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Can the tourism industry recover from the Covid-19 pandemic?

Can the tourism industry recover from the Covid-19 pandemic?
03 Sep
The sudden cessation of international tourism as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world's largest employer to a standstill, with widespread hardship following in its wake. Can the sector recover?

Two-minute instant noodles – hardly a nutritious dinner, and not the first thing anyone thinks of when considering the effects of a global pandemic. Yet, according to Dr Jaeyeon Choe, a senior academic at Bournemouth University and a member of the Mekong Tourism Advisory Group, with jobs in tourism now entirely gone, the cheapest two-minute noodles are what some people in Bali are now forced to live off.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of Covid-19 on tourism. It is harder still to overstate the impact on those countries, regions and resorts that are heavily dependent on foreign visitors. From the beaches of Bali and Fiji, to the Safari parks of Kenya and South Africa, the impact has been devastating, throwing into sharp relief the over-dependence of some economies on a constant influx of cash-wielding visitors from the other side of the world. ‘This is the worst tourism crisis ever in human history,’ says Choe. ‘In Bali, they are losing crazy amounts of money every day. The impact has been devastating economically. It’s beyond imagination.’

The statistics are phenomenal. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council more than 197 million jobs could be lost globally if barriers to global travel, such as blanket anti-travel advisories and quarantine measures, remain in place. The US Travel Association has projected that close to five million travel-related American jobs will be lost – more than 25 per cent of the 15.8 million Americans who work in the sector.

Meanwhile, in June, the International Air Transport Association warned that the ‘worst may be yet to come’, with between 6-7 million jobs supported by aviation in Europe at risk. In a letter to employees, the CEO of Air New Zealand, Greg Foran, warned that the flag- carrier would only survive the crisis by restructuring into a ‘much smaller’ company. ‘We are planning to be a domestic airline with limited international services to keep supply lines open for the foreseeable future...’

‘Sometimes I have to pinch myself to think that our borders are closed and likely to remain so for a very long time. It’s just unprecedented,’ says James Higham, a professor of tourism at the University of Otago, New Zealand. ‘The industry’s been crippled. There’s no other word for it.’

The impact is particularly dramatic because, before Covid-19 hit, tourism was the largest employer by sector on the planet, giving work to one in every 11 people. But of course, the impact is not being felt the same in all regions. Those locations most dependent on international visitors face the biggest struggle, with those in developing countries, where government support is less far-reaching, the worst off .

‘There has been no direct strategy to support those who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19 in tourism,’ says Job Odhiambo, a sustainable tourism professional speaking from Kenya. ‘Support to those who have lost their jobs has been arrangements between the employer and the employee. Some hotels in Kenya for example allowed laid-off workers to access healthcare insurance cover and also provided them with food donations. These strategies were short term however, because Covid-19 impacts on tourism were initially expected not to last longer than three months.’

South African-born Paul Gardiner is the CEO of Mantis Collection, a hotel group made up of luxury eco-lodges and hotels. ‘What’s been amazing is comparing the first world to the developing world,’ he says. ‘In the UK, you’ve got an economy which is robust, sound, and is being supported by government. In South Africa, there was a very stringent lockdown. I think that was a bold move, a good move, but of course if you apply a first-world tactic to a third-world country it harms the economy so much. You have got a country which was almost on its knees pre-Covid. It was just going into recession when the pandemic hit.’

MeditationVietnam has seen a surge in domestic tourism. In June 2020, in Danang, Vietnamese people do yoga and relax on the beach

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The situation reflects that in other countries already grappling with concurrent crises. Dr Davina Stanford, course director of the Responsible Tourism Management MSc at Leeds Beckett University has undertaken research in the Gambia and led several study tours there. ‘The Gambian tourism industry has faced a number of challenges over recent years,’ she says. ‘They were affected by the Ebola crisis, even though there was no Ebola in the Gambia. Then there was all the political unrest in 2017 with the handover from outgoing president Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow, that saw a mass evacuation of tourists. And most recently, just before the coronavirus, there was the collapse of Thomas Cook, and they were a key carrier into the Gambia.’

While some countries can, and are, shifting their focus to domestic tourism, this is hard to do in places lacking a wealthy middle class. As luxury resorts, Mantis in South Africa is almost entirely dependent on foreign visitors. ‘It’s pointless even opening our doors now. We could lower our rates and allow South Africans to come, but it doesn’t make sense to open up a five-star lodge if you’re going to be losing so much money,’ says Gardiner. ‘We’ve had to cut back on all costs, we’ve obviously had to make staff changes. But we are desperately trying to hang on to our team of people.’ He adds that Accor (which acquired Mantis in 2017), has set up an emergency fund and money is being used to distribute food to staff.

