“In the rush to return to ‘normal’, use this time to consider which parts of ‘normal’ are actually worth rushing back to.” In the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown, this much-shared quote from life coach Dave Hollis can easily be applied to the travel industry and its current woes. With borders closed and airplanes grounded the industry has been forced to pause. But even before the Covid-19 outbreak began there were signs it could not carry on at the same reckless speed and abandon of recent times.
In the years and months leading up to the Coronavirus outbreak, many destinations around the world were puzzling over how to resolve the issues of over-tourism. Locals in cities such as Paris, Barcelona and Athens were being pushed out of their homes due to the rising popularity of Airbnb. Smaller destinations such as Venice and Dubrovnik were flooded daily with cruise ship guests, many of whom spent little or no money locally. The climate emergency has also played a part in over-tourism with the expression “flightshame” entering mainstream vocabulary.
The Coronavirus lockdown has provided residents who complained about overtourism, with an unprecedented opportunity to reclaim their cities. Airbnb registered just 40 stays in Paris in the first three weeks of April compared to an average of 1210 stays a month last year. Last week the company laid off 1900 staff, around 25% of its total workforce. The Deputy Mayors of Paris and Barcelona both said they hope apartments leased out through AirBnB will now be forced to return to long-term-city-renters. “We have an opportunity to rethink the city,” Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s Deputy Mayor, said. “For years we’ve been saying we want to recover the Rambla and our beaches for residents.”
Taking these factors into account it is reasonable to assume that the travel industry, as it was, is under substantial threat. However, there is another more hopeful perspective which is the one I choose to take: that this unprecedented set of circumstances presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to rebuild the industry. It is our chance to create a travel industry built on respect for the environment, workers and communities.
How will travel look post lockdown? The immediate aftermath could resemble the set of a sci-fi movie, with reports of sunloungers separated by plexiglass, pre-flight-sanitiser spray-downs and autonomous cleaning robots zooming around airports zapping microbes. Unsurprisingly it is predicted travellers will choose to explore their own countries rather more than fly overseas, something green campaigners have been encouraging for years. The losers in this new travel world could be the cruise ships companies, short term apartment landlords and long haul airlines. But the winners will be operators who prioritise community-led tourism, the usage of ground transportation like car rides and rail travel and services which benefit the wellbeing of the destination as well as the visitor.
Businesses who prioritise commodification over service could suffer. But those of us who are customer-centric and have made safety and the protection of their community a priority will be more likely to succeed in this climate. In a rapidly changing world where responsibility could hold as much power as profit, this way of working isn’t just ethically sound, it’s smart business practice.
The world that we reemerge in post COVID-19 will not be the same as the one before. Lockdown has forced structural change: organisations that previously dismissed working from home have been left with no choice but to embrace it, homeschooling has become the norm, and with millions of employers unable to work there’s been much discussion that it’s finally time for a Universal Basic Income (even the Pope thinks it’s a good idea). As we build this new world we must carefully consider the role travel plays within it.
Because travel should play a role with it. Mark Twain said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” In my opinion, it is also one of the most magical, educational, and transformative experiences a person can have. The travel industry is a force for good but only if it places respect overexploitation. Those of us who work in the industry have the responsibility to lead the way. Let’s make sure we don’t lose the momentum.