Global tourism came to a grinding halt a few months ago before images of hurried travellers returning home on last-minute flights flooded our screens, and eventually everything came to a complete standstill. Vacant airports, deserted streets, and silent theme parks became the new normal.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in more ways than one. There is hardly anyone who hasn’t been affected by the crisis in some way or the other, seeing as lockdowns and border closures have sealed off entire countries and the travel industry has been dealt a brutal blow. It could take years to return to normal. Discussions on sustainable tourism have been screamed from rooftops till the voices grew hoarse but to no avail. However, the pandemic brings a silver lining for tourism and a hope that the way forward will lead to a change in how authorities manage over-tourism.
Already, a positive impact of people staying home has been observed in terms of the impact it has on a planet plagued by climate change and over-tourism. As the world begins to get a grip on itself, tourism is finally starting to take baby steps as potential travellers eagerly wait to dust off their suitcases and plan their trips. When the borders are fully open, there needs to be a mindful approach to protect not only ourselves but the planet as well, to avoid disasters like revenge tourism.
Travellers are likely to gravitate towards fewer, more meaningful trips. A better kind of travel where the focus will be on experience rather than sightseeing will be valued more than ever. Emerging from our cocoons, we will crave human connections in our travels (albeit with proper social distancing!) be it frolicking with locals on a bike tour in Amsterdam, meeting local chefs in Paris, or going food hopping in Old Delhi’s streets. There is an expected rise of green tourism where offbeat places, the wilderness, and cottages in the countryside will be much preferred over big hotels that contribute to carbon footprints. Hygiene will be a top priority along with reasonable rates and using technology to ensure minimum contact between humans.
Data shows that there is a strong desire to travel, especially in European countries where the virus seems to have passed its peak, and crowds have already started thronging to places which make controlling social distancing difficult. In Amsterdam, the city has been forced to introduce ‘COVID hosts’ to guide tourists and are allowed to close down areas that are too crowded. The popular Spanish island of Majorca isn’t in great shape either where scenes of young German and British tourists roaming around without masks and wreaking havoc on the streets in their drunken haze is becoming increasingly common. Bad tourist behaviour is not just annoying to witness, it can seriously increase cases in small cities and villages by severalfold and lead to the second wave of coronavirus.
Tourism needs to be redirected towards a system that is sustainable and resilient and a far cry from our current operating model. Degrowth strategies can be revisited in oversaturated destinations once travel really starts picking up, to nip the problem in the bud. The Maldives is working on a ‘one island, one resort’ policy where an entire resort will be booked for people of the same nationality, to attract tourists.
The pandemic has laid bare the skeleton of the interaction between tourism, fragile environment, and society like never before. It represents an opportunity to accelerate sustainable consumption and production patterns and build back better tourism.