Rebooting Tourism after Pandemic: Demand, Supply and Management

July 10, 2020

The tourism industry, which depends heavily on a hedonic and sensorial experience, is facing the severest stress ever amid the ongoing pandemic. The interlinked socio-cultural, economic, psychological and political impacts of this magnitude can alter the predictive power of previously studied explanatory models in the tourism recovery process. This article attempts to explain the transformational effect of COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism industry.

Impact of COVID-19 on tourism

Since the global economic recession that saw a decline of 40 million tourists between the year 2008 (920 million tourists) and 2009 (880 million tourists), international arrivals have rapidly expanded to 1.46 billion in 2019. Indeed, this is a remarkable growth. But with the advent COVID-19 pandemic, life has come to a standstill as people in many countries had to go into lockdowns to contain and flatten the so-called curve. The epidemic has inevitably hit the world economy hard with governments facing the tough challenge of saving their respective economies. International tourism has also been hit with forecasted trends shifting dramatically from the predicted 3-4% annual growth to 20-30% decline in global receipt of around 300 to 400 billion dollars during 2020 (UNWTO, May 07, 2020). According to estimation, 75 million jobs are at risk globally with a potential Travel & Tourism GDP loss of up to $2.1 trillion this year. The broader social impact of the crisis will go far beyond tourism, as expectedly it would harm the small and medium-sized enterprises that makeup to 80% of this sector worldwide. This situation is deeply paradoxical: everyday constrained micro-mobilities a result of hedonistic macro-mobilities, i.e. international tourism, responsible for spreading the virus around the world.

Tourism calling post COVID-19

Lockdowns have ended in most countries as they have moved past the peak of the pandemic and travel is tentatively restarting to kickstart the economies. China is one of the earlier countries to have restarted with domestic tourism (McKinsey&Company, May 11, 2020). The European Commission has released guidelines for how its Member States can start to ease coronavirus travel restrictions and enable tourism to begin again (World Economic Forum, May 14, 2020). The Baltic states are creating a "travel bubble", allowing citizens to travel freely between them. New Zealand and Australia have committed to introducing a trans-Tasman "COVID-safe travel zone", as soon as it's safe to do so. Nepal, which had launched a promotional program 'Visit Nepal 2020', will continue with its distinctive brand image of adventure-based tourism. The neighbouring Maldives, a popular destination in South Asia too, will be opening up its borders to welcome international visitors from July 15, 2020.

Despite the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, the Indian government has seriously been thinking that tourism can play a significant role in reviving the economy (Economic Times, May 13, 2020). There are plans to focus initially on domestic tourism, followed by overseas travellers since many of the key destinations in Europe have faced the brunt of the pandemic. Sensing a long-term lull in foreign travel, the tourism ministry in India has launched 'Dekho Apna Desh' (see your country), a webinar series hosted by experts who share key nuggets and information on more than a dozen destinations. Additionally, stable states are also trying to restart tourism to boost their economies. Kerala has pitched for 'Kerala Kanna', which suggests revival through regional and local tourism. The high-end boutique hotels and resorts will open up to domestic tourists, affording them experiences that were tailor-made for the international guests. Karnataka tourism is also trying to re-launch local travel with a focus on solo trips, homestays and resorts along with the less populated Western Ghat areas (The New Indian Express, May 26, 2020).

Although the recovery rate will differ from country to country, some common themes stand out. People still want to travel. Many are calling this "revenge travel".  Bookings for cruises, which are arguably one of tourism's hardest-hit sector, remain stable for 2021 (Business Insider, April 12, 2020). Domestic travel has returned, but international travel will take much more time to recover. The travel sectors of countries that lack large domestic markets will recover slowly and may open up first to travellers from neighbouring countries. Economy travel will recover more quickly. Outdoor and nature-related destinations will be more popular than congested cities. To capture new demand, travel-industry players redeploy their resources quickly to the markets that recover first.

Rethinking beyond tourism

The nature of tourism and its evolution and growth paradigms are a significant contributor to the prevailing COVID-19 circumstances and the current socio-economic system accelerating the spread and impact of this contagion. Frequent epidemic outbreaks would become more common in the future, which in turn highlights the interwoven nature and vicious circle forces between the biological, physical and socio-economic systems. It is thus the right time for us to reflect on the future of tourism. One of the possible ways to proceed could be to understand the implications of COVID-19 on three significant tourism phenomena – tourism demand, tourism supply, and destinations management organisation and policymakers –  to incorporate a transformational stage envisioned in the post-COVID-19 era.

