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Tourism after 2021 – Turning point or at the end?

One way or another, the years 2020 and 2021 will be associated with massive changes in tourism for a long time. In which direction the tourism development is heading is currently still characterised by sustainability optimism, political wishful thinking or coffee-table talk - this much can be said as a spoiler at the beginning of this article. To think about the end of tourism as we have known it so far is still a taboo.

Representatives of the tourism industry, supported by some politicians, were the strongest lobbyists for rapid openings in 2020 and 2021 - and were thus probably also responsible for prolonging the crisis. When the mayor of Ischgl publicly reflects on how tourism in Ischgl can implement "even more quality" and an "upscale après-ski culture", and at the same time complains that "so many people look to Ischgl and Tyrol", then it really only sounds helpless and committed to the old credo of "higher and higher, more and more".

From the scientific field, other assessments can be heard. For example, the experienced researcher Gerhard Frank[1] wrote a year ago that the Corona virus may have "heralded the end of the fun culture" and "finally dealt mass tourism its death blow". However, this wish is not yet matched by an implementable strategy that would fundamentally renew tourism.

What can be said with confidence at the moment?

In the long run, there will be effective declines in business travel (and thus city tourism), as well as exposed forms of tourism such as cruises. Domestic tourism will start slowly again from May 2021. In addition, the necessary protective measures will make holidays seem strange, and many travellers' weariness of crowds will change local event offerings. Furthermore, the summer of 2020 has shown that holiday regions where secluded walks and quiet spots were high on the agenda before the pandemic have actually seen increases. The big question is whether these personal safety and hygiene strategies will also lead to a long-term change in behavior. In combination with other observable trends – increased interest in regions and their products, climate change and a stagnation or decline in ski days in the Alpine region – a revival of modern, nature-oriented outdoor tourism in summer and winter can be predicted with a high degree of probability.

Tour operators – especially the smaller, specialized tour operators that are often more committed to sustainability – face more challenges than the domestic destinations. The pandemic will have a much longer and more severe impact in the countries of the South than in Europe. Travel restrictions and also the apprehension of European vacationers will likely have a more long-term effect. When the airlines say that a return to normality (i.e. to the situation before March 2020) is "not to be expected until 2024 at the earliest"[2], this also applies to tour operators.

From today's perspective, it can be assumed that sustainable development in long-distance tourism will suffer an enormous setback. Until now, the sustainable offers were those that offered direct contact with the locals instead of sightseeing tours, visiting local markets instead of staying in sterile ***** hotels, travelling by public transport instead of in a rented four-wheel car. Will the future virus-sensitive long-distance travellers now prefer the hygienically sterilised all-in resorts with huge distances between them and their neighbor's beach towel? Hard to predict.

So what should we do next?

Catch up as quickly as possible on what was not possible in 2020/21 and then return to the 'new normal' as if nothing had happened? In my opinion, this approach falls far too short. The growth paradigm in tourism has come to an end and we urgently need other criteria for success and quality than the constant increase of arrivals and overnight stays and the maximisation of turnover, profit, etc. We need a cost truth. What is needed is a cost truth that also integrates environmental costs, health costs, social costs, etc. The well-being of employees and locals must be part of success.

So do we really have to go back? Austrian Environment and Climate Minister Leonore Gewessler called for integrated climate conditions when Austrian Airlines and other companies are supported by the state[3]. Regula Rytz, Swiss National Councillor, went a step further and said[4] "The Corona crisis is a caesura in the modern travel world. [....] Let us therefore use this caesura for a restructuring of travel. Let's invest in European rail connections, in holiday experiences on our doorstep and in educational opportunities for people who today live off environmentally harmful forms of tourism. They need new perspectives.

I am also convinced that 'tourism' needs new perspectives and that this dramatic break can and should be used as an opportunity for change. We now have the chance to integrate more sustainability into all forms of (government) support and to develop new scenarios and business models. For example, in the alpine tourism hot spots, we can convert hotel rooms into living space and thus make it easier for the local youth to stay in the region. Together with digitalisation and the creation of local jobs, rural regions could actually be given new perspectives.

So maybe Gerhard Frank is right after all about the end of alpine and non-alpine mass tourism. If politics plays a steering role. But then again, we have to start talking about the necessary changes and a fundamental transformation of tourism. So far, however, it does not look like this is going to happen.

(The German version of this text was written for the magazine of the Protestant Youth organization in Austria)

Sources: [1] Tourismus Presse Austria, 25.4.2020 [2] Austrian Airlines Board Member Andreas Otto on 16.4.2020 at [3] Der Standard, 15.4.2020 [4] Der Tagesanzeiger, 19.4.2020


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