Yesterday, overtourism. Today, social distancing.
Yesterday, overtourism. Today, social distancing.
20 APRIL 2020 7:47 AM

Last month several cities and destinations around the world were drowning in tourism. Now the conversation is about how and when tourism could return. Here is an opportunity that cannot be wasted.

Hotel News Now has written on the perils of overtourism, while at the same time acknowledging the need for cities to underline their gross domestic product from what is one of the planet’s true great industries.

Balance is the best solution, but that is hard to come by when there are different political and economic factors coming into play.

(On this subject, here is a blog written by colleague Stephanie Ricca, and another one penned by yours truly.)

We are not having that right now. Overtourism has disappeared in places such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice—the usual suspects. Balance has disappeared, too, obviously. Now it is all social distancing.

The change has been dramatically swift. In five weeks, everything has altered, and it will take a while for it to get back to what it was, that is, if collectively we want it to.

If we do not put our heads together on overtourism now, then demand and supply will settle the equation for us.

There are several points that need to be discussed.

First, there will be the worry and risk emanating from when we all return to traveling. Hotel chains will be going all out to reassure their guests. Accor has announced it will start a labeling program and mechanism so guests can be reassured that what looks clean is clean.

There can be no hotel chain that does not follow suit.

Guests will still conduct social distancing for some time. Restaurants are talking about opening up their outdoor seating first. Airlines—I saw low-fare airline EasyJet mention this—will keep the middle row of seats free so that windows and aisles never have to talk to one another.

This is excellent, and perhaps the assumption is that when those middle and indoor seats are needed, the crisis might be over—or a vaccine developed.

Second, the cry from those still worried about climate change will, I believe, have a more sympathetic air from guests and the hotel industry.

Footage of clean canals in Venice, skies in which stars are visible in Paris, pollution levels plummeting in China and elsewhere, and wildlife entering empty towns has been one of the hopeful consequences of coronavirus.

Guests might demand changes, and hotel and hospitality firms might have to change their revenue streams to satisfy that.

Lastly, corporate and individual budgets might be slightly, somewhat or severely dented, perhaps at a pace better suited for a scaled-back hotel industry.

I realize I am part of the problem here. I grew up in a generation where travel newly opened to the curious. I started traveling when overtourism did not exist, although that could just be the way I like to see things.

I still travel now—well, not right now, obviously—so I am part of the overtourism brigade, however much I might cloak that in justifications and the hope that the younger generations will do enough that I still do not need to feel any remorse.

Something will have to change, though. Pandemics that occur once every 100 years (let’s hope there are no more) do not happen without there being major changes to how we think, act and travel.

What was the tourism industry like in 1920? There were no chains for a start, and far fewer people travelled. Before that generation, it was only Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley who went abroad—and they both ended badly, early.

Airline and hotel prices might change from what we know today when COVID-19 is over. Competitors might be priced out of the market. Maybe all those cruise passengers—surely no one wants to get on a floating petri dish ever again—will be invading our hotels.

Whatever the outcome, be it fear, magnanimity or relief, the tourism rush of the last 50 years will by necessity be reconsidered.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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