Reshaping the Tourism Industry Post-COVID-19: Balancing the Environment and the Economy

By Maya El-Haj

There is no doubt that we live in unprecedented times where the challenges of the pandemic will be experienced for considerably longer than anticipated. While countries around the world grapple with new outbreaks, different strains and vaccination issues, some have begun opening up to rebuild their economies. Tourism was hit more than most, with a complete shutdown of international travel, closure of hotels and cancellation (or at least postponement) of major events and attractions. The entire global economy will fall between 1.5% and 2% due to the impact on tourism, and an estimated 120 million people will lose their jobs or be made temporarily redundant.

It is clear that as the tourism industry re-emerges from hibernation, not everything will be the same as before. Tourism is one of – if not the – largest sectors of the worldwide economy, with one in ten people involved in the sector. The industry is undergoing a period of incredible change and there will be no going back to ‘normal’, in the near future at least. The impacts of the pandemic are here to stay and the industry will have to adapt.

New Metrics’ Maya El-Haj sat down with Philippe Georgiou, a former strategy consultant at Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, to discuss what the future of the global tourism industry might look like.

Maya El-Haj: We are now seeing tourism assets reopening with an entirely new travel experience for passengers and guests. Is this the correct approach and what would you advise those in the industry to do in this environment?

Philippe Georgiou: The recovery has to be gradual; there are still concerns about the health of passengers, guests and, of course, staff. After COVID-19, we can safely say that its impact will continue to prevail in the minds of people for quite some time. Health and safety will be top of mind. Is this destination clean? Is this hotel clean? Is this restaurant clean? These concerns are going to continue for a while. If we want to build a new future for tourism, we need to focus on three pillars: Health consciousness, resilience and sustainability to look after the physical and cultural environments.

Maya El-Haj: How do you think the pandemic has changed the mindset of those living in traditional tourist destinations?

Philippe Georgiou: Tourism continues to be one of the most impacted sectors by COVID-19, but it is one of the most resilient sectors. No one predicted the extent of the current threat, but there have been others in the past. It is in human nature to travel and discover, see new things, and in the early days of the pandemic the digital transformation of the industry helped keep the dream of travel alive. At the same time, the local people must have noticed a positive impact on their cities as lockdowns kept the streets quiet, clean, free of traffic and large groups. Even the native species have returned; the number of fish in the sea has increased for example. The dilemma now is how to preserve the uniqueness of the destination, the reasons why people want to visit in the first place, and ensure that the local economy – so often reliant on tourism – can function enough to support the community. It is a tough balance.

Maya El-Haj: How do you feel this balance can be achieved?

Philippe Georgiou: Tourism has rescued national industries by offering massive discounts and travel bundles, and this should remain the case post-COVID as the industry recovers. It can bring the income they need to recover as a nation. Governments around the world have tried to support the sector by deferring taxes or lowering fees to help hotels, restaurants and airlines survive. But it is never enough because of the length of the pandemic. Hence, the sector will continue to need support. Governments need to look at their own agendas and decide how important tourism is to the country then decide how far they are willing to go.

Maya El-Haj: How do you feel the attitudes of travellers will have changed by the time we emerge from this period of our lives? 

Philippe Georgiou: The return to normal will be gradual anyway because the rate of vaccination across the world is vastly different per country and this will slow things down. People have become more careful as well. There is still doubt. As much as governments have a role to play, the responsibility falls on the tourists too. This cautious approach to what they can and can’t do, where they can and can’t go will carry over until confidence returns, but the third pillar – sustainability – is vital to preserving destinations, jobs, quality of life and the health of the world.

The effect of the lockdown is estimated to be a global loss – until now – of US $1 trillion from the tourism industry alone. The responsibility to recover and rebuild falls on governments to prioritize a resurgence, when it can, to attract customers with incentives, and on the tourists themselves to act responsibly and maintain the environments they travel to see.

Whether the industry rebounds completely, or in the same direction as before, remains to be seen, but it also doesn’t have to. As we have seen in other sectors, such as healthcare, learning from this difficult period to reset and reshape can be a net positive. Industries need to evolve, and breaking the status quo can lead to a brighter future for operators, customers and those living in tourist hotspots.

A renewed focus on the details so often ignored previously, like the native culture, traditional food and the wellbeing of the local community, can be part of a larger tourism strategy where the ubiquity of the familiar multinational brands takes a backseat to what is often termed ‘niche’ or ‘boutique.’ In fact, these details are what make the city, region or country unique and offers a truly authentic experience to benefit the resident as well as the visitor while also supporting the local economy in tourism and beyond.