Tourism demand: The young generations will be more open to travel post-COVID-19 crisis. People would prefer to stay close to homes, opting to drive or take trains to regional destinations. Technology will be a game-changer amid this scenario. From digital health passport, digital identity apps, crowd and social distancing technology solutions and restrictions to contact-free travel journey management solutions, new hygiene standards and social distancing norms would rule the return to tourism strategy. Social media has a vital role which would influence tourist behaviours in future. COVID-19 operating standards would require redesigning of the service environment, social distancing and number of co-presence of customers in restaurants, festivals and any other tourism settings. These changes would influence new standards of comfort and pleasure. Social distancing can impact how people experience and evaluate travel activities like hiking, outdoor activities and nature-based tourism or even personal services like spas, dining, concierge services. Tourists would also want renewed travel insurance coverage.

Tourism supply: Tourism companies will have to work on new protocols for their hotel infrastructure and other tourist facilities to align them with the needs of a post-corona world. Tourism businesses will compete to ensure the safety of their employees, customers, brand image and cash liquidity. It will redesign traveller experiences, e.g. winery experiences, museum visits, sports events, in-room dining and entertainment instead of hotel facilities. Again, it would be prudent to feature smaller groups of tourists, outdoor activities and private experiences complying with social distancing and gathering restrictions along with travellers' expectations. Product features, communications, and sales channels must be re-tailored to match a changing customer mix. It will enhance their operating procedures for cleanliness and sanitation by adopting new standards, and upgrade their global surveillance strategy to monitor and effectively deal with COVID-19 cases. Many companies would promote their hygiene certifications accredited by health associations. Restaurants, hotels, airports, public spaces would re-engineer their operations to make them contact-free or contactless. Mobile apps (for check-in, check-out, room keys, mobile payments, bookings-purchases), self-service kiosks, in-room technologies for entertainment and destination e-shopping (e.g. virtual reality for a destination, virtual visits to museums), robots (for reception and concierge services, food delivery museum guides), artificial intelligence-enabled websites and chatbox for customer communication and services, digital payments (e.g. digital wallets, PayPal, credit cards), new technologies to ensure management of crowds and number of people gathered in public spaces (e.g. airports, shopping malls, museums, restaurants, hotels), human disinfectors and sanitising equipment, digital applications for identifying and managing people's health identity and profiles.

Destination management organisation and policymakers: Tourism destinations management approaches have been centred on the traditional approach to enhance visitor experiences and attractions; stakeholders collaborations within the destination; competitiveness models; image building and branding and host community involvement. As such, most destination management organisation are not adequately prepared for the management of popular destinations during and after pandemic outbreaks. In such a scenario, the industry plays an essential role in communicating with the government the focused initiatives to support the sector. It also requires the government to address the needs of tourism businesses which include lifting travel restrictions, restoring traveller confidence and, physical protection of tourists. Also, stimulating demand, mitigation of the economic impact of the coronavirus on businesses and workers by providing stimulus packages and interventions (e.g. tax reliefs, subsidies, deferrals of payments, support measures for SMEs), and support destinations to ensure the viability and continuity of tourism business. The impact of the pandemic on tourism should be monitored and respond to a fast-evolving situation to identify those sub-sectors in the most significant distress, and recovery support is required. Dialogue between the industry and government should be a priority to ensure targeted and efficient responses measures. This is unique for COVID-19, as previous crises have generated institutional interest, but did not have policy impact, specifically in tourism.

To conclude, the likelihood of a total transformation of the tourism sector is low, and there is evidence in the past which shows successful sustainable tourism going the dominant development path. However, the current confluence of destinations grappling with starting anew, the growing global desire for sustainable development, and the process in which the potential tourists find themselves as the elements needed for a transformation are in alignment. Thus, an evolutionary pathway towards the transformation of tourism exists alongside in competition with other potential development pathways. The time has come to take this opportunity to rethink the future course of tourism more sustainably. 

Author Note
Pravasini Sahoo (Ph.D), Management Consultant, IIT-Kharagpur, India. She can be reached at "'.