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Future of Tourism - Part Six

Future of Travel (Part 6]: Tourism

So far, our articles on the future of travel (Airports, Airlines, Hotels, Cruise Lines) have been speculative in nature.  Our final one on Tourism in the future is aspirational.  How would we like to see tourism evolve?

First, a short editorial.  Borders are starting to re-open; hotels and airlines are starting to ramp up.  But tourism will not go back to “normal” for a very long time.   If restaurants are only half open or so limited in capacity that it is impossible to get a reservation on short notice, if museums are either closed or only open limited hours and access, if London theatres remain closed, if famous parks and gardens have restrictions - this is not going to be fun for a tourist.   It’s not enough to see borders open again and flights start up.   Getting back to “normal” is going to be painfully slow, with lots of set-backs, as the entire infrastructure is re-established.

A “second wave” is inevitable.  We need to lobby our governments to prepare now.   Almost no government in the world was ready for a pandemic. This shut-down was only necessary to avoid overwhelming the health care system.  Governments failed miserably to protect seniors in their facilities.  By Fall, we’d better have systems in place (testing, adequate PPE, contact tracing, protocols for seniors’ homes, etc.) to avoid a second shut-down.  We cannot go through this again!

Before we talk about the future of tourism, here’s some background.  For the past few years, global travel has reached unprecedented, and I believe, unsustainable levels.  The combination of over-capacity, which drove down costs, and the entry of affluent travellers from the developing world, caused an explosion in tourism.    While a good thing for those who never dreamt of being able to see the Taj Mahal or Machu Pichu, mass tourism to places that were culturally sensitive or environmentally vulnerable has caused damage.  Until the advent of COVID-19, the pace of tourism growth seemed to be unstoppable; but many alarm bells were being set off.  Anti-tourism sentiments were growing in places like Reykjavik, Venice, Barcelona, Egypt – even my home town of Picton, Ontario! 

Not only were tourists driving local prices up, which in third world countries could be devastating to the indigenous population, but cultural treasures and landmarks were being damaged, local renters were being displaced by the explosion of AirBnB, quaint towns were becoming unlivable, and the environment was being damaged.  Then, COVID-19 happened, and the world – almost literally – stood still.

Hundreds of articles have been written about how tourism will change in the short- and mid-term.  New hygiene and physical distancing protocols will add layers of difficulty to travelling and enjoying local experiences.  Museums will open one day, and suddenly shut down the next.  Theatres may not open for a year.  Restaurants will be hard to get into with lower capacity rules.  Just entering some countries may be an ordeal due to screening protocols.

Most of this will eventually sort itself out, and in theory things will eventually return to “normal.”  Or will they?

We don’t think so.  As argued in previous articles about Airlines, Hotels, and Cruise Lines, the new hygiene and physical distancing protocols will lead to increased costs.  Further complicating the picture, some airlines, hotels, and other tourist infrastructure may never re-open.  Those that do will be slow to scale up to levels pre-COVID.  All this will drive prices up.

Travel to much of the world will be less commoditized and more exclusive – akin to the way things were before this period of relentless growth.  The recent era, in fact, was not “normal.”  It was the exception.  Throughout human history, travel has been a rare adventure, open only to the privileged or adventurous few.   Even when baby boomers started to travel in the 60’s and 70’s most had to save their pennies before they could afford to trek around Europe for a summer or fly off to Australia. 

Until just recently, however, it was no big deal to get a cheap flight to anywhere in the world.  Global travel was almost as simple as a trip to Costco. Commoditized tourism will never disappear, but it will revert to the way it used to be – mostly package deals to sun destinations.  For the rest of the world, we believe travel will become more costly, and perhaps out of reach to many.   

There are two kinds of tourism.  Let’s call the commoditized kind “Relaxation/Recreational tourism.” This is travel to sunny resorts, where the goal is to get a tan, unwind, and swim, hike, surf, etc.  Let’s call the other “Exploration tourism.”  While the former tends to depend on cheap charter flights or giant cruise ships to mainly warm destinations; the latter covers the globe using international flights.   Neither of these will go away; but we think “Exploration tourism” will become more expensive, and with higher prices comes transformation.

Here is our hope.  With this long “pause” in global tourism imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the expectation of a very slow recovery period to follow, the world has time to re-assess how tourism should operate.  Do we want pristine beaches in remote islands of the world to once again crowd out local residents and animal life during high season?  Do we want rents in large, popular tourist cities to be unaffordable to young people and the poor?  Do we want the oceans to be polluted by giant cruise ships?  

We don’t expect to see much change in Relaxation/Recreational tourism.  It will always be commoditized.  Tour companies will continue to compete ruthlessly with each other over price.   Exploration Tourism is where the big changes will occur.

As mentioned in previous articles, expect to see smaller tour groups and smaller cruise ships.  Expect a spike in private tours.  These kinds of tourists will more than ever be seeking unique experiences.  “Tourist traps” and over-run destinations will decline. 

It is well-known that mass tourism has been destructive – both to resident populations and the environment.  Could this crisis change tourism into a force of good?  Lower numbers of people travelling will reduce tourism’s carbon footprint.  But could this crisis transform tourism in positive ways?

We believe this pandemic has driven home the insight that we are all part of the “global village.”  Something that happened in an obscure province in China ended up have a massive impact on the entire human population.  We see, more than ever, that the things we do have global repercussions.   Wildlife is venturing back into vacant cities.  More commuters bicycle to work.  Entire companies have shifted staff to home offices.   As challenging as this moment in history has been, we are witnessing positive changes; and many of us – future tourists included – want to be part of  a permanent change in the way we relate to other cultures and in our impact on the environment.

In a poll taken during this pandemic, 40% of travel buyers said that sustainable travel will have a higher priority than pre-COVID-19.  Only 4% said lower.

We think the exploration tourist of the future will want to go beyond sustainability.  They won’t settle for just doing no damage.  Many will pay a premium for what is called “regenerative tourism” – creating positive change.  Leaving a place in better shape than you found it.  Companies like G Adventures and Adventure Canada, which The Travel Group has supported for years, embed this principle into every tour they organize.  They work with local indigenous staff wherever possible.  They invest money from every trip back into local communities.  They encourage customers to buy local, authentic products and to show sensitivity to local customs.

COVID-19 has been a devastating event.  Much of the world’s population will suffer long-lasting effects.  Careers and businesses have been ruined.  Lives lost or damaged irreparably.  Let those of us with the means to travel in the future commit ourselves to spending our tourism dollars mindfully and make choices that have a positive impact on our world.

David Elmy, President
The Travel Group


Here's the last of my six-part articles on the future of travel - tourism.  While the earlier ones are based on following recent trends, I admit this one is more wishful thinking.  I'd love to hear your own views:

Future of Travel Series - Tourism.pdf402.12 KB