The situation in South Africa is now spilling over into anger. In late July, workers in the tourism and leisure industry began staging protests under the banner #ServeUsPlease, holding signs with slogans such as ‘drop the curfew’ and ‘let us do what we do’. The reaction from local police was fierce, with reports of stun guns and water canons being used to disperse protestors.

Elsewhere, tourism-reliant island nations are feeling the strain. In the South Pacific, Fiji Airways laid off 775 employees. In Vanuatu, 70 per cent of tourism workers have lost their jobs, while the Cook Islands is estimated to have experienced a 60 per cent drop in GDP in the past three months. According to a report written by Apisalome Movono and Regina Scheyvens from Massey university in New Zealand, people are coping in the short term by reviving subsistence farming, fishing and bartering for goods and services.

The situation is similar in Bali where people have been forced to return to their villages. ‘Seventy per cent of people rely on tourism in Bali, that’s quite unhealthy and when these things happen the impact is too big,’ says Choe. ‘They have experienced this before from earthquakes and SARS, but tourism always picked up quickly. They are saying this time might be different.’

Early attempts to ease the situation have had a rocky start. The Trans-Tasman bubble that would connect Australia and New Zealand had stalled at the time of writing due to rising cases of the virus in Australia, while at the end of July, the travel corridor between Spain and the UK came into question when the UK imposed a 14- day quarantine on people returning from Spain.

Bali farmingIn Badung, Bali, a worker farms seaweed. Outside of the main tourism areas many Balinese people live below the poverty line

Higham thinks that regional agreements will eventually result in a bizarrely segmented world. ‘I can foresee a two-tier system where we have safe destinations such as New Zealand – where we’re pretty adamant that our Covid-free status is not going to be compromised, even though it might mean we’re isolated for a decent while – and others that are not necessarily safe in terms of Covid, but where tourism can still function.’

And yet, as huge as the current crisis is, prompting many destinations to hope (understandably) for a return to the status quo – a bigger question hangs over the tourism industry. Does returning to business-as usual even make sense?

Few deny that tourism is bedeviled with problems. High carbon emissions seriously imperil global climate policies, a situation that was getting worse before the pandemic hit, as people increased the distances they travelled while also reducing the length of stay. Researchers have also pointed to the fact that growth in arrivals has combined with declining spending, lowering the value of tourism for local communities.

Then there’s the issue of over-tourism. Locations as diverse as Barcelona, Machu Picchu, the Isle of Skye, certain Thai beaches and Venice (where the 30 million visitors who pound the streets every year have led to an exodus of Venetians) have been putting out desperate pleas for help following unbearable influxes of visitors in recent years.

EmptyVenice3In May 2020, in an empty Venice, gondoliers take the opportunity to practise

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For many academics in the field, the vast upheaval of Covid-19 provides an opportunity to craft a more resilient and sustainable tourism sector. Amid the despair, and with a realisation that the challenges are huge, there is a sense of optimism emerging. ‘There have been some really interesting discussions about how we might take this as an opportunity to rebuild something that’s far more sustainable than the tourism that we’ve had in the past,’ says Higham. New Zealand has already moved to prioritise the marketing of domestic tourism, something it hasn’t done since an iconic 1984 campaign called ‘Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country’. Th is sort of thing is essential for the future of tourism, according to Higham.

‘We have high private vehicle and high air travel dependence,’ he says. ‘Obviously, air travel dependence isn’t going to change because no one in New Zealand has a great interest in being isolated from the world that surrounds us. But the way we’ve travelled in the past is very different to the way we travel now. Previously, overseas travel tended to be for relatively long durations. That’s being replaced by regular, recurrent, long haul travel. The formula has got to change and I think Covid has opened people’s eyes.’

Venice busyThe streets of Venice bustled before the pandemic hit

Other regions too have already begun to appreciate the power of domestic tourism, something that could be better for the environment and an economic win. In 2019, Vietnam attracted 15 million international tourists but had 80 million domestic tourists. ‘They shut down their borders but they haven’t had to shut down local transport for the last three months, so domestic tourism has been very active,’ says Choe. What’s more, per person, per day, domestic tourists in Vietnam spend more money than international visitors. ‘Southeast Asia in general has been a playground for foreign tourists and local people have been serving those foreign tourists. From a social science perspective that’s kind of wrong. I think it’s a good trend that local people can enjoy their own resources. Socially it’s positive, but economically it’s good too.’

