COVID-19 and the prospects for the radical transformation of tourism

Map of the world with COVID-19 written across it

Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic all tourist destinations worldwide have imposed travel restrictions while 45 per cent are partially or fully closed. Despite experience of previous disruptions, whether caused by terrorism, financial crises or indeed previous pandemics, few could have predicted the scope and severity of the impact Covid-19 has had on societies and economies worldwide.  Such is the belief in tourism’s resilience that in late January the UNWTO was predicting 3 to 4 per cent growth in tourism for 2020 while the Secretary-General stressed that “in these times of uncertainty and volatility, tourism remains a reliable economic sector”.

The pandemic has not only highlighted the magnitude and scope of tourism’s global economic importance. It has underscored the manner in which the interconnected global architecture of tourism and associated flows of mobility act as a vector for the transmission of such pathogens, nowhere more so than on densely-crowded cruise ships that act as floating petri-dishes of incubation. The UNWTO forecasts that international arrivals could fall by 20 to 30 per cent relative to 2019 while revenues will decline by US$350-400 billion. The OECD forecasts a 45 per cent decline in international tourism in 2020 rising to 70 per cent if the recovery is delayed until September.

That this constitutes a profound crisis and major turning point for global tourism is beyond doubt. It nevertheless remains vital that we resist calls to simply ‘aid’ the recovery of the industry, and to challenge interpretations of the crisis as a mere “bump in the road”. While it is too early for a comprehensive analysis of the pandemic’s repercussions for the political-economic structure of tourism going forward, many are optimistic that the abrupt collapse of tourism will enable destinations to take stock and to challenge the current growth trajectory of tourism and align it with the social and ecological limits. Certain destinations have already begun to rethink how to rebuild their tourism sectors in line with sustainability goals. For some, such as Hawaii, this involves limiting visitor numbers and redirecting marketing towards smaller groups of higher-paying tourists seeking cultural and natural experiences. Amsterdam meanwhile has embraced Raworth’s regenerative model of doughnut economics in order to realign the urban economy with social and environmental goals.

This is an excerpt from an article by Raoul Bianchi, originally published on ALBA SUD


Travindy is an independent website featuring news and opinion on all issues to do with tourism and sustainability. Written primarily for an industry audience, our aim is to support the transformation of the sector into one that is regenerative, restorative and fully inclusive.

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