The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the global importance of the travel and tourism industry economically, as well as its interconnectedness with other industries. Border restrictions, lockdowns and social distancing have affected everyone in the industry, from small tour operators to multinational hotel chains and major airlines.
According to the latest World Travel & Tourism Council, COVID-19 will affect, in a baseline scenario, an estimated 121.1 million jobs, and more than $3.4 trillion in GDP could be lost in 2020. The longer-term damage to the livelihoods of those in the industry remains to be seen.
But while the negative repercussions of the crisis are uncountable, some side effects can be harnessed for positive change in the future. The World Economic Forumâ€™s recent Rebuilding Travel and Tourism panel, at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit, explored the intersection of consumer consciousness, technology acceleration and destination management â€” and found solutions that have the potential to reshape the way we market, manage and plan our travel.
Travelers are becoming more impact-conscious
The COVID crisis has made the travel and tourism industry, like many others, ask: "Should we keep doing things the way we did before?" The answer is, "Of course not," but too often the prospect of achieving real change feels impossible to tackle. We must seize this moment where individual collective action can reach a critical mass to enable structural change.
Adventure Scientists' Gregg Treinish reached this realization himself a number of years ago when he reflected on his travelsâ€™ purpose and practice. "I started to feel extremely selfish, like going to these places for my own benefit without thinking about the local people that were there, without thinking about the environment I was traveling through and how to do something positive for those areas," he said.
He extrapolated that there must be others like him, keen adventurers who, given the simple tools and ways, will choose to make a difference. He formed Adventure Scientists, a nonprofit that equips individuals that have outdoor skills with the tools to collect scientific data from nature during their travels.
Now, COVID-19 has given travelers a forced time-out. Promisingly, more people such as Treinish are stopping to reflect on their travel patterns and, most important, their impact. People are asking themselves questions they havenâ€™t before: Will I be a tourist or a visitor? How can I travel in a way that has a positive impact?
Theyâ€™re also expecting answers from the industry. For example, "How many of my tourist dollars will stay in the local economy?"
To date, there have been two barriers to the mainstream conscious traveler: the first was the inquisitiveness to ask those questions; the second was to easily find answers. Measuring claims of sustainable practices and comparing different options while not being taken in by greenwashing was a tall order for travellers to determine for themselves.
The good news is that some foundations have been laid. In navigating travel amid the pandemic, with constantly changing restrictions, travelers have had a crash course in gaining new research skills. During COVID-19, this is taking the form primarily of navigating complex and dynamic border restrictions and assessing the virus risk with fact-based information.
The result has been a win for something other than price-first, as consumers currently think health-first. Now that many travelers have a new mindset and new skills, itâ€™s up to the industry to connect people with accessible and clear information they need to make informed choices.
Tourists are looking for experiences in nature
COVID-19 also may serve to start a virtuous cycle that tackles one of tourismâ€™s headline issues: overcrowding. Before the pandemic, tourists attracted tourists. Millions of travelers would seek out the must-sees in the most-popular must-go destinations at the peak must-visit months.
The pandemic has forced public awareness around personal health safety and the virtue of physical distancing. As such, the prospect of being shoulder to shoulder may not be palatable again. Now, consumers are avoiding crowded places and long-distance travel in favor of local and outdoor activities.
Ruzwana Bashir, CEO of Peek.com, an online platform