Countries such as Kenya, Botswana and the Kingdom of Eswatini have also shift ed resources to attract more local people. ‘Kenya has had a strong domestic tourism market for some time, outnumbering international visitor numbers,’ says Odhiambo. ‘The issue however is that tourism prices, especially wildlife safari packages, have for a long time been expensive for most Kenyans. Strategies such as reduced park-entry-fees for citizens, easing of restriction of movement within the country, and requesting private-sector tourism providers to reduce their prices and meet Covid-19 safety requirements were introduced by the government. These strategies showed signs of success as soon as they were implemented, with Kenyans visiting National Parks and reserves in large numbers. This situation has rarely been witnessed before, especially at destinations such as Nairobi National Park and Maasai Mara reserve.’

In regions where this shift is less realistic, two things are important. Firstly, over-reliance on tourism has to be addressed. ‘I think it is crucial that any funding or aid packages look at other initiatives alongside tourism, because it is so vulnerable to these shocks,’ says Stanford. She points to the Youth Empowerment Project in the Gambia, sponsored by the International Trade Centre, which seeks to address the causes of migration out of the Gambia by supporting youth employment, both in tourism and other sectors such as agribusiness.

Secondly, international tourism has to become more responsible and sustainable. ‘Tourism should be planned and managed for local communities to create sustainable wealth, not sustained dependency,’ says Odhiambo. ‘Local communities should be considered as equal and important partners in any type of tourism development.’

Too often, tourists gather in one small region of a country and the benefits fail to spread beyond these areas. In the Gambia, an attempt to encourage a new cohort of environmentally and culturally engaged visitors to stray away from the popular coastal resorts has been developed through new responsible tourism products such as the Ninka Nanka Trail. The trail, named after the oral legend of the Ninka Nanka, a mythical dragon said to reside in the creeks of the River Gambia, takes in villages and communities upriver and is designed to offer cultural activities created in consultation with local communities to help spread the economic benefits of tourism.

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TrailThe Ninka Nanka Trail is an attempt to encourage tourists away from Gambia's coast. Asset NNT Feasibility Study, Design by Art Hotel, illustration by Nigel Kirton 

In similar fashion, Choe is now working on a new tourism model for Bali, based on conversations with small-business representatives. ‘The model envisages a new role for the north and east of the country where there is nothing happening. Yes, many people come to Bali for yoga and meditation – but maybe they can develop farm-tour packages where people stay in rural areas and learn about traditional Balinese farm culture. They could also have yoga and meditation included. People are back in the traditional villages anyway, so they want to utilise traditional things within the tourism product. That’s what some of the rural people want to happen.’

Such plans tally with recommendations included in the The World Tourism Organisation’s Covid-19 recovery plan: ‘One Planet Vision for a Responsible Recovery of the Tourism Sector’. Among other things the report promotes channelling long-term support to small and medium enterprises, supporting conservation efforts through tourism, and repurposing tourism as a supporter for the community.

Optimism however, doesn’t mean it will be easy. Speaking about Bali, Choe notes that: ‘People with large businesses don’t want any change.’ She adds that the government does not provide support to small business owners in the north and east of the country and their desire for marketing and internet skills are not being fulfilled. Then there’s the issue of the tourists who flock to Bali for a life of beach parties. ‘When Chinese and Australian tourists come back to Bali, I don’t know if they will suddenly become responsible,’ she says, with a small laugh.

Stanford adds that the importance of economic recovery could imperil climate change policies. ‘My concerns are that the coronavirus crisis has eclipsed climate change. They’ll be such an emphasis on economic recovery – and quite rightly for many countries – but climate change will fall off the agenda. I think we’re already seeing that. It’s not all fantastic by any means. We do need to be cautious.’

Scarcity drives demand. Most experts expect a surge of international travel when the borders finally re-open. The hope is that this surge won’t be so strong that it sweeps away new initiatives and buries responsible tourism projects. The message is that a kinder, more sustainable tourism sector could be both environmentally and socially beneficial, as well as being good for local economies. It will take some brave leaps forward, but there is at least a chance that current events will provide a push in the right direction.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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