COVID-19 has caused a major upheaval in the travel industry. Maybe that’s exactly what it needs.
In just a few short months, the $2.9 trillion tourism industry has ground to a halt. But just because the industry is not at fault for the interruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t mean it’s entirely guilt-free. The encroachment of people on once pristine habitats, the exploitation of wild animals, and the unmitigated growth of global travel—factors at the root of COVID-19—are problems the tourism industry has been grappling with for years, too. So while the pandemic has brought the tourism industry to its knees, it also presents a unique opportunity. For the first time, the wheel has stopped spinning. The tourism industry that existed before the pandemic is gone. Now is the chance for destinations and travelers alike to decide if we really want things to go back to how they were before. Now is the time to hit the reset button—here’s how we’d like to do it.
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Less than two years ago, a third of the world’s tourism was concentrated in just 300 cities across the globe. That’s more than half a billion tourists, according to the World Tourism and Travel Council, all jostling for gondola rides down Venice canals, trampling the beaches of Bali, and storming the fortresses of Machu Picchu. For travelers, overtourism is, shall we say, inconvenient. It’s longer lines and higher prices and crowds that ruin the view. But for destinations, overtourism can be disastrous with lasting environmental, social, and economic impacts that, among other things, drive up the cost of rent for local people, generate excessive waste and pollution, and lead to an increase in sex trafficking.
Overtourism was such a hot button issue in the travel industry of 2018 that it was shortlisted for the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. Now, for the first time in recent memory, Rome’s St. Peter’s Square is empty and not a single cruise ship is docked at Dubrovnik for the once-daily descent of eager daytrippers. “For a lot of places, this is the chance for them to reset,” Dr. Rachel Dodds, the director of Sustaining Tourism, a Canadian consulting firm, and a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Ryerson University in Toronto. “The tourism industry has mirrored capitalism, [the idea] that more is always better. More is not always better. We don’t want to go back to what we had two months ago.”
Combating overtourism in the post-COVID age, according to Dodds, comes down to planning that considers all the stakeholders involved. For years, tourism has careened out of control with destinations marketing themselves for more and more visitors without stopping to think about the long-term impact on local people and the environment. Only recently have overrun cities and heritage sites begun to consider whether, for example, the money brought by cruise ship tourism to a narrow sector of the tourism industry is worth the congestion, pollution, and other challenges it brings.
“The tourism industry has mirrored capitalism, [the idea] that more is always better. More is not always better. We don’t want to go back to what we had two months ago.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for tackling overtourism, but some cities and sites have already begun implementing plans that may help to reset the tourism industry on a larger scale. Simply ending marketing and advertising campaigns has been the recent approach taken by Amsterdam’s tourism board while in Iceland, they’ve ramped up marketing for destinations farther afield than most tourists commonly venture. Encouraging travel year-round instead of only during the warmest months, taxing day-trippers and capping their numbers, issuing a limited number of time-specific tickets for popular attractions, and putting restrictions on Airbnb rentals are being tested at various overtouristed locations.
Above all though, says Dodds, the issues associated with overtourism can only be improved if destinations begin to look at it as a long game, not a short one. Sustainability, in economic, cultural, and environmental terms should be the ultimate goal, but to get there every stakeholder needs the chance to have their say.
It’s no secret that cruising is among the least sustainable aspects of the tourism industry. Cruise ships have been called out for improper waste disposal, high carbon emissions, and the disruption of marine life. Despite these factors, more than 27 million people climbed aboard a cruise ship in 2018. And then there’s the petri dish problem, of which the arrival of coronavirus was a stark reminder. On a cruise ship, nasty viruses can spread like wildfire.
While dissolving the cruise industry altogether may seem like just the reset it deserves, it’s not that simple. So much of the tourism infrastructure at major port cities is built around cruise ships that if the industry were to disappear for good, it would leave local economic voids of epic proportions in its wake. So how can an industry which, before coronavirus, was worth $126 billion and employed a million people around the world reset?
“Whatever it takes for people to change their behavior is what we need to focus on.”
According to the UN World Tourism Organization, there are several factors the cruise industry needs to address to improve its sustainability in a post-pandemic world. One of the most important is addressing its environmental impacts. Waste disposal and treatment, coral reef protection, and the reduction of air and noise pollution should be priorities, not afterthoughts. And the best way to encourage these changes, says Dodds, is to invite the cruise industry to the table. “Whatever it takes for people to change their behavior is what we need to focus on. Rather than shaming people, we need to nudge them. You can catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.”
