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Published on Monday, May 11, 2020

Virtual tourism may be the travel industry's saviour


An alternative world has appeared through the looking glass…


With any luck, an enormous battle will take place after the lockdowns - you need to take your side now.


Covid-19 has done more to de-claw the big cats of the mass tourism industry than all the greenies in the world could have hoped. How wonderful!


I don't think that anyone will disagree with me when I say that the major section of the market - about a billion of the international tourists - are driven by the usual fear and greed. Standard marketing touchpoints. These people also fuel the industry's dramatic expansion.


I've been in the industry for over 60 years and I know that the customer is always right; I forgot it at my peril. Every single major market shift has been driven by the idea that you can get the magic formula = distance+exotic+luxury, cheap. Spain in the 1960s, North Africa in the 1970s, Caribbean in the 1980s, Turkey in the 1990s, Far East in the 2000s. Then, after all this, the OTAs and the Low-Cost Carriers managed to make EVERYTHING cheap. .


Of course, it has not actually been cheap for many years - it was only ever true at the very beginning.


The fact is that it LOOKS cheap. Why? Because someone else always pays. The governments pay to keep the airlines in business with tax breaks and dodgy deals with plane-makers; local destination communities pay as their families get horridly tiny wages and nastily hard work on terrible terms in bad conditions with no prospects. The 'advantage' to them? …the opportunity to serve their 'superiors'. And the global community pays as the airlines pollute OUR atmosphere more and more.


Once upon a time, when the writing was on the wall, the travel industry began a long and committed journey into health and sustainability.


The travel industry truck crashed into another wall in 2009 after the financial crisis. Everybody wanted/needed the short-term buck, so sustainability existed in name only. Nonetheless, the writing was on the wall even more powerfully at Davos, at Oxford University, in Gothenburg: report after report emphasised that mass tourism was headed for disaster. Unfortunately, it wasn't mass tourism that crashed - sustainable tourism crashed - at the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, of all places.


Like I said before, the market drives tourism, and there is nothing wrong with tourism marketers assessing their potential clients' needs and fulfilling them.


That was easy enough when they all needed something good, cheap and superficially sustainable.


Now we all have a little taste of things to come. Covid-19 has, quite literally, changed our entire world. Generously distributed by global airlines at no extra cost, carriers of the virus spread it to every corner of the globe.


And suddenly...


The fact that people are now travelling much less has let us all have a peep into another possible world. The air we breathe is much better, there is much less noise, fewer planes in the sky, carbon emissions have dramatically decreased. We hear the birds once again and are reminded that nature can, and will, take care of itself - even if it means that the human race will be exterminated.


On the other hand, every day we are told that we will have to work for less, we are to have the worst recession for 300 years, airlines will go bust, the industry will take over three years to recover and that hundreds of millions of tourism jobs are at stake, plus hundreds of thousands of hotel properties will disappear.


On the other hand, with a terrifying lack of global government consensus were we to carry on as we were - putting the Paris Climate change agreement and other sustainable initiatives at risk - REAL, even more devastating disaster looms. Maybe not for the current reckless generations but for the generations that follow. Our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and, if they do appear, great, great grandchildren.


I was always taught that sustainability was about respecting the needs of the next seven generations and thinking locally. Now we have been forced to do the latter - is it not time to do the former too before the generations grind to a halt due to our bad stewardship?


I'm sure that my fellow tourism professionals will agree that the travel and tourism industry is not the major direct cause of the loss of human and worker's rights, the loss of species, the despoiling of our environment, the rise of emissions or any of those bad things that challenge the survival of our own species on this Earth.


But global mass homogeneous tourism, without doubt, is a symptom of a way of living that is doing tremendous damage to environments, to human beings, to our cultures and our societies.


Shortly we will have a critical choice to make if our governments begin attempting to put an incredibly expensive sticking plaster on a system that was never fit for purpose. If so, they will use cynical meretricious phrases like "full employment" and "tourism for our economic development". They will assert that "air travel builds economies and transcends borders" that "tourism brings massive opportunities for all"


And they will be right. Tourism has the opportunity to do all these things and more.


But, over the last 40 years or more, however many tourists travel, however big the tourism economy, however many hotels have been built - the vast majority of the jobs have been rubbish, the vast majority of destination communities have had terrible deals.


My guess is that most of the nearly one billion people employed in the tourism industry actually work at minimal wages to provide the top ten thousand or so with riches and power. And the top 100 of those, in fact represented by the WTTC, and including the big no-skin-in-the-game marketers like Airbnb, Priceline, Tripadvisor and Expedia - get all of the cream - if you can call it that.


We've had a big shake up. Within a few months, weak organisations will perish.


Soon it will be time to build a new travel and tourism industry. An industry that uses the term 'sustainable' - not just as a buzz word, but one that implies Responsibility in Business Practice, quality training and employment, sustainable tourism economies and businesses, social integrity, cultural and environmental respect, resilient sustainable destinations.


The billion tourism people with skin in the game could make it happen and change the world of tourism for the better.


In the meantime, strangely, virtual tourism could have answers, reducing actual travellers to lower numbers and higher prices and giving others the possibility of fundamentally understanding the destination they wish to visit.


I pray that it will happen - do you?


Valere Tjolle

Valere is CEO of Best of Romagna and author of 'You Lucky People' the story of travel - the world's most delightful and devastating industry. Find out more about it HERE



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