The pandemic, they said, was the great pause the tourism industry needed to cure what ailed it. Symptoms included overcrowding, air pollution, gentrification and the degradation of cultural and environmental resources.
“If there is a silver lining from the pandemic, many predict that it will be a reboot of sorts for the world and the travel industry that makes travellers and travel companies more socially aware and focused on sustainability,” wrote Travel Weekly’s senior editor Jeri Clausing in 2020, echoing the sentiments of many.
Well over a year has passed since then and we're now only just starting to reimagine what travel may look like. Some things are clear: Road trips and adventure tourism will be the two most popular modes of travel in 2021, providing a sense of safety that air travel cannot. It may be harder to get insurance, but much easier to change or cancel bookings. Check-in at hotels and airports will remain contact-less. We’re likely to see COVID-19 vaccination “passports”; mandatory temperature checks and masks won’t disappear and once-crowded tourist sites may start ticketing to ensure social distancing.
But the real question remains: After the great pause is truly over—after tourism returns to near pre-pandemic levels—will anything have really changed?
We spoke with travel industry experts and insiders to learn how COVID-19 truly affected the travel industry, and what we can expect to see from working and studying abroad in the coming months.
Prediction 1: Environmental sustainably will once again become paramount.
The year was 2019. Qantas had just celebrated the first-ever zero-waste commercial flight, part of its plan to cut 100 million single-use plastics by the end of 2020. The concept of flygskam (“flight shame”) was gaining traction, and activist Greta Thunberg was sailing across the Atlantic to spread the message of her generation's fear of the future. Finally, it seemed like the travel industry was beginning to understand that a placard in hotel rooms encouraging the reuse of towels was not enough.
Then came the pandemic.
Sure, flight emissions fell. But almost immediately, the travel industry’s war on single-use plastics took a backseat to health and hygiene, with disposable masks, gloves and in-flight items becoming not just an expectation, but a requirement. People who had saved for long-awaited gap years and semesters abroad bought cheap consumer goods on Amazon instead. The urgency of climate change was forgotten—or so it seemed.
In fact, even in the midst of the pandemic, an increasing number of tour operators and travel providers continued to work towards environmental sustainability. Tour company Contiki, for instance, announced that by 2022 it will be 100 per cent carbon neutral. And recently, airlines have begun swapping out short domestic flights for train services. In France, a new bill will ban all flights on routes where train service takes less than 2.5 hours.
Christina Beckmann, the co-founder of Tomorrow’s Air—a collective for carbon removal with permanent storage—believes the change has to come from the policy and industry level. Travellers, she says, are already looking for tangible and meaningful ways to care, but they also don’t want their holidays to feel like homework—nor do they want to feel guilty about the choices they make. That’s why rather than allowing travellers to purchase one-off carbon credits, Tomorrow’s Air offers a subscription-based carbon removal service.
“There are lots of benefits to travel; it supports conservation and local communities,” says Beckmann. “Instead of being on the defence, we should be on the offence. Travel can be a forefront to positive change.”
Prediction 2: Responsible travel will be driven from an institutional level.
Jeremy Sampson was only a few months into his new role as the CEO of the UK-based Travel Foundation charity when the pandemic hit.
“It certainly wasn’t the start to my tenure that I expected,” he says. At the time, he was already in the process of helping to launch the Future of Tourism Coalition, a group of six NGOs all dedicated to improving sustainability in tourism.
“Things were crumbling around us,” he recalls of the group’s first meeting in March 2020. “But it actually steeled our resolve to work more closely together and support the industry in whatever was to come.”
Together, the group developed 13 principles to guide the future of the industry, with a focus on reducing tourism’s impact on destinations’ natural and cultural assets; localizing and decarbonizing the supply chain; and improving community engagement.
“It would be unrealistic to think that everything has suddenly changed because we’ve shouted, “Build back better.’ It’s a platitude—unless we really define what ‘better’ means and how we’ll get there,” says Sampson of the principles.
In the last year, more than 550 organizations—including destinations, tour operators and NGOs—had signed on to the pledge. Meanwhile, 270 others have joined Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, a community committed to cutting global emissions in half over the next decade. More significantly, Sampson has been invited to speak at the European Parliament on behalf of the coalition, which he says is key in creating change.
