Our vulnerability has been laid bare. At whatever level you choose, from the acutely personal through every widening sphere of connection, our reliance on one another, and on vast, interwoven networks is being challenged. Across the world millions of tragedies are playing out, all linked into one root cause.
Tourism is in total global shutdown. This most expansive of industries, said to support the livelihoods of around 10% of the world’s population, is on pause. No one is going anywhere, and won’t be for some time. We have been forced to stop travelling, to repatriate our guests, do what we can for those that depend on us, and only then try to find the time, the energy and the headspace to ask ourselves, what do I do next?
It has only been a few mad March weeks, but this is what is emerging.
Tourism goes virtual
Our industry is virtually reinventing itself, from 3D online museum tours and comedy gigs, to webcams sharing views from favourite locations. Expected Atlanta has created online street food tours that connect with local food delivery companies so people can taste the food while experiencing the tour at home. Visit Helsinki has launched Virtual Helsinki as a ‘digital twin’ for the Finnish capital. Visit Scotland has released soundscapes of its mountains, coasts and forests to connect stressed people to the wonders of the destination. Visit Portugal’s Can’t Skip Hope video embodies the spirit of resilience and contemplation with its message that: “It’s time to stop. It’s time to take a break, for the good of the world. In the meantime, we can dream for the great days to come. We’re in this together.”
There is definitely something to explore in how all these new digital tourism initiatives and stories offer new ways to connect, discover and share. There are possibilities for our response to both overcrowding and the need to decarbonise. And also for inclusivity, as through these apps and sites we can perhaps deliver some of the pleasures and benefits tourists enjoy to those less able to travel.
But there are also risks of overkill and burnout. I spent the first few days of lockdown excitedly reconnecting online. Danced on Friday night with four different households all connected through the same DJ set. Shared Sunday brunch with friends. Failed dismally to give my niece a lesson in rudimentary Latin.
For a while, I cherished all of these connections. Everything was new. But by the end of week three, I find myself needing to be more selective. I am already feeling moments of resistance to my newfound hyperconnectivity.
Our industry needs to be careful about an oversharing backlash. We don’t want our little videos of calm to be dismissed as unwanted clutter and background noise. I do wonder what the stats are on how much people are actually watching and engaging with all these digital simulations and experiences. Because right now, I’ve got no urge to go on a virtual stroll along a beach or around a museum.
We need to find a way not just of connecting to people online, but of bringing them outside again. Spring is unfurling across the Northern hemisphere. We may not be able to visit our national parks or each other’s destinations, but we could be focusing on online tools that help us connect to whatever is within reach right now. I find inspiration in initiatives like Chris Packham’s Self Isolating Bird Club; or the Sky Map apps that let us point our phones into the night sky and learn what stars we can see; or the Blue campaign rewilding initiative, whose tweets connect people to what they can discover in their gardens right now and show them how to provide sanctuaries that support local wildlife where they live.
Destinations turn local
Destination Management Organisations are rethinking themselves to serve local people’s needs, repositioning their websites as information portals for residents. They are updated on what restaurants are serving deliveries and takeaways, advising on loans and business support, or connecting them to charities and organisations helping the most vulnerable in their communities and in need of urgent support.
Some of this will no longer be needed once the crisis is over. But not all should be disregarded. A different relationship is being created between the DMO and the community in which it is based. In the 27 years I lived in London as an adult, I only ever went onto Visit London’s website if I was researching an article or a talk. As I saw it, there was nothing there for me. On the other hand, having moved to France a few months ago, I search local tourism websites regularly. Before this crisis locked me down I was using them to discover restaurants, shops, and places to immerse myself in nature and go for long walks.
As a new resident, I will continue to need this information for a long time. But what if the DMOs looked to keep me coming back, even once I become a ‘local’, What if a new relationship could be forged – one where DMOs were seen as useful to everyone who was curious about what was happening in a place, however well we know it?
Surely there is a constant market to be found in local people looking to connect to a region’s nature, to meet and collaborate with like-minded people, or simply to discover what is going on? We have spent the last few years talking about how we need to treat visitors like locals. If this disaster re-energises local connections and curiosities, and a desire to better know the world nearby, then we also need to look to treat locals as tourists too.
(Also, in the mid-term, the first tourism that will re-emerge will be predominantly hyper-local.)
This wouldn’t stop DMOs also servicing visitors’ needs – I would still want to connect to their information and services when I arrived as a first time or occasional visitor. I’d argue I would want it even more, as I would know that it was embedded in the place I was visiting. One role model I see in this is the magazine and website Time Out. I used to subscribe to the magazine as a Londoner. And whenever I have visited one of the many other cities it is published in, I have turned to it as a reliable guide.
It’s not just DMOs that have been repurposing themselves to respond to the COVID-19 emergency. I can see no larger symbol of our industry’s transformation than the fact that Excel in London, IFEMA in Madrid and Messe in Berlin, the venues for the three largest tourism and hospitality events in Europe, are all being turned into hospitals.
