On a personal note – The Covid Conundrum and Tourism

With all the negativity of the current situation, I try to focus in this blog on all the things we will hopefully soon be able to do again. It’s been a rocky road for all of us and the questions arises of what comes next. Especially looking at the devastation in the tourism industry, it’s going to be interesting to see how travel will come back. Given my own background in tourism, there is a lot going on in my head that I feel I need to get off my chest! So, please bear with me.

As we are nearing the anniversary of the world officially shutting down, it is save to say that all of our lives have been impacted in one way or another. Everyone is fatigued, if not hanging on for dear life. Coming out of this pandemic, the question is – what are our hopes and dreams going forward as it comes to tourism?
With every passing month of lockdowns and restrictions, more tourism related businesses have to throw in the towel, not being able to operate and pay salaries anymore. Every few weeks seems to be a new round of redundancies, with more friends and industry acquaintances losing their jobs. The pandemic has been hard on all industries, but it has been truly brutal for tourism and everyone attached to it. Many people lost literally everything, some might be able to rebuild things, others won’t. Some friends owning their own companies have been able to hang on, depending on state subsidies or that one great idea to get them through the rough times.

As terrible as it all is, I can’t help but feeling positive and hopeful for the future of tourism. In fact, I hope tourism doesn’t come back exactly the way it used to be! I am optimistic that the pandemic has pushed a reset button for travel to return in a healthier, more sustainable way!

Tourism before the pandemic…

The way things were going with mass tourism, we were headed for a ecological disaster. Emissions were through the roof, too many people were corralled to sensitive ecological areas that couldn’t handle the amount of annual visitors with their waste, their noise and destruction of the natural ecosystems. No one had bad intentions, but greed made people look the other way, not caring about the long term effects.
In Asia, some governments had to already close certain areas for tourism, to give the ecosystem a chance to recover. The island of Boracay in the Philippines or Maya Bay, where ‘The Beach’ was filmed in Thailand are two examples of destinations that had to shut down long before the pandemic, due to the impact of tourism. Bali has been struggling with the effects of mass tourism, not knowing what to do with the mountains of trash left behind by millions of visitors. Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is struggling with the human waste from hundreds of ships polluting the sea on a daily basis.
Apart from the ecological damage, mass tourism impacts local communities negatively too. Traditional and sustainable ways of life for many communities have been pushed away by tourism, impacting family structures, traditions and values. Farming, fishing or other traditional occupations had to make space for more lucrative jobs in tourism. There is nothing wrong earning money in tourism, but if this is the only way local communities can earn money, it usually leads to problems. Especially now, with tourism being put on hold, some communities have no income as they are lacking diversity. With the higher prices introduced to tourists, locals often are pushed out of their neighbourhoods not able to afford a normal lifestyle anymore. In most cases the money spent by tourists doesn’t end up with the locals, but goes back overseas to big corporations.

With COVID now making all the rules, I feel like this is natures way of telling us off; putting us in detention! We have to sit in the naughty corner and have a long, hard think about how we treat the world. I am hoping we use the time well and come out of this better and healthier!
So, should we all stop travelling? Hell, no! I just believe that we need to stop being reckless with our time and resources. We need to stop being selfish!

What needs to change then…?

Done the right way, tourism can be extremely uplifting for destinations and their local communities. Jobs and opportunities are being created and people have a chance to take pride in their heritage, while broadening their horizons thanks to their visitors. Money generated by tourism often funds the protection of ecosystems and endangered species! So it’s not all doom and gloom, the question is just how it is done! I think it’s more important now than ever to travel, to understand where people come from, what’s behind other cultures and why they are the way they are. Go and see the world and by all means enjoy the far flung beaches in order to appreciate what other countries have to offer. And let’s be honest, after the past 12 to 18 months we all need a change of scenery!

Going forward I think we need to be more conscious of the way we travel!
Do we really need to fly 5 times a year somewhere – be it a 2 hour flight or a 12 hour flight – for next to nothing? Do we really need to travel thousands of kilometres, only to make sure we meet people from our own country, speaking the same language, eating the same food and staying in hotels, that make us feel like we never left home? If you don’t want to experience the local hospitality, food and people – what’s the point of travelling then? Travelling should mean getting out of your comfort zone, to throw yourself into new cultures and customs. If you cannot survive for two weeks without the food you are used to, maybe travelling far is just not for you?! Maybe you should choose a holiday destination closer to home?! And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! You can still post a perfectly nice picture on Instagram from your own home country!
I often have to think about Air Asia, one of best – if not the best – low cost carrier in Asia. They offer extremely low fares, good planes and an amazing network throughout Asia. Their slogan is “Now everybody can fly”! But the question is – should everybody fly now? Should everybody go anywhere they want, whenever they want and as often as they want? With these low prices, would it not be a crime to stay home? Travel seems to have become less special, more of a right than a privilege.

Only time will tell if this involuntary freeze on global travel has changed the way we think long term. As much as we want to blame big companies for ecological and social damages caused by tourism, in the end it’s the demand that dictates the offer. To change the face of tourism, we all need to take a look at our own behaviours as it comes to travel. If we all tweak our behaviour a little bit, we have the power to change the world.

What can we all do…?

  • Travel less often, but longer! Instead of many little rushed trips throughout the year, plan one or two great trips you can look forward to, plan and dream about!
  • Travel slower! Once again – less is more! The less you have to spend on transport between too many different destinations, the more money you have to spend on activities, maybe even more expensive activities, maybe some pampering and the overall quality of your stay.
  • Spend the money – make quality more important than quantity! Can’t afford it right now? Wait a little and save some more money! Don’t go with the mass for cheap-cheap, rather pick an operator who works with strong ethics in a sustainable way. It will most likely be more expensive, but such a better experience with a better outcome for everyone involved!
  • Stay away from the generic! Stay in smaller local hotels, experience local hospitality and get to know your destination. Eat in local restaurants, try the street food, check out the local markets – what’s on the menu? Your money will end up with the right people and every cuisine will have one or two dishes at least that will be acceptable even for the dullest palette.
  • Be truly interested in your chosen destination! Make a point of finding at least one project or tour that is dedicated to uplift the local community, wildlife or whatever the case maybe. There are always companies or projects that aim to solve a problem in the destination you have travelled to. Your input, often as small as just showing interest and paying the price for the tour, goes a long way. It doesn’t matter if you spend the rest of your time lazing by the beach, just pick one good cause to help the local community out. In 99% of the cases, these experiences are the most rewarding ones you won’t forget.
  • Explore your own neighbourhood! It seems a natural default for mankind to look for holidays and experiences as far away as possible, never in your own country! Talking to people who have previously been tourists to your home country, makes you realise what you’ve missed and how many amazing things there are to explore! For your shorter getaways – save the traveling time and stay closer by. Over the past year with travel being restricted or even banned, many people were pleasantly surprised exploring their own home countries! Keep it up – support your own local tourism and get to know your own backyard!

What’s the conclusion…?

I have a good feeling for 2021! Once the pandemic is under control and most people have a vaccination, travel will come back stronger than before. New travel companies will have used the downtime to come up with new, better concepts. Old travel companies will have had the time to reset, to re-think and come out stronger than before. People will be employed again. The playing field in tourism, which had become way too crowded, will have cleared, making way for new trends and a new way of doing things! I hope tourist destinations have re-evaluated their own worth, not selling themselves cheaply and putting sustainability before money!

And if we all do our best to be a little bit less of a dick – pardon my French – and a little bit more conscious of our own travel behaviour, we should enter a great new era! Upwards and onwards, I am excited for the things to come!