Coronavirus (and other problems): 2020, a dark year for global tourism

Creative Industries & Culture

publication date 07/05/2020

The coronavirus health crisis, tracked statistically in real time by Johns Hopkins University, is hitting the global economy hard and the tourism industry most of all.

The World Tourism Organization (WTO) is expecting a drop in tourism revenue of 300 to 500 billion dollars in 2020, up to one third of the 1,500 billion generated in 2019. France could lose out on up to 40 billion euros per quarter. Millions of jobs in the sector are under threat worldwide. Anne Gombault and her co-authors Claire Grellier Fouillet and Jérémy Lemarié analyse the drastic consequences of the crisis for global tourism, the strategic issues that it emphasises and the opportunity for transformation and learning that it offers.

Structural factors amplifying the crisis

First factor : At the start of the crisis, the most affected tourists were the Chinese, the biggest spenders far ahead of the Americans.

Second factor : the crisis then hit the top global destination - Europe. In 2018 the continent welcomed 672 million tourists, half of the world's international arrivals. One third of these tourists travel in Italy, France and Spain, all of which are among the 6 countries most affected by coronavirus, with popular destinations such as Venice, Florence, Paris and Milan.  

The third factor is slower to arrive but will probably be harder hitting, the process of deciding whether to book holidays. This is a risky decision due to the nature of the tourism service: trying before buying is not possible and it is a significant investment that requires searching for information and comparison of prices and destinations.  The entire sector has entered a negative growth phase with between 3% and 12% fewer tourists depending on the areas according to the World Tourism Organization.

Crisis a marker of general strategic issues for tourism 

Although the coronavirus crisis has short-term destructive effects on the tourism industry, this pandemic episode may also be seen as the consequence of a vulnerable condition rather than the start of a period of instability.

Research is underway into challenging the practices of the tourism industry and is drawing attention to a succession of issues related to population movements as part of leisure activities.

  • The first issue is the surprisingly poor risk management in an industry which should be highly reliable.
  • A second related issue is that of viral globalisation. Just like tourists, diseases cross borders, travel thousands of kilometres and put the most vulnerable populations in danger. 
  • The research presents the third issue, overtourism, as one of the biggest problems of mass tourism. This involves too high volumes of holidaymakers which damages ecosystems, sites, living conditions for residents and the experience for visitors.
  • Finally, another problem concerns pollution caused by activity. This includes single use of consumer goods by passengers in transit and road transport, but it is carbon emissions from civil aviation that comes in for the heaviest criticism.

An opportunity for tourism innovation

The Covid-19 crisis raises the question of the direction of globalised tourism and is an opportunity to rethink the tourism industry from a critical perspective. There are several areas for potential transformation.

The general idea would be to move towards responsible, sustainable and socially innovative tourism, structured around the (non-transferable) identity of the areas and giving them a boost while respecting the quality of life of residents and the memorable experience of the trip. 

In order to avoid overtourism, tourist hotspots should take measures to regulate flows as is already done in places like Barcelona, Cinque Terre, Venice, Dubrovnik, Iceland, etc.

Creative and more inclusive tourism should be developed to avoid a concentration of activity on the hotspots and to involve residents in the activity. Visitors can participate in cultural and creative experiences that reflect the identity of the area and create something jointly between residents and tourists.

The trend for staycations and slow tourism should be encouraged. Travellers see local tourism as a good way to maximise holiday time by reducing travel time which also benefits the environment and saves money.

E-tourism, which has been developing since the 2000s, has boomed since the start of the crisis in China with acceleration of digital heritage, online broadcasting of shows and events streamed live over the internet. Operators are developing quality digital content to avoid crowds of travellers. 

The coronavirus crisis could revolutionise practices and help to accelerate the transformation of an industry which is still very conservative.

Read more from Anne Gombault and Claire Grellier Fouillet

Anne Gombault and Claire Grellier Fouillet are at your disposal should you have any requests for an interview or coverage on this current issue. 

More KEDGE articles published in The Conversation