As it stands, the cruise ship industry has many negative impacts on local economies. That is to say, in many places it has almost no economic impact at all, at least for the vast majority of the population. Relatively speaking, cruise ship passengers contribute very little to the communities where they disembark for day trips. A 2019 study of Maine’s cruise industry estimated that cruise ship passengers spent just $62 on average per day meaning that even though local people receive little-to-no benefit from cruise ship tourism, they still bear the burdens of congestion, overcrowding, and pollution they bring. But beginning to address this problem could be as simple as reorganizing the itineraries of day-tripping passengers to include more obscure neighborhoods and attractions. The wider participation of local tour guides, restaurants, shops, and other vendors in day trips could help to redistribute cruising wealth to larger segments of the population.
Short of staying off the boat, there are no good solutions yet for quelling the spread of viruses on cruise ships. While choosing smaller ships with a good track record of cleanliness may help reduce the risk of getting sick, they don’t solve it outright. The best way forward, for now, may be to bring the hygiene and distancing habits coronavirus has taught us to the high seas. Frequent hand washing, not touching your face, wearing a mask in public—these can’t reset the cruise industry but they may keep you out of the sickbay.
Emerging destinations may be the sector of the tourism industry best suited to take advantage of the forced pause triggered by the coronavirus. One of the major reasons tourism has gotten so out of control not just at major hot-spots but around the world is because destinations often jump into marketing before they even know what kind of tourists they want, says Dodds. And that strategy can have disastrous effects on a community’s quality of life.
“If I were going to build a big factory in your backyard, there would be a process of community discussion around it. But tourism sometimes sort of creeps up on us when we’re not watching. Sometimes it becomes that big factory before you even know it,” explains Dr. Jonathon Day, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University.
But with communities large and small facing the impacts of climate change, growing economic inequality, pollution, and a variety of other existential threats, sustainable travel is no longer a luxury according to the Center for Responsible Travel, it’s a necessity. “It’s about reframing,” says Dodds. “We need to convince everybody that sustainability is good for their business.”
Emerging destinations have a unique opportunity to bake sustainability right into tourism development and the current break in travel is the perfect time to do it. “Tourism requires planning. It needs to be resilient and it needs to consider and listen to all the stakeholders involved,” says Dodds.
A big part of resetting the tourism industry, says Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, is the improvement of public policy and destination management, beginning with the capacity of governments to guide tourism development. “There needs to be a dramatic shift from spending mostly or entirely on promotion to significant spending on planning and management,” he explains.
That shift alone can have a dramatic effect not just in better addressing the economic needs of local people working within and outside of the tourism industry but on cultural and environmental sustainability. Putting more energy into building infrastructure, for example, can mean better waste management, the reduction of single-use plastics, and decreased greenhouse gasses. “Tourism cannot be sustainable if the public utilities at the destination are not sustainable,” says Durband.
Pre-COVID-19, with climate change dominating headlines, travelers were beginning to question whether airline travel was worth its impact on the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions were growing faster than anyone had predicted with a staggering 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere in 2018.
While air travel only accounted for around 2.5 percent of carbon emissions globally, an analysis by Carbon Brief indicated that by 2050 it could consume 12% of the carbon budget required to keep the Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (the goal set by the Paris climate agreement set to stave off the worst impacts of climate change). The interruption to the airline industry caused by coronavirus, however, has already had a major impact on emissions. According to the TSA, at this time last year, around 2.25 million people each day went through an airport checkpoint in the U.S. Today, that number is down to around 90,000 daily.
The interruption is a welcome break but improving the sustainability of airlines in the long term, that’s a different animal. Airlines have been making marginal improvements to improve their carbon emissions but “part of the problem is [that] the growth of demand for air travel has been outstripping the marginal differences,” says Day. What we really need to reset the airline industry are technological advancements in aviation and fuel. “The time we get a Tesla for aviation is the time where we’ll see really significant decreases in the carbon,” he explains.
So, should we stop flying until those innovations exist? That could have a devastating impact on developing countries for whom tourism is a major driver of economic growth, says Durband. “Negative environmental impacts would be greatly reduced, but if we stopped or reduced long-haul travel from rich to developing countries, the latter would suffer greatly.”
For now, then, much of what we can do to help reset the airline industry boils down to the actions of individual travelers. Flying First Class or business class, for example, increases a passenger’s carbon emissions three to four times more than flying in Economy. Taking direct flights instead of multi-leg trips, traveling with less baggage weight, and using local airports can further reduce a passenger’s carbon emissions. Day also sees some advantages to buying carbon offsets, as long as you’ve chosen a certified, responsible company. While it can’t directly impact the emissions a plane puts out, he says, buying carbon offsets does help.
