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Travel and tourism: the future after COVID-19

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The events of 2020 completely paralyzed transportation and tourism. Now, with the end of the pandemic still far off, experts predict that there will be profound transformation in this industry. 

For years now, companies in all industries—including those in tourism and travel—have been involved in the so-called digital transformation. Society is also calling on companies to be more sustainable and mindful of the environment. Following the emergence of these requirements, the travel and tourism industry spent years preparing to offer safer, more accessible and more affordable services.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and everything learned so far fell by the wayside. For months, we have all been unable to leave our regions, our cities, even our homes. In Spain, the arrival of tourists fell by 77 percent in 2020, with only 19 million visitors — a level that the country had not seen since 1969.

What can we expect from the future of travel now that, with mass vaccinations underway, there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Tourism focused on consumer involvement

Back in October 2020, National Geographic stated that the travel and tourism industry had lost 8 trillion dollars due to the pandemic. Accordingly, the magazine proposed a series of momentous changes for the industry’s future, all from the traveler’s perspective.

Firstly, the modern tourist is environmentally conscious, and puts sustainability above all else. Even the pandemic has not eliminated this global concern, which means that travelers are expected to be more aware of environment issues and to seek responsible travel policies. As an example of such policies, Lonely Planet has outlined the city of Valencia’s intention to measure the carbon footprint left by tourism; while Engadget has highlighted the European Union’s intention to record and classify carbon emissions from flights.

Large businesses have long been aware that clients seek out companies and brands that reflect and align with their own values. Therefore, after COVID-19 we will likely see more inclusive trips — another sign that even the pandemic cannot resolve the key issues faced by society. In this case, we’re talking about social movements advocating human rights. National Geographic gives the example of guided tours in American museums, which speak of “painful historical issues, such as racism in the US.”

Another exercise of conscience is to give more importance to small communities. In particular, after the negative impact of the pandemic, there is now talk of tourism with a positive impact. In Spain, local tourism has been highlighted in this regard: particularly in the areas known as Empty Spain. Another example is Impact Travel Alliance, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the world through sustainable tourism and that also supports local business.

Tourism for forward-looking consumers

In general, the kind of tourist that will emerge in the post-COVID world will be more aware not only of the environment, but of their own approach to travel. In this sense, we’re talking about quality over quantity: The pandemic has made us think about how and why we want to travel. In future, journeys—especially long-distance travel—will be better prepared and will be made less frequently. In its predictions from March 2020, Travel Perk, cited post-pandemic travel complications, including a (possible) need to hold more than one passport, more expensive travel seasons, and stricter airport controls.

This is one of the reasons why road trips are making a strong comeback: Despite flights being cheaper and available destinations becoming further and further away, national travel restrictions have brought back the appeal of road trips to places that aren’t so distant. And on those road trips, we very much have being closer to home in mind. Euronews points out that there will be a need to escape after lockdown, but staying closer to home, given that the current backdrop has made us more cautious.

Finally, National Geographic points out that travel advisors have become indispensable: Travel agents and tour operators are regaining trust due to their knowledge and connections in the industry, which ultimately justify the commissions they are paid. Despite this, we ourselves will also take great pleasure once again in planning trips, with the prospect of returning in some way to the lives we had before the coronavirus.

Tourism for the industry in transformation

Every day we see news about a potential “COVID passport” or health passport, which will grant freedom to travel to those who have been vaccinated. In Europe, an agreement has not yet been reached as to how such a certificate would be designed, while in China this initiative has in fact already been launched to revive tourism and curb the pandemic.

We do not know whether similar measures will be taken in Western countries, but what we do know is that there are proposals for transformation. McKinsey & Company sums up the changes in four points:

  • Optimizing public-private interfaces through a tourism hub;
  • Experimenting with new funding mechanisms;
  • Ensuring transparent communication about protocols;
  • Enabling digital and data transformation within the tourism industry.

All companies are now racing to adapt to this new situation, just as they did with the digital transformation. Not only is this a source of problems, but it also places new challenges on the horizon. For example, through the emergence of startups that meet new needs, such as Bespoke, which offers AI chat bots that automate transactions, eliminating the need for contact; and Sitata, a mobile platform that provides travelers with pre-trip health and safety tips, as well as real-time tracking of travel interruptions.

Euronews says that Europe is the most popular destination globally and that tourism accounts for 10 percent of the European Union’s GDP, with 2.4 million companies in the industry. In short, many measures are being implemented to save this huge sector, such as the Re-OPEN EU service, a website with a dedicated mobile app that “offers tourists and travelers the information they need to stay safe in the EU.”