The End of Global Travel as We Know It

The End of Global Travel as We Know It

According to Rifat Al, the head of travel analytics firm Skift, Saturday, March 14, 2020 is “The Day The World Stopped Travelling”.

It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, but each day brings us closer to the reality.

Ali says that the COVID-19 Crisis has put the travel industry, “the most significant industry in the World”, in uncharted waters. Nations are closing their borders. Airlines face bankruptcy. Cruise ships are being refused entry into ports, which threatens the business model of cruise ships.

The hospitality, arts, and cultural industries that are associated with them are under threat. The cancellation of major events. Many tourist destinations have collapsed in their seasons. Workers on casual, temporary or gig contracts suffer. It is an apparent epic disaster.

What is it then?

The coronavirus outbreak could be an unexpected opportunity to prevent the worst impacts of climate change caused by humans.

Ali, along with many others, is hoping for recovery “even if the time it takes to recover and get back to pre-coronavirus numbers of travellers”.

COVID-19 asks us to reconsider the consumption patterns that are at the root of the unsustainable practices of the travel and tourist industries.

Tourism dependency

Discussions about carbon emissions often include air travel. Even though commercial aviation only accounts for “only” 2.4% of fossil fuel use, it is the way many people in industrialized countries blow out their carbon footprints.

Read more: Flight shame won’t fix airline emissions. We need a smarter solution.

But sustainability concerns in the travel and tourism sectors extend far beyond carbon emissions.

Tourism has expanded beyond sustainable limits in many places, at the expense of local communities.

Overtourism is one of the results. The cruise ships bring thousands of tourists for a half-day visit that overruns the destination but leaves little economic benefit.

Graffiti in Barcelona: ‘Tourists go home. Welcome Refugees’ FlickrBY-SA

Weekend breaks to Europe are now popular, and old cities like Prague and Dubrovnik have been flooded. Tourism dependency is a self-perpetuating system that locks in communities to the growth cycle.

In a paper I wrote in 2010, I claimed that the problem with tourism was what Leslie Sklair, a sociologist, called “Culture-ideology of Consumerism“. This is when consumption patterns which were once reserved for the wealthy became widespread.

Read more: Tourists behaving badly are a threat to global tourism, and the industry is partly to blame

Tourism is embedded in that culture-ideology as an essential pillar to achieve endless economic growth. For instance, the Australian government prioritizes tourism as a “supergrowth industry”, accounting for almost 10% of “exports” in 2017-18.

Crisis brings out creativity.

Many want to continue doing business as usual. Ariel Cohen, of California’s business travel agency TripActions said that if people do not travel, the economy will come to a grinding halt.

COVID-19 represents a radical shift in this way of thinking. Even if Cohen’s right, the economic reality must now change in order to accommodate a more pressing public health reality.

The crisis is an economic blow, but it also inspires creativity. Virtual business meetings are proving to be a successful option for business travelers. Virtual sessions are becoming the norm at conferences. Live stream is used by arts and cultural institutions to reach audiences.

Residents of Italian cities that are under lockdown have taken to their balconies and created music together.

My local cafe and food co-op are supporting the elderly and marginalised in our community to make sure they don’t get forgotten.

These responses are a challenge to the individualism and consumerism that have accompanied travel and tourism. This public health emergency reminds us that our well-being is not dependent on being consumers, but rather on being a part of a group.

Read more: Rethinking tourism so the locals actually benefit from hosting visitors

Staying closer to home could be a catalyst awakening us to the value of eating locally, travelling less and just slowing down and connecting to our community.

We may find that the old way of doing business is less appealing after this crisis has passed. We may discover that the fact we didn’t travel long distances did not stop us from travelling, but rather opened our eyes to the beauty of local travel.

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