[Where Now? The post-corona future may be hidden, but destinations should plan the road to recovery right away. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]
Start Your Destination’s Tourism Recovery Plan. Don’t wait.
This is one hell of a way to cure overtourism. Not at all what those of us working on the problem had in mind. The coronavirus has turned the destination-tourism relationship on its head, from “over” to “under” in the blink of an eye and the bark of a dry cough.
A powerful stream of revenue has suddenly dried up, possibly for a year or two, not to mention all the associated businesses and activities related to tourism. Economic and lifestyle stability may not truly return until we see the dream headline, “Coronavirus Vaccine Now Available.” The dip in global tourism growth will surely be worse than that created by the SARS outbreak in 2003. Destinations face tough times. Businesses will fail. Layoffs will become permanent.
And yet the forces that have powered tourism’s inexorable increase remain in place. Absent total collapse, economies will eventually recover. We’ll leave our homes again, planes will fly again, Instagrammers will post again. Children will grow into restless, questing adults, and affluent professionals into restless, questing retirees. The topic that has dominated my own work over the past year, overtourism, may well creep back, as inevitable as a rising tide.
That is, unless destinations take this accidental time-out to reassess.
“Never let a crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill said (echoed by Rahm Emanuel). For the places we love, this crisis provides both a respite and an opportunity.
Researchers, step forward!
We are in the middle of an inadvertent experiment, global in scale. Already, for instance, we know that pollution has plummeted in locked-down cities. From the skies of Wuhan to the canals of Venice, smoggy air and murky water have cleared.
Researchers should seize the day. Take measurements! Establish some baseline data. In regards to tourism, now is a great time to measure changes in environmental impacts. Which types of tourism, now absent, were the worst offenders? Which the least? Which actually helped?
Even more important is for destinations to ask some questions – posed not just to leadership and business owners, but the residents themselves: What have you learned from the corona crisis? Many destinations have already learned that loss of overnight guests hurts their economies several times more than loss of cruise passengers on shore excursions. What businesses and types of tourism do you miss? What types would you rather not come back?
Some tourism benefits are obvious, and their loss more dangerous. Our great historic sites depend on tourism for upkeep; our nature parks and reserves depend on it for political defense against competing land use.
People will learn the hard way about tourism’s hidden benefits. Take this tale from my own city of Washington, DC: Its lively Dupont Circle neighborhood, a residential area with a few hotels, was once home to an independent bookstore called (if I recall correctly) the Mystery Book Shop, specializing in thrillers and whodunits from all over the world. A fun place to browse, but nothing to do with tourism. No souvenirs. Like many independent booksellers, the shop survived on a thin profit margin. When tourism plummeted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, only then did the owners discover that a key portion of their clientele had been, yes, tourists. That was their margin. The store closed, and Washington was poorer for its loss.
We’ll see many stories of loss over the next few months. If tourism helped keep a desirable asset or enterprise afloat pre-corona, then that contribution to destination’s distinctiveness and quality of life should be documented, not forgotten. And if tourism helped keep something undesirable in place, then its absence, too, should be documented so as to discourage its return.
Use the Respite
Destinations that were struggling to cope with too many tourists must now deal with the opposite. Before any recovery gets started – whether in months or years – now is an excellent time for destination leadership and citizens to plan for just how to recover. Documenting the effects of this crisis should help.
One priority: Shun the common impulse just to restore the status quo ante. Think about it. Nor should destinations grab desperately at anything that will bring back tourism, quality be damned. Beware of developers who will push quick fixes wrapped in promises of jobs that evaporate the moment construction is over or abandoned. Beware, too, the persistent practice of equating tourist arrivals with success and large-scale projects with triumph. Use better metrics.
Wise planning requires enlightened, collaborative destination stewardship. Now would be a time for each destination to convene – remotely, if not yet in person – a broad-based council to do that. Destinations should use the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Destination Criterion A1 as a basic minimum. That criterion states in part:
“The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, with involvement by the private sector, public sector and civil society. This group has defined responsibilities, oversight, and implementation capability for the management of socio-economic, cultural and environmental issues.”
Sadly, very few destinations meet even this minimum. We continue our work to find and profile the few that do. We hope other places will “seize the crisis” and establish their own.
Rather than returning to the currently interrupted Age of Wretched Excess, characterized at its worst by floods of cruise ship passengers and squads of day trippers armed with selfie sticks, collaborative destination stewardship councils can work with their citizens to take a new tack. With thoughtful plans at the ready, our recovery could grow instead into a new Golden Age of Tourism, a time of well-managed places and beneficial travel for tourists, for residents, and for natural and cultural preservation.
Is that too much to expect? Yes, of course. But now is the time to ask for too much. Communities torn between shell shock from tourism loss and relief from tourist crowds might actually go for it.
If not now, when?
A Personal Afterthought
“Travel is so broadening,” wrote Sinclair Lewis a century ago. Now we are on a trip of a different sort: Time travel, back to the Middle Ages. All our ingrained 21st-century assumptions – reliable medical systems, wonder drugs, technical know-how, ready access to supplies – all are stripped away. Facing a deadly scourge that we cannot control, we are one with distant ancestors who had to accept such threats as a fact of life, and death. That perspective should spur some critical thinking on our own part about what is truly important – for our lives, our favorite places, and our future (someday!) travels.
Meanwhile, my wife, Sally, and I are self-isolating. We are high-risk for Covid-19, so we’re sequestered in our northern Virginia mountainside home. It’s a good place to wait, rich in sense of place. Being here forces the mind and heart to stretch far beyond their customary reach, trying to reconcile extremes. Yes, we might die. Yes, we live in an inexcusably unprepared nation under a psychopathically insecure president. And yes, spring came too early. Again.
But spring it is. The daffodils and bloodroot are in bloom, the bluebirds are reoccupying their house by the meadow, our view out toward the Blue Ridge frees the spirit, our friends are within digital reach, and our biggest annoyance is the hormone-addled cardinal that keeps attacking itself in the windows.
In the shadow of the virus, life has never seemed so good. May we all keep living it.
—J.B.T., 23 March 2020