The tourism industry was the earliest to go on ventilator support – and will be the last to come out. When it does – timelines cannot be guaranteed.

Everyone is trying to save their businesses – of course they will. They have their own livelihoods, and the livelihoods of their employees and other stakeholders at stake. It is nothing short of a scramble. But as things stand, all stakeholders are in a tunnel, groping in the dark, with no light at any end to guide their path.

Tourism will never be the same again, no matter the outcome of the current crisis. The industry is seeing holes in the ships of our businesses, and are trying to plug those. But they do not realize one thing: it is time to abandon ship. And build a new boat. A new world order awaits, and tourism needs to chart new courses. They have no choice – for the following reasons:

One, tourism will stay down for a long time. People will be wary of venturing far, and authorities will keep destinations closed for an extended period. In any case, all of us will have gone through financial hardships and leisure spend will be way down on the priority list. Economic recovery will take time. In fact, economics too is going to be redefined.

Two, regulations are going to come in. If we are smart as a human race – our past track record gives reasons for skepticism though – then we will finally accept what we have known for a while: we cannot trample upon nature for our material gains. We have to live in harmony with it, and allow all of God’s creations the right to thrive – for the sake of our own survival. Legislation and enforcement will have to come in to regulate where we can build tourism infrastructure, how does this maintain harmony with the natural world, how do we control and manage consumption and waste, and how do we save our natural and cultural heritage. Tourism touches everything on this planet – and this industry will be the one facing greatest scrutiny.

Third, there will be voluntary action. At least one hopes so. Not only from travel companies but from travelers themselves. Responsible tourism should truly be so, and not an exercise in greenwashing to satisfy the conscience and justify harmful actions. Even as we wait for regulation to come in, travelers could well start demanding true responsibility from their travel vendors.

A NEW BUSINESS MODEL

If the above come true, we will require new business models – the current ones will largely have to be binned. Travel companies are busy seeing how they can survive this crisis and return to business-as-usual. But all of them – without exception – should accept the new realities coming up and go back to the drawing board. Those ahead on the curve will be the ones to profit most.

Of course, we still don’t know what the new normal would be – a sustainable business model will emerge only after we do. Some of the factors influencing the shape of things to come could include:

The End of Mass Tourism
1.5 billion: that’s the number of international tourist arrivals in 2019 according to the UNWTO. Not everyone paid enough to offset the burden they imposed in terms of emissions, waste, consumption of natural resources and the use of public infrastructure. It is only right they do – and when they do, it will no longer be cheap for hundreds of millions to travel. If they can’t afford it, they should stay home. One may think which Government will cut off their own tourism numbers, but they will have to if civil society and activists have their way.

Emissions and Waste: Industry Will be Accountable
The regulators are going to come knocking. And ask each operator to show how they are minimizing, managing and paying for the pollutants their business generates directly and indirectly. The emissions and the waste cannot be someone else’s mess to clear any more.

Moratorium on Claiming Natural Spaces
If the global shutdown showed one thing, it is how fast Nature moves in to reclaim the spaces usurped by man. The clearer skies, the sound of the birds, the increase of insect populations, the thriving of plants and trees – just some testimonials to how we have been destroying the beauty around us. There has to be – and will be – a moratorium on laying siege on additional natural spaces; we should also be clearing some we have taken over. This means the footprint of the travel industry will be limited but they still have enough to manage.

Scale Will be the New Shame
Companies should plan on going boutique. Sell lesser but add more value. Mega corporations become accountable to their shareholders and creditors who see the sole objective of businesses is to maximise profit. This leads to decisions not in the best interests of sustainability. A more conscious traveler will scoff at those chasing scale without responsibility.

Alignment of Thinking and Action by Stakeholders
All stakeholders will need to sit around a table and agree on a coordinated way forward so everyone is aligned to similar values of responsible and sustainable tourism. The stakeholders include governments, tourism boards, businesses, civil society, industry bodies, media and travelers themselves. Not an easy task as this could entail the closure of some businesses and losing out on some audiences – but there may not be a choice given the new realities coming in.

Superlocal is as Far as Most Will Go for a While
Don’t expect cross-border or long distance travel to bounce back in a hurry. Restrictions to international travel will only gradually lift – and leisure tourists may be the last category to be allowed to board flights or any public transport for that matter. Not just international but even domestic. Build circuits for people to travel to not too far from home – mostly those one can undertake in private cars, coaches and cabs. Superlocal is where people will be able to travel to for a while – that’s exploring one’s own town and destinations within a few hours from home.

Value > Quantity. Promote Mindful Travel.
Travel companies should build immersive experiences. Have people spend longer times doing fewer things at destinations. So they are mindful of what they are doing there. And everyone will be more caring about the locations, and engage deeper with locals.

Those With a Credible Reputation Will Win
If you can do all of the above, truly and not for PR sake, you can build a reputation as an ethical operator in the market. And people will want to give preference to such businesses. Now is the time to look at your act all over again and spruce up where required. Everyone will be clamouring for business when things open up – you want to be seen head and shoulders above the competition when the bell rings.

The Price of a Holiday Just Went Up
All of the above will come at a cost and someone will have to pay – it can only be the customer. They should be prepared to do so – it also means market forces will create filters and a certain level of exclusivity will come into travel. If you have been used to racing to the bottom of the price barrel to sell, you need to re-engineer your business. Or switch to a different industry.

YOU DON’T AGREE THE ABOVE WILL HAPPEN? YOU SHOULD PRAY IT DOES.

You cannot be faulted if you think the above is too idealistic – we will settle down to the same irresponsible way of doing business once the crisis has passed. After all, where will we see political will to bring in greater regulation and oversight? How many authorities even know what the right things are and how to implement them? And then there are lobbies who will scuttle many an initiative by activists – who themselves may not have too much fighting power.

But changes will happen. Maybe slowly but surely. We are also in it for a long haul – don’t expect things to be normal for years to come. And this is not the last crisis – we have to brace for more at recurring frequency. Irresponsible behavior by human beings will come back to bite the tourism industry every time. But you can be prepared. And pray changes mentioned here and other forums come in. It is in your interest, and in the larger interest of the economy and society.

Think about it.

I would like your feedback and suggestions to this article so I can add to it. You may write to me at ajay@ajayjain.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Ajay,

    Thank you for sharing these. As a leisure traveler, I have been thinking about the long term impact of Covid (post health concerns being ameliorated and lockdown being lifted) for the last few days, and was curious to hear the views of professionals’ in this sector. Am glad to hear your thoughts on this. Reminds me of the “High Value, Low Impact” tourism philosophy practiced by Bhutan. Do you think the world would converge towards something similar? Keen to hear your thoughts.

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