Winners and Losers: A Year of Tourism During Covid-19

Covid Anniversary Blog

So now we know.  Figures published by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation show that the impact of COVID-19 on tourism has been devastating. International arrivals to the UK fell by 74% in 2020; levels not seen since the early 1990s. 1 billion international arrivals have been ‘lost’, along with export revenues of $1.3 trillion. Globally, up to 120 million tourism and hospitality jobs are at risk and international tourism is not forecast to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.  

But while international tourism may be in the doldrums, the ‘staycation’ boom indicates that the desire to take holidays remains unchanged. Last summer tourists and day trippers largely shunned the cities and headed to the countryside and coast.  Britain’s much-mocked seaside towns had never been so popular.

One of the unexpected consequences of this staycation boom was a new form of so-called over-tourism, particularly at the seaside and our national parks.  We saw some extraordinary scenes, including a day in June when half a million people arrived on Bournemouth beach, causing the local council to declare a major incident. Meanwhile, those destinations traditionally associated with over-tourism – Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik – experienced a very quiet summer.   

As for this summer, another tourism boom is forecast due to the pent-up demand for travel. Once again it is likely to be those parts of the country that are traditionally most popular with domestic tourists – especially the South West and the Lake District – that do best, while resumption of international travel may take longer.

In the longer term, everything inevitably depends on the vaccination programme not only in this country, but also in potential destinations.  Whether by choice, or through restrictions posed in countries of origin, there will some parts of the world that will be effectively closed to tourists for several years. It’s also becoming clear that proof of vaccination will soon be as essential as the passport for those wishing to travel internationally. Anti-vaxxers will face a dilemma if they aspire to international holidays.  

With reported losses of $50 billion, one sector which is particularly dependent on the pace of the vaccine roll-out is the cruise industry. Cruise ships anchored off the British coast became a familiar sight during 2020 (at one stage, there were 6 such ships anchored in Bournemouth bay alone). It will probably take some time before consumer confidence fully returns, and when cruising does return to its pre-pandemic trajectory, new hygiene regulations will be central to the cruising experience. In the short term, the cruise companies are responding by developing new products such as low-density cruises, largely limited to domestic destinations. 

And what about the hopes that COVID-19 could bring about a reset in global tourism growth and a move towards more sustainable forms of tourism?  This looks increasingly unlikely and there is even talk of a new phenomenon of ‘revenge tourism’ as customers, deprived of opportunities to travel during lockdowns, splash out on extra holidays as a way of taking ‘revenge’ on the virus.

Thus combined with an inevitable ‘reshaping’ of the tourism industry in terms of jobs, attractions and destinations of choice, how we ‘do’ tourism is also likely to permanently change, and so the impact of Covid-19 will be felt for many years to come.

Dr Duncan Light is Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management at Bournemouth University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 13th May 2020 by Duncan which can be found here.

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