The impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic on tourism and tourists was both catastrophic and unexpected. While many countries have seen a rapid recovery in tourism, individual destinations and operations worldwide continue to suffer from its after-effects. COVID-19 has caused the largest impact ever experienced by the tourism industry, surpassing the disruptions during world wars. What made it particularly devastating was its unprecedented and unknown nature, as the world had never faced such a global pandemic with such significant effects on travel.
A century earlier, the Spanish Flu had the potential to be more fatal and rapid in its spread than COVID-19. However, the lack of global air travel at that time meant its impact was localised, with minimal travel restrictions and shutdowns. This meant that the scale and long-term effects on tourism remained uncertain, including the implications for existing tourist destinations. As restrictions were gradually lifted and tourism resumed, the industry was unprepared for the rapid but incomplete recovery. Being closely interconnected with various economic sectors, tourism bore the brunt of an accumulation of problems resulting from the pandemic.
Differential impact on tourist destinations based on the developmental stage
A significant concern revolves around the differential impact of COVID-19 on various tourist destinations, as well as whether these effects correlate with their stage of tourism development. It is widely acknowledged that most destinations undergo a similar developmental trajectory or life cycle. Initially, tourism gradually enters a community, followed by rapid growth through development and promotional efforts. Eventually, the pace decreases as peak facilities and visitor numbers are attained, leading to a range of potential trajectories for the future.
Destinations may experience sustained growth, opt for modest or minimal expansion, or face decline if their attractions become overused or outdated. These dynamics hold substantial implications for the future developmental pathways of tourist communities and necessitate strategic actions by local entities and governments to facilitate market recovery and visitor attraction.
Destinations in the early stages of development may be less affected by COVID-19 than those in advanced stages. This is because early-stage destinations have not significantly invested in tourist infrastructure and services, mainly relying on existing local structures. Additionally, a smaller proportion of residents depend on tourism as their primary source of income, and the revenue generated from tourism constitutes only a small portion of city taxes.
On the other hand, destinations in the middle stages of development, with substantial investments in tourism and ongoing construction and service changes, are more likely to experience significant impacts. The loss of business could lead to a significant decline in income, potentially resulting in loan defaults, halted investments, and adverse economic effects on other local businesses. While destinations that have already reached their peak in terms of visitor numbers and witnessed a slowdown in new investments may also suffer income losses, they might not face as many permanent closures. These operations could temporarily shut down but have the potential to reopen when tourism returns.
Implications for employment and business
In terms of employment, start-up destinations are expected to have lower impacts as they often rely on small and local employment, often within family-run businesses. In contrast, middle and later-stage destinations primarily employ temporary staff during the tourist season. Consequently, COVID-19 would have less direct impact on local residents’ employment. Still, it would have significant indirect effects on businesses such as accommodation rentals and food and other purchases made by these employees.
Identifying and planning for the impacts of a pandemic is relatively straightforward, and restoration to previous levels is possible once restrictions are lifted. However, the consequences of lost investment, both actual and potential, are much more challenging to measure and comprehend. In certain destinations, particularly those in the early to middle stages of development, investments in the planning stages might have been halted or abandoned, leading to lasting effects on their prospects. Some new destinations may never progress further due to missed investment opportunities resulting from the pandemic, as potential developers redirect their attention and resources elsewhere or face financial constraints and, in some unfortunate cases, loss of life.
What did go wrong?
Destinations experiencing maximum growth prior to the pandemic faced an abrupt halt in their progress. Despite promotional efforts, they might struggle to regain their position in the market and could enter a phase of stagnation or even decline. On the other hand, destinations in the later stages of development may not be severely impacted since they wouldn’t typically anticipate significant new investments and development. Their ability to recover a substantial portion of their business, especially if they have a strong domestic tourist market, could contribute to a more favourable outcome.
Countries like New Zealand, for instance, shifted their focus from international tourism to domestic tourism after the end of domestic lockdowns, resulting in less severe consequences for destinations heavily reliant on local visitors compared to those with a greater emphasis on international tourism. One certainty is that the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects will take time to understand fully. When it comes to lost investments, they may never be entirely comprehended or appreciated.
There is a growing movement among activists advocating for a shift in the tourism industry’s approach as COVID restrictions are lifted. They argue that this is an opportune time to move away from the longstanding assumption of continuous growth and embrace a more sustainable operation model. The stage of development reached by a particular community could significantly influence its ability to refocus and realign its appeal. Some destinations may reduce or limit visitor numbers to prevent or mitigate the negative impacts of over-tourism, particularly for those who have restored their numbers to pre-COVID levels.
Despite the widespread catastrophic effects of tourism on destinations, it is highly likely that most places will prioritise recovery and regaining market share before considering a significant shift that could lead to smaller visitor numbers and potentially lower tourism income. This initial focus on recovery is understandable, even though such changes could potentially address the issue of overtourism and signify a genuine step towards sustainability.
Gössling, S., Scott, D., & Hall, C. M. (2020). Pandemics, tourism and global change: a rapid assessment of COVID-19. Journal of sustainable tourism, 29(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2020.1758708