Without mobility or contact, the heartbeat of tourism comes to a standstill. It is no surprise that the travel sector has been so directly hit by the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts estimate that, in 2020, international tourism could drop by 60 to 80 percent and some 100 million jobs could be lost worldwide.
On the other side, irresponsible, erroneous decision-making, clearly under pressure from the tourism industry lobby, enabled the virus to spread much more quickly early on. This can be seen, for example, in Ischgl, Austria, where hotels, après-ski bars and ski lifts remained open for so long that this tiny village in the Alps became a super-spreader site for central and northern Europe. But also in Sri Lanka: this country off the southern coast of India was still selling itself internationally as COVID-free in early March in order to attract tourists, which is what probably brought the virus to the island.
Currently, the strict travel and contact restrictions imposed are now starting to be relaxed. Effective 15 June, Germany will lift its global travel ban, replacing it with specific travel advisories. Travel throughout Europe will then, for the most part, be possible again. More than 160 countries remain on the warning list of the German Foreign Ministry among them all destinations outside Europe. Long-distance travel to the Global South, is still a long way off.
What this means for travel in developing countries?
People who work in the travel industry in developing countries, from tour guides to cleaning and restaurant staff to hotel owners, but especially those in the informal sector, such as beach vendors and street hawkers, will be extremely hard hit by the current crisis for a long time. Unemployment assistance and reduced hours compensation are as hard to come by for these individuals as COVID-related government relief funds or the hope of a strong domestic tourist season to help make up for the drop in international visitors. At the same time, tourism is the main source of foreign currency revenue for one in three developing countries. Precisely in small island development states from the Caribbean to the Pacific, tourism is the main economic sector.
So should we set off for Mexico, Vietnam or Gambia as soon as possible? The danger of becoming infected with the coronavirus when travelling in a developing country is no greater than in other countries. On the other hand, these countries and their inhabitants are significantly more vulnerable to the virus because their basic health systems are weak and their testing capacity and ICU beds are virtually non-existent. Travellers who are unaware that they are infected pose a threat of bringing the virus into the country. The festive atmosphere at holiday resorts, close togetherness on tourist coaches and physical contact at entertainment events promote the rapid spread of the virus. Social distancing when travelling is not just a far cry from the type of travel that most people know and love; it could also exacerbate the trend in developing countries toward isolated resort tourism. Tourists tend to stay at the hotel instead of getting out to discover the country. Restaurant owner and sellers on the local market would be left behind.
The tourism industry: taking responsibility for the re-start
The social responsibility of tour operators, hotels and tourism businesses will not decrease with the reboot of tourism, but rather it will grow, because it is still hard to know whether this crisis will lead the tourism industry to develop in a positive direction in terms of sustainability. It is down to businesses to decide whether the closure of the all-inclusive buffet - which is a welcome change that, because of the virus, will be necessary for a long time yet - will prompt tourists to eat their dinners wrapped in plastic in their rooms, or whether the hotel will recommend their clients a less busy local restaurants around the corner.
Another example: many resorts operate with seasonal workforces that often only work at the hotels for a few months, many times with no proper employment contract in place. Since they commonly come from far away - from across the country or even from abroad - they are housed in group accommodation with shared rooms. Another problem comes into play here, which is that people in precarious, uncertain employment relationships tend to hide their own symptoms of illness and go to work sick, because they will not receive their wages otherwise. The coronavirus hotspots in German slaughterhouses have recently thrown a spotlight on the relationship between abusive working conditions and a dramatic rise in the infection rate, and unfortunately, this cannot be ruled out when it comes to tourism either. A fresh start is truly necessary: there should be no going back to business as usual!
Travelling responsibly: better to prepare well now and travel later
For as hard as it may be, as long as international travellers pose a potential threat to the health of the local population, and tourism can only take place within the high walls of hotels, if at all, it makes more sense to keep on dreaming about long-distance travel and postpone our plans for later. In the meantime, virtual travel (LINK) might be an option to help support local tour guides financially while also getting first-hand information about the tourist destination. Going to restaurants near home could offer a culinary preview of that tentatively postponed trip, or one could always start a digital language course this summer while on holiday on the Baltic coast or in the Alps, in order to surprise one’s hosts in Uganda, Cambodia or Guatemala with a smattering of Swahili, Khmer or Kakchiquel in 2021.
People who had planned to travel to a country in the Global South this year should not simply shelve their desire to travel, but rather, use the time and budget to better prepare for their trip and, if possible, extend the length of their visit when they do go later. Perhaps the crisis in 2020 is an opportunity to finally try to put into practice an urgently necessary transformation in travel: travelling less often but staying at our destination longer and gaining deeper experiences and impressions by being better prepared.