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Will tourism ever be the same again?


WITH the imminent prospect of lockdown repression being lifted, the post-Covid scenario looms. What will the ‘new normal’ be like? Should we be eager, or pessimistic, or encouraged by an opportunity to change things for the better? A look at one major area of economic and social life – tourism – might be salutary.

The elitist Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries was gradually followed by mass tourism, encompassing both the middle and working classes, with the emergence of travel agencies and seaside resorts, fuelled by the dynamic growth of railways. In the 20th century, package tourism developed on the back of increased car and air transport, and travelling abroad became accessible to the majority.

Tourism expanded rapidly. By 2018 it accounted for 10 per cent of the EU’s total GDP, or 441billion euros, and employed 11.6 per cent of workers. Over 50 per cent of global tourism went to Europe. In 2018 tourism grew by 6.1 per cent in Europe, and worldwide by 5.6 per cent.

Problems have emerged alongside growth. Popular destinations have been plagued by negative effects – pollution, water shortages, litter, crime and drug trafficking. Anti-visitor sentiment in cities such as Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona has given rise to ‘Tourists Go Home’ movements.

Now we have the Covid-19 pandemic, with lockdowns, travel bans, social shielding and distancing, a crisis unprecedented in peacetime.

In Italy, nearly a third of businesses might never re-open and millions will remain without work or income. In retail, only 26 per cent of Italian consumers now shop for non-essential items. Of re-opened businesses more than a third are trading at half capacity and two-thirds operate at a loss. State-guaranteed loans might never be repaid. Tourism, accounting for 13 per cent of GDP, lost its entire revenue over the last three months. For hotels and restaurants, strict new regulations will make it nigh on impossible to break even.

Residents in swamped destinations such as Barcelona and Venice feel they have their cities back, with clean air and no Airbnb blight. At first delighted, they realise that the pendulum has swung too far, and their cities are dead.

The suddenly empty streets of Barcelona have prompted a re-evaluation of priorities. The city’s tourist board says: ‘While we couldn’t continue at the speed things were, this is showing us that no tourists are no good either. There needs to be a more moderate way.’ 

The problem is not confined to Europe. The World Travel and Tourism Council has estimated that up to 75million travel-related jobs are at risk worldwide, leading to a global GDP loss of up to $2.1trillion (£1.7trillion) in 2020. 

Looking to the future, passengers might no longer choose to travel in crowded surroundings, especially planes. Some airlines have stopped booking middle seats – commercial suicide in normal times. At airports social distancing may be imposed. Hygiene will become more stringent. The public service of food and drinks will need to change, eg the ‘open buffet’ may be shunned by apprehensive visitors.

Localisation has been recommended – staycations and the avoidance of city crowds and packed public transport may become the norm. Off-season and open spaces, the countryside, boutique hotels and holiday villages may gain favour. Business travel may shrink to essential journeys as more companies work remotely. Inevitable price inflation and the near shut-down of parts of the old economy will see middle and lower income tourists unable to afford normal holidays – an end to the egalitarian availability of a good holiday for all, something that is no longer seen as a treat, but a necessity.

The downturn may change things for the better, and the greener, with more cycling and pedestrian access. Environmental benefits may change consumer behaviour, favouring slower travel, less flying, and more sustainable activity. This is all very well, but however damaged existing infrastructure may be, there remain powerful vested interests, including the cruise industry and international airline and hospitality corporations. The ‘more moderate’ way of the Spanish Tourist Board may prove a non-starter in the 21st century’s polarised society. The redesign of tourism to fit the green lobby’s vision may appeal to the better off and environmentally sensitive, but it remains difficult to imagine the hard partying crowds from Magaluf and Malia settling for cycling to the Yorkshire Dales for a fortnight’s camping.

Some suggest that tourism will not substantially contract in the longer term. Market strategist Bill Blain  claims the sharp decline in airline stocks, eg Ryanair’s stocks down 26 per cent from their February peak, has forced a re-evaluation of the lockdown easing  impact. Southern European countries are desperate to kick-start tourism. Low cost carriers see an opportunity to re-engage with the mass market, and expect UK proposals for a 14-day quarantine to unravel. Airlines will not accept operating at 33 per cent capacity because of social distancing, and tourists will reluctantly accept higher costs. Airline lobbyists even claim that since virus deaths are concentrated among the old and infirm, younger travellers can fly with minimal risk, while the vulnerable can self-isolate.

More troubling is the realisation that consensus is breaking down. For weeks the world was united against the virus, but public opinion is polarising, much as it did with Brexit, and trust in government is evaporating. The economy will undoubtedly recover, at some point, but there remains, for the tourist industry, a vast gap between the brave new world of the green evangelists and the traditional consumer who just wants everything back to normal.

The public’s reaction to the lifting of lockdown is far from certain. Witness the defiant hordes descending on to UK beaches in the weekend’s scorching weather. At Durdle Door in Dorset thousands of sun-seekers crowded down the steep path and on to the beach in spite of protests from residents, until the access road was finally closed. Similar scenes occurred in Bournemouth, Camber, and even roads in the Yorkshire Dales became gridlocked.

The ‘old, old normal’, of the wealthy elite travelling to luxury resorts in their gran turismo limos, is now viewed as socio-politically unacceptable. It was overtaken by the ‘old normal’ of democratic expansion into mass tourism, which is becoming economically and environmentally unsustainable. What will be the new normal for tourism – a return to travel for the rich, an upsurge in responsible travel, or necessary acceptance of exploiting destinations to sustain local livelihoods and feed the mass appetite for sun, sea and cheap booze?

Probably a bit of all three, after a shake-up intermission. After all, as Tancredi opined in The Leopard: ‘For things to remain the same, everything will have to change.’ It will just take time, and the usual opportunism.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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