COVID-19: Is it time to press the reset button?

COVID-19: Is it time to press the reset button?

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

The current crisis is without parallel, the first global pandemic in the age of mass tourism. Any return to business as usual looks uncertain. The first tentative steps to relax lockdown are beginning to be taken in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain, China, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. Countries have variously closed borders and used quarantine, isolation and social distancing to reduce infection rates. Just as countries entered lockdown at different times, they are emerging according to national, and in some cases, regional, circumstances and preferences. It is not clear when treatments and a vaccine will be available. The world will live with COVID-19 until it has been eradicated, treatment becomes routine and effective, or a sufficient proportion of the population has developed immunity to avoid further epidemic outbreaks. The WHO has pointed out that presently there is no evidence that recovered patients are immune to re-infection and advised against immunity passports and certificates.

Confronted by the common challenge of restoring normal life without increasing infection rates, countries have responded in ways which reflect their circumstances, culture and their government structures. Austria is planning to reopen museums and libraries from mid-May, in Denmark hairdressers are open, and in Italy, bookshops have opened. But the future for tourism looks particularly difficult.

It is clear that tourism, relying as it does on people spending time away from home, faces some particular challenges as lockdown is loosened.

  • Air, coach and train travel will be unattractive requiring proximity in a confined space with people who may be infectious.
  • There will be fears of the reintroduction of lockdown at home or in the destination, in either event, travellers may find themselves trapped away from home.
  • Source markets will have higher levels of unemployment and likely higher levels of taxation. Discretionary spend for the majority will be limited, whilst the aspiration for travel may be undiminished, the money available to many travellers may be more limited.

For tourism to restart the source market and the destination will both need to have moved beyond lockdown and consumers will need to have both confidence and the financial resources to travel. Travel insurance will not cover COVID-19 risks. Domestic tourism and VFR will likely recover before international, but large countries are likely to maintain restrictions on internal travel. There are reports of domestic tourism restarting in Vietnam, and in Spain families with children are being allowed back on to the beaches. Destinations will compete to woo visitors to return to business as usual. There are reports in the British press that Sicily will pay half the cost of the air ticket, attraction entry fees and hotels. However, this may not be a sustainable solution.

Are there opportunities to rethink tourism during the COVID-19 crisis?

Can countries and destinations use the COVID-19 crisis to make tourism better? Many destinations have before COVID encouraged unlimited growth; they have, in effect, been used by tourism. Has COVID-19 created space for reflection about tourism and about how countries and destinations want to use tourism? Some have begun:

  • Destinations have been maintaining a meaningful connection with former visitors and looking for new travellers after Covid. For example, Visit Scotland has had a big success with its Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder. VisitScotland described it as a “virtual hug to fans of Scotland, near and far, with a heart-warming film asking them to dream about visiting now, but to travel later.” In just five days the film reached 1.6 million people.
  • Amsterdam plans to reduce noise starting this year. With everyone staying at home during the lockdown, the difference in noise levels is palpable. The city is consulting on wide-ranging plans to reduce noise through noise reduction action plans.
  • Milan city council has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. They plan to reopen on a different basis from before Covid-19. “We think we have to reimagine Milan in the new situation. We have to get ready; that’s why it’s so important to defend even a part of the economy, to support bars, artisans and restaurants. When it is over, the cities that still have this kind of economy will have an advantage, and Milan wants to be in that category.”
  • Edinburgh city council has been concerned about overtourism for some time. Under the council leader, an action group bringing together the council and tourism leaders has been formed to recover tourism. “It is so important to the future of our Capital that we remain committed to sustainable and responsible tourism when businesses open again and keep our focus on the priorities we agreed last November – to put our people, place and environment at the heart of our plans.
  • Kerala has developed greater resilience in the wake of recent extensive flooding, and they were quick to bring Covid-19 under control. The Responsible Tourism Mission has been uploading videos of its artisan and craftspeople on social media; in April, they filmed 500. They anticipate that the emphasis on hygiene and social distancing will advantage rural tourism and they are focused on attracting tourists from within the state. more
  • Year-round hotels, restaurants, cafes and shopping malls will reopen on June 1, but distance rules will apply and staff will have to wear masks. The Minister of Tourism Haris Theocharis, has said on BBC radio that Greece aims “to be able to open at some point in July. Of course, this cannot be done for all countries, for all destinations, I recognise that, but at least we should try to open bilateral communication and travel with some countries,”
  • York receives 8m visitors each year crammed into The Shambles and narrow snickets. The York Retail Forum is developing a confidence charter to give visitors peace of mind, with on-street hand sanitizers, a ban on selfies and one way pedestrian streets and snickets. Rachael Marshall the local MP has commented: “The whole economy of the city is going to have to be reset and it’s an opportunity to do that because there has been a high level of underemployment and low productivity spread across the retail, hospitality and tourist sectors, and we have a deficit of good quality, skilled jobs in the city.”

But International Tourism activities have been seen as one of the main ways COVID-19 has been transmitted around the world. Strict measures need to be in place for would-be travellers and countries to regain confidence.

Countries and destinations that are virtually virus-free will be very unlikely to want 100,000s of international visitors per week, arriving from countries where COVID-19 is still prevalent. Not only because of increased infection rates but also because of the very small number of ICUs are available to meet the needs of the local population, let alone for huge numbers of extra tourists. It would be irresponsible to recommence international tourism under these circumstances.

What can be done to give these countries the confidence that arriving tourists are not carrying COVID-19 to their country and what measures need to be put in place to deal with any outbreak were it to occur despite the measures in place?

Currently, Government measures relating to testing are aimed at finding out who has the virus and isolating and treating individuals infected. These tests are paid for by the Government.

For International Tourism, testing needs to be carried out to identify those who do not have the virus and can, therefore, travel to the destination. This testing needs to be carried out very near to the departure date, with very swift official confirmation made available to the traveller, the airport, the airline and the destination country, probably as an addition to the API(Advance Passenger Information) system. This Testing service should be paid for by the traveller. (There is a huge commercial opportunity for the supply and testing of hundreds of millions of tests for travellers.)

This would give confidence to airports, airlines, ground transport and accommodation suppliers and the local population that travellers are virus-free. Equivalent measures need to be taken by all the suppliers to give confidence to travellers.

In addition, a track and trace system needs to be made available in every destination. This will require every arriving passenger to install a tracing app on their smartphone and for each destination to assemble track and trace teams.

The advantage of these arrangements is there will be no need for social distancing because it is known that no-one has COVID-19. All the airline and transfer seats can be used and hotels will be able to use all their restaurant and other facilities.

Will travellers’ fears be allayed by the introduction of such systems of surveillance? Some will remain sceptical, particularly the more vulnerable and those concerned about civil liberties, others will regain confidence quickly and prices should normalise relatively quickly.

The sources used for this piece and much more information about the impact of Covid-19 on travel and tourism can be found here.

Martin Brackenbury profile image

This post is written in collaboration with Martin Brackenbury. Martin is a member of the UK’s Tourism Hall of Fame and is a recipient of a number of significant awards. He has advised Governments and the private sector on responsible tourism development in more than 40 countries in the past 30 years.

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Harold is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracted 4000 participants in 2020 and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Latin America. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.

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