What follows is speculation. There is some evidence of tourist patterns and flows since January 2020, but we do not know if these immediately revised patterns and flows will be repeated after the pandemic has been defeated.
That said, we do know that, in the UK at least, “staycations” – time spent at home – have grown in significance and we do know that all forms of public transport have suffered a drop in usage. Air travel has fallen most dramatically. Many cruise ships have been mothballed, although the first post-pandemic cruises have taken place since the end of the first European lockdowns. With respect to both holidays and travel it is still too early to predict what forms will recover and how well they will recover, although seeking the sun in a location as near as possible to home still appears to be an important motivation.
A possible outlook
Nevertheless, we can speculate on a number of possibilities. First, although consumer confidence with public transport may slowly return, the use of private transport, especially cars, will continue to grow. Second, it is likely that staycations will maintain the level of importance that they reached during this summer (in the northern hemisphere), and may even continue to grow. Third, short-haul air transport will recover, and although some long-haul air carriers will survive, those airlines geared particularly to long-haul flight provision may be forced into mergers. Fourth, the revisions in air transport might affect tourist destinations which depend heavily on long-distance travel from the major tourist generators of the world – i.e., North America, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and increasingly China. Fifth, we may see some cities that have suffered from ‘over-tourism’, such as Barcelona and Venice, begin to manage their tourism with locals more in mind. Sixth, it is possible that, despite some recovery, cruise tourism may fail to reach its pre-pandemic levels of popularity.
Future trends in tourism
The questions of real interest come next. How will these trends and changes affect issues of sustainability, globalisation, power and development? Let’s start with sustainability and in particular whether the planet will remain fit for human life. Deforestation in the Amazon continues apace (as it has done regardless of the pandemic) and the use of fossil fuels in transport and energy generation continues despite a regularly stated need to leave the oil in the ground. Assuming that a post-pandemic recovery in the use of transport continues, then international tourism of any type it is not expected to contribute to ecosystem sustainability that can stabilise and reverse our headlong rush towards increasing ecological stress and with it human hardship.
Regarding globalisation, the concept is rather more complex and multi-faceted (cultural, economic, environmental, political, social) than is generally believed. Whilst globalisation has given us – already relatively wealthy in the relatively wealthy world – the privilege to be able to jet around the world as we wish, it has also become clear that the last 60 years of globalisation have allowed many other people to jet around the world too. What can be expected is therefore a tightening of the flexibility of long-haul travel in post-pandemic years such that the advantages of globalisation will become less accessible to the new middle classes and regular long-haul travel will become rather more concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.
To a major extent the progression of these trends, especially the trend to unsustainability, will depend on the balance of the forces of power. It will not have escaped the notice of anyone who has followed world news over the last few decades that there is currently a battle royal playing out between neoliberal capitalists and anti-capitalists. Incumbent neoliberal capitalist practitioners of power (i.e., politicians and big business lobbyists) believe in the power of the market to arrange human affairs in the most sustainable way especially with regard to the natural world, despite the market’s obvious failings. Anti-capitalists believe in the need to take decisions on grounds other than market-based and financial criteria; in other words, ethically, morally, environmentally. Global tourism’s phenomenal rise over the last sixty years has been nurtured and shepherded by neoliberal organisations such as the World Tourism Organisation and the World Travel and Tourism Council. Even practitioners of tourisms that claim to be sustainable mostly depend on international tourists, whose arrival is normally anything but sustainable.
Air travel in the global tourism industry is the elephant in the room and tourism practitioners who believe in the notion of sustainability do their utmost to avoid mentioning air travel. Instead they arrange eco-friendly tours, organic meals, ethical adventures, towels that are not washed every day and environmental means of transport – all at the point of consumption, ignoring the unsustainability of getting to that point. Even if the sum total of air travel fails to grow to its pre-pandemic level, if it gets anywhere close to that level, it will continue to add to the warming of the planet.
The pre-pandemic dependence of the global tourism industry on air travel has built up a dependence of many tourist destinations in so-called Third World countries on the arrival of wealthy foreigners from the so-called First World. Currently there are signs of some small recovery in travel to these destinations, but there is a very long way to go given that air travel from the USA was down by over 90 per cent in the first two months of the lockdown. It is likely that long-haul air travel will continue to recover slowly but unlikely that it will recover pre-pandemic levels soon. That probably implies that some tourism-dependent people and businesses in Third World destinations will fail to recover; and in turn that is likely to feed a continuing growth in inequality and a continuing pandemic of poverty.
Although there are many assumptions and conditions behind my thoughts above, in essence I think that business will continue to be addicted to growth and destinations will continue to be addicted to tourists. It is likely therefore that humanity will continue its pre-pandemic headlong rush to self-destruction – soon to become a rather slower crawl – due to its continued pursuit of over-consumption, hedonism, self-aggrandisement and economic growth. Is that how neoliberalism can be defined?
This is not a very engaging view of humanity’s prospects. And there are ways and means of avoiding such a course. But that would be for the next article.
(With thanks to the thoughts of Ian Munt and Steve Jakes.)