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Rethinking Tourism for a Post-COVID 19 Recovery

Author: Gary Bowerman / Date: Tue, 03/24/2020 - 14:43
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The entire infrastructure of travel has incurred incalculable damage from the coronavirus pandemic. But, does the downturn provide a chance to radically rethink and reboot tourism? Here are 6 pointers to ponder…

Confirmed cases in 184 countries. Empty airports. Airline fleets grounded. Borders closed, blanket travel bans imposed. Hotels shuttered. Postponed conferences, concerts and sports events. Travellers consumed by fear. Airlines, tour operators, hospitality and F&B companies facing insolvency. Stock values crashing.

This is how the coronavirus outbreak has devastated the travel industry in just 60 days. (The WHO’s first Coronavirus Situation Report was published on 21 January.)

Evidently, there was little pre-planning to deal with this outbreak. A lack of readiness, allied with a hesitant response by several Asian, European and North American governments, has made the effects bite even deeper. Many in the industry believe that government bailouts are not just necessary, but essential.

The only positive way to approach the crisis may be to view it as a time to pause, reflect – and reboot the way that travel works.

With that objective in mind, here is a Wishlist for the Post-COVID-19 Travel Recovery. We considered 5 key areas:

  • What has been damaged, or badly broken?
  • What simply isn’t working?
  • What needs a reboot?
  • What should be discarded entirely?
  • What can be salvaged

Here are six brief pointers….

1) No more ‘tourism at any price’ mentality.

Prioritising volume-at-all-costs tourism has weakened the travel industry’s foundations. This is exemplified by meaningless “Visit Country X” promotions. These year-long national campaigns distort markets, dilute creative marketing and promote overtourism. They also encourage heavy discounting (and, paradoxically, price gouging on the ground) in order to hit a neatly rounded government-prescribed target figure. The impact on the environment is not even considered. Travellers simply become a statistic. The enforced cancellation of Visit Malaysia 2020, after less than three months is not just bad luck. It is a salutary warning that such promotional tactics are a relic of the past. Tourism marketing must evolve.

2) Strategic discounting is inevitable, but excessive price cuts will weaken the rebound.

The global downturn has revealed the worrying extent of over-capacity in travel. Airlines and hotels have vast capacities to fill, and the default way of doing so is to drop rates. But, we must face the fact that many flight routes and hotel rooms may not reopen any time soon. So when the rebound does come, will aggressive discounting prove to be an incentive for travellers who want, and feel comfortable, to travel again? Or would it simply reinforce demand for cut-priced travel, and re-set the same repetitive pattern? 

3) Tourism employs 1 in 10 people globally, and is a valuable sector to work in.

The past two months have reconfirmed the global economic importance of travel – especially in Asia. But how can tourism, not just hotel management, make itself a more desirable career path for young people? Across the industry, we may see a widespread shedding of staff. There will, however, be opportunities to create new skills training and development programmes. Building an international career in a fast-changing industry, especially one that is reconfiguring its future, should be viewed positively.

4) Countries take a cohesive approach to inbound, outbound & domestic travel.

For too long, inbound and outbound travel have dominated. Domestic tourism tends to creep under the radar, and attracts far less marketing and media spend. But, until all-encompassing travel bans began to take hold in Asia, we had started to see coronavirus contingency planning focus on homegrown travel. Will this endure into the recovery period? Shouldn’t domestic travel be more than simply a safer, second-best option? How can secondary and tertiary destinations be effectively promoted? What innovative methods can be deployed to use domestic travel data to build new products and services for inbound visitors? Would this same data enable overseas destinations to gain a nuanced understanding of travellers to their countries? 

5) Innovative marketing strategies to attract tourists, and drive repeat visits.

Loyalty is in short supply. Experiential young travel consumers rarely wish to retrace their footsteps, or selfie spots. While first-time arrivals are viewed as ripe fruit, return visitors tend to spend more in dispersed locations. So product teams can use the downtime to research and learn, and destination marketers can refocus their creative talents. Not every trick or tactic will work. That’s a given in positive or gloomy times. But marketers must be encouraged to make mistakes. Finding new solutions to diversify source markets, build niche capabilities and fashion market-leading products and services will help unlock the hoped-for rebound. 

6) Real lessons can be learned from the COVID-19 influences on consumer behaviour.

Social distancing has altered the lifestyle balance, and the way people interact on a daily basis. For example, staying at home and not travelling may make consumers more attuned to their own health and wellness. This focus on wellbeing could create new behavioural drivers, especially for dining, spa experiences and health tourism. 

In China, we’ve seen a massive rise in gaming, live streaming and vicarious virtual travel. How can these trends be tapped? Will we see less winter travel in future for fear that a similar outbreak may occur? Some countries have issued revised visa restrictions, and even temporary blanket bans – will these be lifted immediately, or in phases? Will risk-averse travellers completely eschew germ-stained banknotes and coins in favour of e-payments while travelling? And will travellers book holidays and business trips on an even shorter timeline to cut the risk of cancellation?

As a final (rather depressing) thought: a COVID-19-style outbreak is very likely to occur again. This doubles the jeopardy. Governments, tourism boards, airport operators, airlines, travel agents, tour operators, hotels, OTAs et al must firstly ride out the current crisis. But they also need to plan ahead for a potential repeat… in the not-too-distant future.

While we ponder what might be, there is a great deal of constructive thinking to be done. Because if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that travel and is more vulnerable than we like to admit to major economic shocks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Bowerman

Director

Gary is director of Check-in Asia and an experienced Asia business, tourism and consumer analyst and speaker. He spent six years living and working in China (2004-2010), and has been based in Kuala Lumpur for almost a decade. Having monitored Chinese domestic and outbound tourism since 2004, Gary is the author of The New Chinese Traveler: Business Opportunities from the Chinese Travel Revolution (2014). He has also authored several tourism economy reports and white papers, including China & India, South East Asia, Japan, Australia & New Zealand. He is a regular contributor to CNA, has featured on CNN Business Traveller and undertaken media interviews for ITV News, Monocle 24, Nikkei Asia Review, WSJ, Skift and The Straits Times. In 2019, he joined the Advisory Council of the Centro de Estudios de Turismo Chino (CESTUR China) in Madrid. A former Editor of Shanghai Business Review, Gary’s business journalism has been published by, among others, Financial Times, New York Times, SCMP, The Guardian, Forbes and The Middle East Commercial Law Review. He produces monthly retail, technology and travel trends reports on Vietnam and Indonesia for Mintel, and regular commentaries on Belt & Road projects in South and South East Asia. Since January 2020, Gary co-hosts The South East Asia Travel Show podcast. In February, he spoke at Tourism & Coronavirus events in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.