Over one-year into the pandemic, traveling is perhaps one of the things that we all miss the most on a personal level. As, the symbol of what the long and repeated lockdowns have taken away from us, travels are seen as an antidote to the isolation and disconnection that most individuals have been experiencing.
But while the inability to travel has penalised tourists, it has been the host communities that have really paid the highest price for this.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in pre-COVID-19 times tourism accounted for 10.4% of the global GDP, reaching peaks of almost 15% in some regions–for instance the Caribbean. The unpredictable, sudden halt to tourism activities occurred in 2020 caused serious losses in terms of jobs and income, making it more evident than ever how some communities are largely reliant on tourism.
Institutional coordinated response
As governments are told that they must find bold, coordinated solutions, they are now attempting to restore trust and enable citizens to travel again, while guaranteeing the protection of collective safety and health. Tourism was once treated as a mainly domestic policy, and a driver of competition among countries, but now has started to require strategic coordination and cooperation at the international level. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) is taking the lead to drive regional initiatives aimed at restoring tourism activities, making the sector a priority and strengthening support mechanisms for workers and impacted communities.
In the European Union (EU), national governments are joining forces in a coordinated response to regulate free movement for tourism across the bloc, preventing discriminations that would favour some regions over others. Additionally, EU Member States have convened on a joint approach for the next decade, establishing their vision “for an economically, environmentally, resilient, and socially eco-friendly tourism sector in Europe”.
This unprecedented coordination is a clear sign that public institutions are recognising tourism as a vital asset for societies. Based on this trend, we should expect the public stimulus and recovery efforts being deployed in the next years to devote special attention to tourism as a driver of social wealth.
A renewed role for the tourism industry
This whole new public attention represents an opportunity for companies operating in the tourism sector. However, the emerging model will require an adaptation of the vision and the offer promoted from within the industry.
In the new setting, companies will need to live up to the expectations of both local communities and consumers—whose demands are rapidly changing.
Host communities will likely become more demanding in the way they cooperate with private players to design the local tourism offer. Empowered by institutional initiatives, they will rightfully promote forms of tourism that support a long-lasting development of the local economy, while enhancing the indigenous identity and culture.
Supported by this renewed awareness, consumers themselves already seem to be more and more drawn to conscious forms of tourism, and attentive to the social impact of their travel choices. Responsible engagement with local communities will become an important part of tourists’ demand, hence tourism operators will be held accountable for the social footprint of their offer.
In order to remain relevant and grasp the opportunities of this relaunch phase, companies in the tourism industry will therefore need to redesign their approach, based on two pillars:
- Team up with the local communities: Partnering with local institutions and small businesses in touristic destinations will enable companies to gain a deeper understanding of each territory’s peculiarities. By co-designing the touristic offer with locals, based on a deep knowledge of the cultural and environmental heritage, companies will be able to transform their presence into sustainable and durable growth for the territories.
- Move from standardised to tailored offer: Travellers will be turning to more conscious forms of travels. Trends indicate that some will privilege longer and more meaningful trips, where they can spend more time engaging with the communities, have more local experiences and give something back, be it by supporting local businesses or volunteering. Companies must be ready to embrace this shift, by designing a tailored offer that connects the needs of the communities with customers’ renewed demand.
Whereas some of these trends had already begun before the pandemic, the new scenario accelerated the transition and increased the urgency of taking action to not only relaunch the tourism industry, but to also reshape it.
The success of this renewal will largely depend on the ability of businesses, institutions and the civil society to partner and cooperate towards achieving shared, durable and sustainable growth.