no tourism at all in 2020 due to the current Coronavirus pandemic. However, as the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) recently warns that international tourism could fall by as much as 80% in 2020 and as many countries have started to ease their strict lockdown measures, it is time to think about what we want for the future of post-pandemic tourism when we come out the other side of this crisis. By number, well over 90% of all tourism businesses are categorised as Small and Medium sized Tourism Enterprises (SMTEs), and many of these are micro-businesses employing few if any others outside of immediate family. The demise of tour operator Thomas Cook in 2019 hit many of these businesses hard. Now in 2020, tourism business have been hit by the response to COVID-19, an unprecedented global crises that has brought about travel bans, border closures, event cancellations, closure of tourist accommodation, and the grounding of flights all over the world.
“Tourism’s economic and social footprint dwarfs that of any other economic sector ….. [it] is among the sectors most affected by this crisis, and urgent support is required given the millions of jobs that are at risk” especially as the UNWTO acknowledges that this is an incredibly labour-intensive industry, and, of the millions of jobs that are at risk, those who will be affected are more likely to be women, young people, and people living in rural communities. A recent story in Travel Mole reported that the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) suggests that as many as 100 million jobs in travel and tourism could be lost due to this current crisis.
The total effect on tourism numbers will of course depend on how early international travel restrictions are lifted by various countries, with the UNWTO’s lower end estimate of a drop of 58% if international borders start to reopen and international travel recommences in early July of this year, a loss of 70% of international tourists if travel cannot recommence until September, with the worst case scenario of a 78% drop if travel restrictions remain in place until December. With these disastrous scenarios it is not at all surprising that there is a huge focus on recovery of the tourism industry, as fast as possible, in an attempt to salvage some of the tourist season for 2020, even though measures for doing so in a way that preserves travellers’ health, especially for accommodation providers and international air travel, have yet to be ironed out.
The war on tourism (A focus on Recovery)
In an interesting thought-piece, Jim Butcher writes that “travel and tourism have liberated mankind – we cannot afford to lose them to the pandemic” suggesting we need to focus much more on recovery than reform of the industry. You can read his full article here.
Socialising Tourism (A focus on Reform)
However, from the opposing position, rather than a focus on recovery, Dr. Freya Higgins-Desbiolles instead proposes that we should focus on reforming the travel and tourism industry, not to business as usual, but taking this current pandemic as the opportunity to re-think the industry. She writes that: “an agenda to socialise tourism would reorient it to the public good” and would include measures such as governments favouring local businesses over multinationals, and to stop being so focused on “boosterism” using marketing practices to further growth of their tourism industries, but rather to focus on alternative forms of tourism that facilitate the public good, “including educational tourism, citizen science, social tourism, community exchanges, etc”. She also advocates a focus on “alternative models including cooperatives, social enterprises, non-profits and forms of social businesses”. You can find her freely accessible full paper outlining this agenda here.
A Middle Path?
I completely understand the driving force to get back to business as soon as possible, not least because of the number of individuals whose livelihoods will be so badly affected if this crisis endures and the UNWTO’s worst case scenario occurs. So many people have lost their annual holidays already this year, either through the airlines and tour operators cancelling their flights and accommodation, or because travellers themselves have decided to instead book or re-book their holidays for 2021 due to their own public health concerns. As happened immediately following last year’s demise of Thomas Cook, there is already emerging evidence of “profiteering” from airlines and tour operators who have priced their offerings for the remainder of 2020 out of the reach of many holidaymakers. This may be an attempt to recoup lost revenues, but the end result could be quite elitist, if only certain segments of the population can afford foreign travel once this pandemic is over. There is no doubt that, similar to the enduring changes we see at airports that occurred following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA that there will be many enduring changes to travel and tourism post COVID-19.
As we start to emerge from this pandemic there is already talk of some forms of social distancing becoming “the new normal”. Mass tourism, with its resulting overtourism and antitourist sentiments, has proved to be unsustainable due to its effects on the natural and built environment, and on the socio-cultural aspects of destinations. The natural environment is benefitting from the current crisis not least through a sharp decrease in pollution, the built environment is not suffering the same strains on infrastructure, but the economic impact on places that rely on tourism will be very hard felt by many who live and work in tourist destinations, especially SMTEs. We must recover from this pandemic, but I would hope that there could be some sort of middle path taken for travel and tourism in a post-pandemic world – a path that enables reform as we recover. Such reform must ensure that access to travel is not elitist, yet it must focus much more on the public good, where travel and tourism offers many more benefits to the places and people that serve the industry rather than large multinational corporations. Whatever travel and tourism looks like in a post-pandemic world, it must be much more equitable, and also much more sustainable and resilient that what we had before. Yes, we must get back to business, but probably not a direct return to business as usual.
At IPM we are supporting places and our members with a range of resources to help guide and support you through this current crisis. You will find plenty of resources and guidance, including our “COVID-19 Recovery Framework” here on our main website.
 World Tourism Organization (2020). Supporting Jobs and Economies through Travel & Tourism – A Call for Action to Mitigate the Socio-Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Accelerate Recovery, UNWTO, Madrid, DOI: https://doi.org/10.18111/9789284421633