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Does Covid mean the end of tourism as we know it?

Pól Ó Conghaile

The pandemic could force the travel industry to change, giving future travellers the opportunity to become ‘temporary locals’ rather than anonymous faces in a stream of mass travel, our Travel Editor writes


We're seeing a world without tourism and it's scary. Photo: DAA.

We're seeing a world without tourism and it's scary. Photo: DAA.

We're seeing a world without tourism and it's scary. Photo: DAA.

How long does it take to break a habit? Weeks? Months? A year?

Whatever the measure, I think it’s safe to say our travel habits are broken.

The longer this pandemic continues, the more 2019 — when 1.5 billion tourists travelled around the planet — feels like a high watermark for a certain kind of mass tourism and holidays.

Of course, it may bounce back. There are vaccines, pent-up demand and household savings. But the ‘what ifs’ are mounting, too.

What if testing and vaccine passports are required to make even simple journeys, for years? What if airlines start moving planes out of Ireland into markets where there are fewer restrictions, faster vaccine roll-outs and concrete plans for restarting international travel? What if flight and holiday prices rise, rather than fall?

This is what disruption looks like. We’re seeing a world without tourism, and it’s scary. But it’s also an opportunity to reset.

Well before Covid, Copenhagen released a visitor strategy hailing “the end of tourism, as we know it”. It bid goodbye to mass travel and hello to the “temporary local”; a visitor that would not just seek selfies, but emotional connections and experiences based on interests and authenticity.

What felt pretentious then seems prescient now — the idea of locals and visitors co-existing, of tourism sustaining the liveability of communities rather than delivering endless day trippers or pricing people out of their homes.

New Zealand is also “reimagining” tourism — a recent campaign urged Kiwis to stop travelling “under the social influence” and to explore beyond crowded hotspots.

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A year ago, we knew that overtourism was a threat. We knew we had to stop mindlessly chasing visitor numbers and start spreading tourists beyond pinch points and peak seasons; to think sustainably and attract people who would stay, engage and spend more. This isn’t about elitism, or targeting the rich — it’s about tourism serving and sustaining locals, too.

Today, Covid has forced the chance to change upon us.

Ireland is ready. We’ve seen astonishing creativity from businesses and communities in lockdown — from meal kits to public space makeovers, online gifts to upgraded greenways. This is the ideal time to overhaul sustainability plans, too.

At the same time, our habits broken, travellers are in a change mindset. We realise that we took travel for granted, and while quick city breaks and cheap sun holidays will always appeal, many of us will first turn to family reunions, home holidays or once-in-a-lifetime adventures when travel returns. We’re reflecting on the role travel plays in our lives, and are newly conscious of how our spending supports communities.

The notion of fewer, more purposeful trips may threaten an industry built for mass travel, but if it makes tourism sustainable, it’s a hell of an opportunity, too.

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