After COVID-19, How do We Bring Tourism Back Better?

Article | 5 June 2020

By Sanya Grover, SDCC Intern

The almost complete suspension of international travel has been one of the major elements of the quarantines introduced during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. While this has brought misery for those who love to travel, it’s brought decimation for airlines, hotels, and tourism operators. The UNWTO has estimated that Asia and the Pacific’s tourism industry felt the largest negative impact from COVID-19, with tourist arrivals down almost 33 million in the first trimester of 2020. The International Labour Organization has called the impact “devastating.” 

Then, there are the environmental impacts. The pandemic has put rural areas under pressure from changed land use, loss of biodiversity, and illegal poaching activities. Fishing, mining, deforestation, and other illegal nature-based activities are on the rise. With the pandemic stretching hospital resources, biomedical waste is also increasing, as is the use of single-use plastics for things like food, drinks, and deliveries.

With quarantines easing and flight schedules reforming, tourism is showing signs of returning. But for the industry to return as a force for good for both the economy and the environment, we cannot return to business as usual. Here are four key recovery priorities for the tourism sector:

1. Local tourism

When tourism resumes, domestic travel will be the focus, putting destinations under the dangers of mass tourism, in which the number of incoming tourists exceeds a destination’s capacity to hold them. Viet Nam will be the first country in South East Asia to resume domestic travel, with discounted packages and promotions aimed at building demand. Other countries are also focusing on a few prime locations for attracting tourists. Rebuilding the tourism sector and providing tourists with rewarding experiences must be done by exploring alternatives to mass tourism, such as sustainable rural tourism, nature tourism, and theme-based circuit tourism. 

2.  Ecological protection

Unguarded protected areas and the diverted attention of governments has led to a rise in nature-based crime. With the decline in wildlife tourism, revenue streams for conservation have also dried up. Stringent laws for biodiversity protection and illegal activities are needed. To protect the ecological balance from tourism, governments can consider: increased focus and investment in capacity building and training; inclusion of sustainability taxes for tourists; protecting sensitive community and Indigenous People’s areas from exploitation; and including scientific frameworks for policy formulation.

3. Improved infrastructure

Infrastructure for waste management needs to be improved and all public places must have provisions for the safe disposal of bio-medical waste. Increasing access to clean water and sanitation services, along with the promotion of good hygiene practices like hand washing, would also help to stop the spread of communicable diseases. Incentives must also be made to internet service providers to improve connectivity in tourist destinations. 

4. Rethinking flying

Tax reforms must be done, with consideration of tax levies for frequent flyers. Many aviation companies are nearing bankruptcy, leading to an increased demand for government bailouts. However, this funding must come with conditions prioritizing environmental improvements. In France, for example, a €7 billion bailout for Air France came with the requirement for it to become the “greenest airline in the world.” Other steps can include retiring inefficient aircraft, reducing the number of flights while demand is low, and providing carbon efficiency information for flyers. 

Taken together, these strategies can help ensure that policy decisions are informed by careful and scientific formulations. Protecting the key assets of a region—the very reason for tourist arrivals—is a fundamental pillar of any recovery, ensuring we don’t solve one problem by creating another. When planned and implemented strategically, tourism as a sector can match up to its potential of being a driver of social, economic, and environmental welfare.