“It's putting our conversation on the political agenda in order to make sure that resources are driven in the right direction during tourism’s recovery,” he says.
But until change is made into policy, much of the charge still rests on the shoulders of individual travellers. Rhea Simms, the senior program manager at Planeterra, a community tourism organization working to reduce poverty, remains optimistic.
“Watching the industry come to a standstill, you realize just how big of a driver for economic growth and how important it is for everyone to meet their day-to-day needs,” she says. Simms believes travellers will only be more likely to seek out and support social tourism entrepreneurship on their journeys. “I’m hopeful we’ll see more demand for community tourism,” she says.
Prediction 3: Digital nomadism will continue to rise—with both negative and positive side effects.
If you’re one of the 40 per cent of Canadians now working from home, the lure of a sea breeze (both the weather system and the eponymous cocktail) can be hard to ignore, even in the midst of the pandemic. And with employers now recognizing the benefits and possibilities of remote work, you may no longer need to convince your boss to let you work abroad. Facebook, for example, just announced that following the pandemic, all of its employees can request to work remotely full-time after the pandemic.
Location independence has also become easier with the introduction of new visas targeted towards remote employees, digital nomads and freelancers alike. In July 2020, Barbados and Bermuda unveiled one-year work visas, hoping to attract those who have recently found themselves working from home. They joined Estonia, which finally signed off on its long-awaited digital nomad visa in June 2020, making it the first in the world to offer one. There are also murmurs of other destinations following suit, including digital nomad hotspot Bali. Even hotels have gotten in on the act, with big brands like Fairmont offering “Work, Stay and Play” packages marketed to remote workers.
But while long-term “low and slow” travel can be one of the most sustainable modes of travelling, it can also put pressure on communities where locals are already being pushed out by over-tourism, losing housing to short-term vacation rentals. In April 2020, Airbnb started advertising monthly stays on its homepage, reflecting that at the peak of the pandemic, about 40 per cent of the site's bookings were long-term. That’s not the only issue; while visa runs may soon be a thing of the past, tax and immigration law is still based on what the world was like before the Internet. For those abroad on a tourist visa, even opening a laptop to answer an email can put you on the wrong side of the law, with some country's border agents even requesting to examine the contents of your computer. Until these laws catch-up with societal changes, most digital nomads continue to exist in a grey zone of legality.
Prediction 4: Travel will become more inclusive (because it has to).
Following George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests in May 2020, destination management organizations and travel brands alike began declaring their support for Black Lives Matter.
But for one group of Black travel content creators, the statements felt empty. While brands were stating support for Black lives, their marketing was still largely dominated by white models.
“There was a lot of frustration, sadness and anger about some of the tokenism and performative statements by many brands,” says travel writer Davida Wulff-Vanderpuije. “We all want to see ourselves reflected. As a traveller, I want to know that I will be welcome and that somebody is not going to attack me or treat me like a museum piece just because I’m Black. I want that reassurance that I’ll be welcome.”
In response, the Black Travel Alliance was formed and launched its first campaign, calling out travel brands to change their marketing initiatives and be transparent about the number of BIPOC staff on their own teams. G Adventures was just one of the companies that responded, which led to a larger conversation about inclusion and diversity in travel.
“We took on-board the lessons we learned from the Black Travel Alliance’s campaign. It was a moment in time where we had to have a close look at ourselves and how we could improve things to ensure we’re doing the right thing by all travellers regardless of race, age, gender or sexuality,” says David Green, G Adventures’ VP commercial and managing director for Canada.
Wulff-Vanderpuije also hopes that the campaign will have bleed-over into the study abroad sector, where diversity remains a persistent problem. According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors data, only 6.1 per cent of American students who study abroad are Black.
“Institutions tend to underestimate the barriers that minority students might face when it comes to studying abroad,” says Wulff-Vanderpuije, who experienced this firsthand when she travelled from Ghana to study abroad in the UK. She notes this may include pressure from families, financial burdens, or concerns about encountering racism abroad. She says this is why change needs to come from the institutional level—including ensuring minority students have access to grants and are represented in study abroad marketing.
“Diversity should not be an afterthought; it should be built into the fabric of a business. It needs to come from intentional design and innovation,” she says. “Representation matters. My hope is that post-pandemic, travel marketing will reflect the world that we live in.”Add this article to your reading list