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[Expert Article] Sustainable tourism and a health crisis: a historic conjunction?

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Thomas Deschamps - Director of the Observatory, for sustainable and accessible tourism at the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau

The total disappearance of tourists during the crisis is leading people to reconsider the notion of tourism. But will this be a lasting change?

One of the effects of the global health crisis caused by the eruption of COVID-19 was the temporary shutting off of what we thought was an inexhaustible resource given the constant increase in tourism.

However, crises in tourist attendance are not new to big tourist destinations. Whether they are caused by geopolitical or cultural events (terrorist attacks, independence struggles, etc.), social incidents (opposition to tourism, social claims, etc.), natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, etc.) or even economic factors (the subprimes crisis, the bursting of the dotcom bubble, etc.), these crises did not impair the resilience of big cities. Resilience comes from both an economic and cultural appeal, which allow them to reinvent themselves.

Tourists have taken more or less time to return after each of these crises. But they came back. Are they different after a crisis? Tourists are a reflection of their times and always take on new parameters, changing gradually in different periods and places as consumption patterns change. So yes, they were always different when they returned. But how will the COVID-19 crisis change urban tourism this time?


After the health crisis: a new era or the same old story?

Tourism professionals were very hard hit by this crisis and the total disappearance of tourists. Their first reflex for survival will doubtlessly be to return to “business as usual” to get their heads above water as quickly as possible.

And what about tourists? Will they have changed? Initially, they too will get back to life as usual, back to the way they lived before the crisis, which sometimes they grew tired of and that was made more pleasant by tourism. Some destinations are even counting on “revenge tourism”, hoping that tourists will want to make up for lost time after two frustrating years during which they were deprived of travel.

But have tourists like professionals in the industry also realised that things have to be done differently? That to avoid saturating sites and creating tourist bubbles, which are disconnected from the city and its inhabitants, things need to change.

One thing is for sure, the crisis is a catalyst. In their everyday lives, consumers are increasingly aware that each of their actions can become a means to minimise the destruction of the planet. COVID-19 is the result of our errors, a symptom of how we have gone astray, as consumers have learnt with stupor, amazement and sometimes with suffering. As tourism is a part of modern consumerism, it must follow this virtuous path laid down by consumer tourists themselves.

But tourism is also a product of a lifestyle that does not change as quickly as consumption itself, and that can sometimes remain stressful. Today, half of humanity lives in towns and cities, and urban environments can become a less appealing choice as a place to relax if they cannot change their appearance. After COVID, tourists are using the summer to escape from big cities in favour of other spaces with less of a health risk. Although this position is unlikely to remain the case in the long term, it will undoubtedly leave its mark.


So what is to be done?

When confronted by these contradictory influences, where should make an effort? The coming years will doubtlessly see changes in demand from tourists and these changes will not be anodyne. They will even be on a scale that no crisis has brought about until now.

Tourist destinations are making no mistake and have identified sustainable tourism as a subject that they need to invest in and are bringing different players on-board to redefine themselves. This means thinking about the planet when you host tourists, of course, but also thinking about how local people can benefit, increasing how much tourism contributes to the urban economy, and not just with a consumer that adopts part of the town for a moment and then leaves. Sustainable tourism is now perhaps the prime subject that allows urban tourist destination managers to talk to residents and professionals in the tourist industry at the same time.

Some cities, and Paris is leading the way on these issues, have decided to rebalance their urban growth to make it more sustainable: by sharing the public space between pedestrians, cars and soft mobility; by giving over more space to nature and biodiversity, and thereby making the city more welcoming and easier to live in for its users—to the point that combining eco-tourism and the urban environment could represent a new way of promoting the area; by thinking about the fifteen minute city—bringing all the activities of city dwellers closer together (work, education, culture, shopping, leisure, etc.). An ever greater number of city dwellers in the world are testing these new trends for the cities of today and tomorrow, and will include them in their tourist practices.

However, tourism professionals are faced with another paradigm: changing their process, how to manage staff and their procurement, diversifying their clientele to be more resilient, opening up to their district, etc. requires quite a big effort. So they need to be pushed to take action by convincing them that changing will bring them into phase with their future customers. They need to be offered pragmatic, turnkey solutions to facilitate their transition to a new business model. There are already many solutions, whilst others still need to be invented, both individually and collectively. The information needed to change people’s mentalities is available, but a lot of it needs to be simplified and put into perspective.


Generating a movement

The challenges to be overcome are ambitious but thrilling. Tourism, which was previously invented as a means to discover other cultures by cultivating yourself (the famous World Tour), became a mass industry that disconnected the producers from the destinations, only involving a minority of the population. Today, urban destinations are rethinking towns and cities and integrating tourism so that all the stakeholders can benefit from the change. The economic aspect can no longer overshadow the cultural and natural aspects. The equation between these three aspects must be rebalanced to become a sustainable and fair manner of envisaging development (without greenwashing).

Does this mean that mass tourism has become an enemy to be fought? That tourists should be prevented from coming by plane because the carbon footprint is too great? Paris for example does not want to put an end to welcoming tourists from the USA, who represent its biggest foreign market. And the growth in tourism will now continue around the world, as new countries obtain sufficient resources to travel. Destinations will learn to project an image that better represents their city and the customers they want to host, without however closing their doors to “the old world”. The pathway that we now face is (re)discovering a balance between temporary visitors and residents. And this pathway must be the only one possible if we do not want to empty our cities of their residents whilst seeking to increase tourism.

Setting targets, measuring progress, empowering participants and displaying the transparency of actions are the main components of the method we need to apply to change. It puts collecting and analysing data at the heart of the commitment by promoting the notion of progress.

Only time will tell if the combined developments in tourism will make comparing the carbon impact an essential factor alongside price for consumers when choosing their destination. But what is for sure is that cities are changing and supporting this awareness, and are just waiting for tourism to promote it.

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