There’s no question that train travel is significantly more environmentally sustainable than traveling by plane. Train passengers consume a little more than a third of the CO2 as passengers traveling the same distance by plane. Is the train industry perfect? No. There’s a big difference, say, between electric trains and diesel ones. But if we all committed to traveling more frequently by train instead of plane, the difference in carbon emissions would be significant.
The problem is, trains are currently only a viable alternative to planes in a small portion of the world. Outside of Europe, East Asia, and a handful of other locations, trains are few and far between. Those that do exist are often slow and technologically outdated. And just because a train exists, doesn’t make it an ideal choice. Not a lot of travelers want to (or even have the time to) take a multi-day train from Los Angeles to New York when the same distance can be flown in six hours.
If we all committed to traveling more frequently by train instead of plane, the difference in carbon emissions would be significant.
Still, adding more trains to the global transportation system could mean a major reset for the tourism industry. Constructing trains along tourist corridors in Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere, would significantly reduce the need to take short regional flights which burn excessive amounts of fuel in their take-off and landing. Building new train routes could also provide new economic opportunities for lesser-known destinations along the corridor that airline passengers “fly over.” Ultimately, the best way to reset the train industry is to lobby for its growth. The more accessible train travel is, the easier it will be for travelers to make more sustainable choices.
The road vehicle revolution was already underway before the pandemic hit with both manufacturers and consumers pivoting towards electric cars and hybrid models with low emissions. But despite advances, in the United States, our cars still account for around 14% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere annually. So while road trips may seem like a more sustainable form of travel than those that require flights, the difference is not as significant as it may seem (at least in a standard vehicle). Flying from London to Madrid, for example, actually generates fewer emissions per passenger than driving the same distance solo in a car.
Still, there is an argument for choosing local travel over international travel at least some of the time. Generally speaking, the closer you stick to home, the lower your carbon footprint. And while road trips generate a hefty level of carbon for a single traveler, fill your car with friends or family, and the per person greenhouse gas emissions drop drastically. Short of buying an electric vehicle then, resetting the road trip post-COVID-19 boils down to conquering the road as a squad.
While much of the responsibility for negative effects of the tourism industry lies squarely on the shoulders of tourism boards, resorts and hotels, attractions, and transportation companies, we travelers are guilty of our fair share of damage, too. Our choices drive tourism so, logically, changing our behavior for the better could change the industry, too.
“I think it’s really important for everyone to consider themselves either part of the problem or part of the solution,” says Day. If we want to reset the way we travel, we need to consider “the triple bottom line” of responsible travel: how do we spend our money at our destination, what impact are we having on the local (and global) environment, and how can we be good guests by the cultural and social standards of the community we are visiting.
Above all, be a good guest when you travel.
For local people, a responsible, sustainable tourism industry has the potential to improve quality of life economically, environmentally, and socially. “Zero dollar tourism,” a type of travel especially popular with Chinese tourists in Southeast Asia in which everything including transportation, restaurants, and accommodations is owned by foreigners, is the epitome of irresponsible travel. Zero dollar tourists can spend an entire vacation in a country without spending a single dollar on local businesses. By choosing to stay at a boutique hotel or pension, hire a tour guide from a small local business, or eat at a family-owned restaurant, you are simultaneously supporting the local economy, improving the overall quality of life, and getting a more authentic experience.
Environmentally speaking, says Day, we are better travelers when we “bring [our] good habits from home.” Recycling and turning off the lights in your hotel room may be just a drop in the bucket, but if all 1.4 billion annual international travelers adjusted their behavior in small ways, it would make a big difference overall.
And then there are the things you literally bring from home. Even if you’re traveling to a place where only bottled water is drinkable, bringing your own reusable water bottle can mean the difference buying dozens of small plastic bottles and a single jug that will last days. Packing your own shampoo and soap cuts down on plastic waste, too. Carrying a towel eliminates the need for a hotel to give you a fresh one daily, thereby decreasing the amount of water and electricity wasted on laundry.
How you get to your destination and how you choose to travel locally once you’re there is important, too. If you must fly, decrease your impact by flying economy on direct flights, buying carbon offsets from a certified company, and traveling light. Travel by train when possible and, if you plan to do some driving, look for a fuel-efficient or even an electric vehicle.
Above all, be a good guest when you travel. Respect local rules. Stay away from attractions that exploit culturally-sensitive traditions or animals for entertainment. Ask permission to take photos of individuals and in sacred places.
“Very often we have this very entitled approach to travel but while it’s your vacation, it’s their community, it’s their life,” says Day. “Be mindful of the people who are around [you] and their culture and heritage.”