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Tourism post-COVID 19: Lessons learned, out-of-box strategies to ensure the revival

In the pre-COVID 19 period the tourism industry was seen with much hope throughout the world. However, the COVID 19 pandemic has completely paralysed the tourism industry and its dependent sectors. The tourism industry in the post-COVID 19 pandemic world will require a comprehensive approach and better coordination between national-level implementing agencies and international funding organizations. 

Ritika JoshiRitika Joshi | Updated: 03-04-2020 00:02 IST | Created: 03-04-2020 00:01 IST
Tourism post-COVID 19: Lessons learned, out-of-box strategies to ensure the revival
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted human life, first and foremost. Various businesses have been impacted too. Tourism is currently one of the most affected sectors. The major reason for its effect on the tourism sector could be the unique nature of the tourism industry itself. This particular economic activity with tremendous social impact is necessarily based on human to human interaction. The tourism industry serves as a perfect example where social and economic facets of employment-generating activity are so intertwined that any disturbance on socio-economic facet would spell disaster for the entire industry.

Tourism Industry at crossroads

Apart from central features of the tourism industry such as travel agencies, guides, hotels, and restaurants, there are a lot of peripheral activities that garner their livelihood from it; for example, cottage industries associated with textiles and local handicrafts. In India, a survey conducted by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) had predicted that investment in the travel and tourism sector would create 10 million jobs by 2028. Talking about the global scenario, the UNWTO report, published on January 20, 2020, states that, "1.5 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded in 2019, globally. This was an increase of four percent on the previous year which is also a forecast for 2020, confirming tourism as a leading and resilient economic sector, especially in view of current uncertainties".

However, the scenario has changed. As the outbreak of COVID-19 assumed pandemic proportion, UNWTO revised the expected growth rate of the global tourism industry. Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of UNWTO said, "the drop in tourist arrivals will lead to an estimated loss of $300-450 billion in international tourism receipts, almost one-third of the $1.5 trillion generated in 2019. Tourism is among the hardest hit of all economic sectors." In the pre-COVID 19 pandemic period, the body had predicted a positive growth rate of 3.0 to 4.0 percent for international tourism. This was revised to 1.0 to 3.0 percent negative growth rate in the first week of March that means a 4.0 to 7.0 percent decrease in the growth rate from the original prediction. In the wake of extended lockdown throughout the world, the recent estimates suggest the global tourism industry will plunge by 30 percent or more.

Previous slowdowns and Crisis Management

Tourism Industry has always been vulnerable to socio-economic changes, for example, SARS, 9/11, and Tsunamis in Asia. Though confined in their respective regions, these incidents in the past had adversely impacted and caused heavy economic losses to the tourism industry. The sector is highly vulnerable and crisis management no longer can be ignored.

Dirk Glaesser in his book Crisis Management in the Tourism Industry (2006) writes, "The value of crisis management is manifold. On the one hand, it ensures the sustainable development of tourism and avoids unnecessary difficult situations. On the other hand, it allows destinations, which were so far excluded from this development because of structural, social, political and other problems, to participate in tourism. This is especially true for many developing nations that choose tourism development to alleviate poverty in their countries. In principle, this is a very promising approach as many of these countries have unique cultural and natural attractions, which are important for successful tourism development. However, it has to be taken into account that structural problems, which are also often found in these countries and have already existed for many years, cannot be easily eliminated. Thus, for countries that are potentially more exposed to negative events, professional and preventive crisis management is particularly necessary."

Successful crisis management techniques cannot be at the periphery but should occupy a pivotal role if the tourism industry wants resilient growth. It is important to bear in mind the role of the aviation industry, hotel industry, hospitality sector, transport, handicraft, supply chain management, health, and other related sectors. While the aviation sector bore immense losses, the public and private health sub-sectors are over-burdened and fatigued. Not only it requires effort at the global level but it must percolate from national to local levels.

