Commentators, environmentalists, airline bosses – and people like me who run travel companies – are being asked about the future of tourism post-COVID-19.
Our problem starts there. Views from all these people are important, but the underlying reason for many problems in tourism is that we rarely, if ever, seek the views of local residents.
They “host us” in places they call home, earn their incomes from tourism and put up with the problems we cause. Theirs are the most important – and the most conveniently ignored – views.
I read articles delighting in the reduction of CO2 from flying (something we’ve campaigned on for over a decade) – declaring “when the world stays home, the planet benefits,” – and I’m thinking about my friends in Kenya.
I’m a director of a safari company near the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Maasai community is dependent on tourism and cattle. With no tourism and the markets closed, they can’t buy food or easily sell cattle. There’s no Ocado.
Large families live in small accommodations of just a few rooms. Social distancing is impossible. They don’t have our healthcare system or most likely any savings at all.
While we’re sharing our philosophies, they’re wondering how to feed their families tonight.
So my first wish for the future of tourism is that the views of local residents are given equal billing to those in the industry, governments and environmental movement.
North versus South and big versus small
Tourism in the developed North is far better equipped to weather the storm than in developing countries. We have “furloughs,” grants and loans and, of course, better medical facilities.
The recovery will not be equal. For a time, tourism will narrow still further on a few trusted favorites, mostly in the North – those able to invest quickest in health screening and guarantee good medical care in destinations.You haven’t signed up for our daily bulletin?!
Some destinations that can afford it will essentially pay tourists to come. Sicily will pay half the cost of flights, a third of your hotel bill and offer free tickets to museums.
Rather predictably, some tourism giants have thrust themselves to the front of the queue for bailouts.
But the vast majority of tourism workers – reputedly one in 12 globally – work in small or micro businesses (restaurant staff, taxi drivers, hotel room service and front desk, craft sellers, museum guides…) not global corporations. Women make the majority of the workforce, often in lower-paid roles.
My second wish is that those most needing support get it from governments and industry. The developed North relies on many less developed countries to deliver travel “products.” Recovery here requires it there – we need to rebuild together.
Tourism won’t be one of the industries hardest hit by the virus – it will be the industry hardest hit.
In Spain and Italy, tourism accounts for 13% of all jobs. In some developing countries and small island states it’s much higher, with Bangladesh, the Philippines and some African nations among the most dependent on the industry.
For some destinations, swift economic recovery will depend on tourism recovery. And in the desperate drive to rebuild, the temptation will be to sideline climate change. That would be a huge mistake.
But there are reasons to hope.
In recent decades, governments have taken a hands-off approach to regulating business, perhaps no more so than with aviation.
Aviation fuel is untaxed, and the global organization charged with managing aviation’s carbon emissions (ICAO) is funded by the aviation industry.
During the crisis we’ve seen, with public support, governments take a much stronger hand with business.
Should the same support exist on climate change, we may hope for more regulation and taxation of aviation. We propose a Green Flying Duty that would serve to accelerate investment in renewable aviation fuels.
My third wish is that governments take a stronger hand in regulating tourism for the benefit of all – people, planet and culture.
Nature and biodiversity
Tourism has a mixed reputation for conservation. Many a mangrove has been dredged to create an idyllic beach. Habitats have been destroyed to build hotels, roads and other tourism infrastructure.
But while we marvel at wildlife returning to a quiet Venice – and it warms my heart – we risk overlooking the rhinos poached in Botswana because tourism can no longer protect them, local people are desperate and ecotourism has dried up.
Tourism is part of the problem – and part of the solution – for conservation.
Who will be able to afford to travel?
Let’s be clear – we are not all in this together.
Lurking in the background is recession, unemployment, zero-hour contracts and in many cases poverty.
The wealthier will still be able to travel, and that’s a very good thing. We need the jobs and livelihoods their spending creates. But the democratization of travel will take an uncomfortable backward step.
It’s all well for us to say how important it is to rediscover our own backyards – and I support that – but it’s easier to accept if you’ve enjoyed a lifetime of travel, live close to beautiful green spaces and are well served with museums, art and sporting facilities.
It’s a different story if you’re younger, live in cramped conditions and have never traveled – but dreamed of visiting New York or Vietnam. I’d be fascinated to see any comparative figures on how many holidays people from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds take.
My fourth wish is we remember the huge value of the democratization of travel to many people’s lives, indeed all our lives – and redress imbalance where we can. Where tourism assets are underused during recovery, let’s use them for those most in need – and keep democratizing travel.*
* We made a small start on this a few years ago with our Trip for a Trip scheme, where we’ve funded day trips for over 3,500 children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The citizen tourist
Much has been written about the new community spirit fostered under the crisis.
We see extraordinary customer reviews on Responsible Travel. Many customers find a deeper connection with places, and more authentic experiences, as a result of tourism designed together with local communities.
My fifth wish is that, as tourists, we hold onto this mindset, rewarding the companies that demonstrate they care about local residents, culture and environment throughout their entire operations (not just through token donations to charity).
My final wish is that we treasure what tourism offers. Done right, it’s a joyful and important industry – one that deserves rebuilding carefully.
A “future-fit” industry will be a more responsible one – kinder to planet and people, more democratic and accessible. To achieve that, we all need to get on board.