The world as we knew does not exist anymore, it seems wobbly and upside-down. Why does it feel that we are in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster where the apocalypse is inevitable? Empty airports, deserted squares, and streets, haunted visitor attractions or lonely world landmarks, is the new norm!

And it’s not just one country or people, its nearly 180 countries and counting, over half the world’s population forced in lockdowns and curfews. Why do we seem to be living in the longest Sunday… and aching to bring back the not-so-horrid-anymore Mondays?

The travel and tourism industry is on its knees, crippled with grounded airline fleets, hotels being converted into nursing homes, and nursing homes into morgues – convention centers into makeshift hospitals, restaurants reduced to ‘no contact’ delivery services, and events being canceled in one blanket sweep around the Globe. One by one like a domino effect, all major travel and tourism tradeshows and expos are falling victim to the monster pandemic, namely COVID-19.

The devastation has been so fast and its net has been thrown so vast, that WHO has been scrambling to come up with new situation analysis nearly every 24 hours, as all old rule books have been tossed out of the window – as none of the old rules of the game apply anymore. In just under 50 days everything has changed and changing – what makes sense today may not be at all be relevant tomorrow. What is clear though is that the world has shrunk to a village place – and we are all in it together!

It’s clear! The world was not prepared, despite major warnings and predictions by the likes of Bill Gates, no one saw it coming. A lackluster response, and in some cases complete denial by some of the governments of the greatest economies of the world – so-called custodians of the world economic order has further jeopardized and complicated the recovery. The negative economic impact on the tourism industry by some estimates is going to be 1 Trillion US dollars, a hole so great that it necessitates massive bailouts by the governments, of the likes which will dwarf previous bailouts for SARS, or 2008 financial crisis combined.

A pandemic whose devastation is projected to be bigger than the World Wars is reshaping the lives and economies and changing the trajectory of the world, as we speak. We MUST press the reset button, and salvage whatever we can, and reclaim our sanity.

When the recovery does happen, and it will happen, I believe that whilst other industries and businesses will be slow to limp back into shape, travel, and tourism could be the quickest and easiest fix, and act as a healing balm and glue the broken economy. Tourism cannot be trapped; just as human resilience must flourish. The need to reconnect and retouch is a basic human instinct and it will carry us forward. The industry will bounce back, people will start to travel once more, planes will take off again and life may return to a ‘new normal’… What that new normal maybe is what we must foresee and capture and be ready for.

Travelers may need more convincing and persuasion that it is safe to travel but they may want to see real hard evidence of changes in attitudes and approach of the industry, which may include massive price corrections. The once who can grasp this change will survive the curve.

With that said, let’s review some megatrends that may arise:

1. End of Volume Pricing and Marketing

No more can airlines and hotels do ‘yield’ management at the expanse of the consumer, where volume defines ‘herd’ pricing tactics, to appease boards, stocks, and government targets. These strategies in the past have led to measly cramped flights, overcapacity, over-tourism, and catastrophic climate challenges, that the industry as the biggest polluter, has made only dismal attempts to disperse in the past. The fear is that when the markets do rebound, the past mistakes must not be repeated with cutthroat price wars, that enforce the same patterns of aggressive discounting, and the pattern repeats itself. The destination marketing campaigns have to change their tone and promote under the radar experiences, rather than products.

2. Younger, Modern Cruise Industry

The cruise industry will survive, however, it will need to reinvent the customer base of younger travelers, as its signature older more affluent audience may want to reconsider this mode of tourism, due to health fears. The prices will have to be dropped to match the new segment, and the product offering will need to be revamped to suit younger audiences. The cruise routes will have to be designed to be more efficient, perhaps even shorter – Agility will be demanded – and ships will have to be carbon neutral in all aspects of the services.

3. Tourism as a more desirable Career.

These crises have enforced the industry to go online – within weeks if not days, companies, which were in the past been happy to offer basic web solutions and at the most a phone app, has been scrambling to offering sophisticated interactive solutions from online webinars, master classes by industry experts, culinary short courses, to tour guide skill development programs, to umpteen hotel management programs. In addition, many museums and sites have upped their technology game offering virtual tours and expeditions. This appeals to young people who are seeking a more diverse and futuristic career. Whilst in the short-term there may be massive layoffs, the positives of a reconfigured industry will certainly help to attract a newer smarter talent pool.

4. Cleanliness as a visible measure

A clean environment will be at the minimum expected., whether that be airlines, cruise ships, coaches, or hotels. This will become the new minimum gold standard. Everyone in hospitality services will have to participate and up their game. There will be no exception to the rule, as this will be part and parcel of the increased comfort level demand by the guests. This will also include personal grooming of the staff, disinfection hygiene, and sanitization of all products, services, and venues. Standards companies will have to devise ratings and monitoring around this measure. 