This sector had borne the brunt of recession multiple times and various marketing techniques were deployed in the past to keep the industry afloat. Let us take the case of 'guarantees' by the service providers- Air China offered to their clients in 2003 the payment of compensation if they became infected by SARS on one of their flights. The company had reinsured this guarantee. The government of Thailand, in 2003, had offered every tourist a sum of $100,000, if s/he was infected by SARS during a stay in Thailand. This guarantee was also reinsured. The Sandal Hotels in the Caribbean offer to their clients the 'Blue Chip Hurricane Guarantee'. As per the guarantee, if the holiday was adversely affected by a hurricane, the guest would be provided free replacement vacation at any Sandals or Beaches Resort for the same duration. This insurance guarantee was regardless of how many days were affected. The use of guaranteed services is suitable for consumers in the orientation and travel decision phases.

This technique works as a good incentive but it comes into play when the crisis has hit the severity button. In the case of COVID 19, the panic and concern, and its consequent repercussions on the tourism industry have increased manifold. A more comprehensive and multi-targeted approach will be required.

Need for a comprehensive approach

The tourism industry is hit hard directly as well as indirectly. Apart from socio-economic parameters, illness and fatalities caused by the COVID 19 pandemic will also adversely influence the tourism industry and dependent economic activities.

At the global level, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations World Trade Organisation (UNWTO) and international development funding agencies should frame policies by taking inputs from each other. Not only post-outbreak but managing the information on the spread of diseases, supplying the information of disease hotspots and what proportion it could assume - these could help the tourism industry to prepare itself. Responsibility and heightened coordination should be all year round. It should not be incidental or episodic.

It is also important that we pay attention to the enhancement of tourist guides' skills and all those associated with tourist hospitality. At times of crisis, they are rendered jobless. They should be trained in recent digital technologies and multiple languages. They are well versed with local information, folklores, tales, and narratives which are somewhere lost in history books. In times of crisis, they can launch their digital classes regarding local history, successful ways of handling the tourists, and also they can increase their knowledge by learning global languages. These steps require a lot of policy action from the government officials and can be put in place by the synergy of national, state and local officials.

The tourism industry works in parallel with socio-economic and human development progress. It cannot work in isolation, considering its unique nature. The beautification of a place, the safety of tourists from man-made and natural disasters, robust public infrastructure - from physical to social infrastructure such as healthcare facilities should also be strengthened.

The outbreak of COVID 19 has exposed the preparedness of developed and developing countries. In fact, the developed world is witnessing an unprecedented collapse of its healthcare system and public healthcare institutions, weak enforcement of laws to prevent the spread of infection and unimpressive crowd management techniques. The tourism sector will be hit irrespective of the economic status of countries. Therefore, greater coordination and collaboration will be required for revival.

In the post-COVID 19 world, the emphasis will be more on sanitation practices, public healthcare, health facilities, travel insurance, and marketing techniques. The aviation industry will have to think out-of-the-box to survive the imminent challenges. The outbreak of SARS in 2003 has a lesson to learn from. In those days, Australia realized that it was heavily dependent on flights with stop-overs in major Asian cities such as Singapore, Hong-Kong or Bangkok. Those cities were now avoided by tourists as preventive measures of possible infections. The government of Australia tackled this problem systematically by identifying and evaluating alternative stop-overs and directing flights from the most important source markets to Australia in the event of a new outbreak of SARS. Though COVID 19 has spread in all the countries of the world, regional tourism clusters could be created in the post-COVID 19 pandemic world.

In the initial days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Indigo circulated a mail for travelers regarding the cleanliness and sanitation practices employed in its airline. It said "The air in our Airbus cabin refreshes itself every 3 minutes. So, the fresh air enters through the engines, passes through our High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, and is then circulated in the cabin. HEPA ensures hospital-level filtration in our aircraft." This is generating awareness and re-assuring the passengers that their safety is a topmost priority. Policy planning and awareness should go hand in hand.

To sum it up, States, international agencies, private operators should work in consonance. The tourism industry cannot afford a piecemeal approach anymore. It has to develop a comprehensive approach aimed at addressing all the stakeholders of the tourism industry from planning to implementation and services.

Ritika Joshi is currently a Ph.D. scholar with Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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