OYO Hotels & Homes is offering free stays to doctors, nurses and other medical first responders. Bulungula Lodge, a remote eco lodge and backpackers on South Africa’s Wild Coast, is transforming its accommodation into a Safe Home Venue to protect vulnerable members of its community by providing isolation from returning workers. In London, homeless people will be able to sleep in vacant hotel rooms thanks to an agreement between the Mayor’s office and Intercontinental Hotels Group.
Networks are being repurposed too. Airbnb has launched Airbnb for Doctors and Nurses to provide free accommodation to medics. Portuguese non-profit initiative Rooms against Covid is helping relocated health professionals find accommodation in hotels. Cloudbeds has launched #HospitalityHelps’ to create a centralized bed repository to connect properties to healthcare agencies.
Elsewhere, World Central Kitchen is mobilising American restaurants to ensure food for vulnerable people through its #ChefsforAmerica programme. In The Gambia, the International Trade Centre has trained young tour guides in its community based tourism initiative to become first responders. And in Nepal, inspired by an initiative set up after the cancellation of ITB this year, a collaboration between a Nepali responsible travel pioneer, the national government, and the founder of tourism’s biggest online community has seen the “StrandedinNepal’ website set up in under a day.
What comes next?
I believe this ‘repurposing’ can play a significant role in the story of our industry’s future. We know we can’t go back. We were already an industry in crisis, the consequences of over-tourism causing ever greater resentment from local communities, and the climate emergency set to change everything anyway.
We have repeatedly seen in the last few years how natural disasters affect tourism. So many lodges and hotels are sited in the exposed remote areas that are most prone to hurricanes and floods. These sensitive natural environments are also the places tour companies take visitors to discover.
Our locations make us acutely vulnerable. But, combined with our networks, they also offer us a unique opportunity to help. Often the lodge or tour company based in the community hit by disaster is the only significant organisation that is connected both internationally and locally. The disaster relief organisations may come in to help in the moment of crisis. But tourism is there before, during and after.
It is because of this, that despite the current emergency and all it threatens, I am trying to see this terrible time not as the end of tourism but as the messy, seemingly disconnected jumble of ideas from which we fuse together the first draft of our next chapter.
This new story can be one of restoration. One where we are reintegrated into our communities. Hotels always have empty rooms. No one operates at 100% capacity all the time. So couldn’t an initiative like Cloudbeds’ #hospitalityhelps continue after this crisis, with hotels offering their spare beds to always offer caregivers a free room?
Likewise there have been several stories in the last weeks about hotels giving away their surplus food to foodbanks. What were they doing with it beforehand? Now that these new relationships are being forged, don’t let them slip away. There are apps like ResQ or Karma or initiatives like PlanZheroes designed to connect hotels and restaurants with those needing food, using circular economy principles to design waste out of the system. We should learn from them now, improve them and embed their principles for our future.
Now we are all taking a crash course in virtual working, what can we learn? Spain’s Ilunion Hotels is committed to being a truly accessible company to work for, with several of its properties employing a workforce where at least 70 per cent of the staff are people with disabilities. As we learn which of our roles and responsibilities can be done remotely, couldn’t we see this as an opportunity to ensure decent work for people who might be less able to reach our establishments, despite being just as able to deliver the work required?
And when the time comes again where we can take people on walking tours around our cities – might we have first connected with the local organisations working with refugees and newly arrived migrants? Could we offer up a free space on our tours to them?
One of the best examples of how we can repurpose our industry isn’t from this crisis at all. It comes from Kerala, where my friend Gopinath Parayil runs a travel company called The Blue Yonder. A few years ago he learned of an indigenous rice variety called Pokkali, that grows in salt water conditions – meaning it is resistant to the increasing number of floods and storm surges that the climate emergency is inflicting upon his home state. It is Climate Resilient Rice.
However, the local farmers were less willing to grow Pokkali, as it was harder work than basmati. Gopi trained them to paddle kayaks so they could navigate their paddy fields. Then he employed them as guides, so they could diversify their income and take his guests on experiences exploring the backwaters around Cochin. He got the local tourist restaurants to commit to buying the rice, providing a guaranteed income for the farmers, and the chance to sell rice with a story to their international customers (who then might buy a kayak tour, too).
Finally he taught the farmers first aid.
In August 2018, Kerala was hit by a ‘Hundred year flood’. Over 483 people died, and around a million were evacuated. Thanks to their preparation, the Pokkali farmers became first responders, using their kayaks, their understanding of the region, and their knowledge of first aid to help people trapped in their homes.
Imagine if there had also been a co-ordinated network of kayaks spread across the district. If every hotel and lodge and tour company had shared data on where its kayaks were kept. If more guides and farmers were trained in first aid. Maybe even a kayak-sharing website that could have been used to help tourists rent craft and find guides during holiday times. It could have been repurposed for the crisis to allocate essential resources and ensure everywhere was protected.
As we reimagine and repurpose our industry over the coming weeks and months to respond to the COVID-19 emergency, our focus must of course be on the most immediate and urgent needs. But rather than seeing this time as one we only want to forget, we must make sure it is also a process we remember.
We will forge new connections. Create new initiatives. Discover new strengths. Learn something about each other and our resilience. We must preserve and nurture all this.
In it are the seeds of the tourism that comes next.