5. The rise of domestic travel

In the past three decades, we have seen the rise of long-haul international travel. This is where the DMOs and destinations have slapped their marketing dollars, ignoring the low hanging domestic or homegrown travel. With some of the intercountry travel-bans to continue well into 2020, the second-best option would be to travel domestically – a much safer and cheaper option. This will create a reduced carbon footprint, as well, give travelers a chance to explore their own country’s hidden treasures, and in return help boost the local economies, helping to create jobs in otherwise stagnant space.   

6. Lure, drive repeat customers

Now is the time to RETHINK stagnant or nonresistant loyalty programs. Many experts will vouch that it is cheaper to target and retain a repeat customer than to bring in a ‘new customer’. In the age of Instagram selfies, experiential travel where one can live experience and retain its memory will be in demand. While first-time arrivals will visit the typical sites, to take the selfie or tick mark the visit, the return visitors tend to go to newer locations and experiences. So now is the time for product and marketing teams, to think out of box ideas and solutions and ready to roll these out with a fresh marketing perspective and approach.

7. Volatility in Hotel prices & safer choices

This is to be expected. Historically, in times of great uncertainty such as in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks or after the end of the recession in 2009, it has taken twice as long for room rates to rebound than it did for them to drop to their lowest point. Average Room rates will go down before they come back up. There will be a lot of behind the scenes change of ownerships of hotel brands, but operational things will become much more efficient and nimbler with hygiene and technology standards being applied even more diligently. The segment will sustain and survive. 

Travelers may feel safer in hotels than vacation rentals. The jury is still out on this but it may be that the traveler may take comfort in the safety and security of established cleaning protocols from an established lodging provider and brand, as alternative lodging options such as Airbnb and other vacation rental properties may struggle to communicate and standardize rigorous cleaning standards, which may have a negative impact in the short term for Airbnb-type rentals. However, if these businesses pre-empt this scenario, they have a chance to implement and ferociously start to activate these standards now whilst things are slow, there is still a window to implement these safeguards. 

8. Rise of Health Tourism & Stay Home Tourism?

COVID-19 has redefined the way people engage and interact daily. Terms such as Social distancing have started to define how people behave. Playing it safe and staying home may make more sense for those who have their wellbeing and health as the top priority. This could spur the desire for healthy dining, spa, well-being options under the guise of health tourism.  

All around the world we’ve seen a massive trend in, live streaming, in some cases gaming and virtual travel. What impact this will have on the psyche of the discerning traveler – what options will be more appealing, less travel in fear of similar outbreaks? Why risk jumping on a plane, when one could enjoy somewhat from the safety of their living rooms? There may be business who will want to capture and focus on these customers.

9. Less is Full Flight options

People will be more comfortable traveling by air if planes with cheaper airfare but also less occupied. Empty middle seats and prices dramatically lower will be the new norm – if the airline industry has to be assured of recovery. Several airlines are already starting to implement simpler food and beverage services, to augment the reality of cost-cutting measures to implement the concept of distance no contact seating. 

10. Business travel to go

Chances are that business travel will rebound before, followed by domestic leisure travel, with trans-oceanic travel is likely to be slow to pick up. Whilst in the short-term, as part of bigger cost-cutting strategies, there will be an upsurge in virtual online meetings propelled by several meeting apps such as ZOOM, GoToMeeting, the lure of face to face meetings will remain strong, which will help to jumpstart the recovery for the airlines’ industry. Also, air travelers will demand more flexibility with rebooking or booking change options, which in turn will need to be backed by strong genuine miles accumulation loyalty programs, at least in the short recovery period.

11. Sustainability becomes a reality

I truly believe there has to be some good out of these crises, and the environment and our planet getting a break is on top. This new reality will push the case for over-tourism, sustainable tourism, and environmental impact issues, no more just buzz words will come to the forefront and take center stage. Planners will have to offer genuine solutions towards ethical travel concerns of the traveler – and cannot be brushed away by the governments as fads.

As a final thought – what this virus has taught us is that we are in this together. The need for tourism and travel is ever stronger, and the quickest and safest way to reignite the economies. And ONLY a well-coordinated effort between nations, between people, can help us inch towards the recovery. What our industry needs now is #CriticalCollabrationInCrisis. At the World Tourism Forum Institute, we will continue to engage with governments and world leaders to have a constructive dialogue on how to avoid the next surge of such crisis, which experts unfortunately believe will undoubtedly come. When it does hopefully from lessons lent from today, we can avoid the chaos of tomorrow.

Sumaira IsaacsCEO, Global Tourism Forum

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