Tourism cannot go back to the old normal

Published on
February 22, 2022

The international travel industry is a significant contributor to global climate and environmental problems and plays a key role in the spread of the coronavirus. In their NRC Opinion piece, Machiel Lamers and Jillian Student argue that, before all travel restrictions are lifted, it would be wise for the tourism sector to take a good look at itself.

The text in this article is the English translation of the NRC Opinion piece published on January 26, 2022. You can find the original Dutch article on NRC here.

Tourism cannot go back to the old normal

by Machiel Lamers & Jillian Student

While the coronavirus was already circulating in Wuhan province, administrators in Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam were still wondering how they could contain the massive flow of visitors to their cities. Not long afterwards the crowded squares and streets became very quiet, first in northern Italy and soon after all over Europe.

Too many visitors are not good for the quality of life in popular cities and regions. Mass tourism poses a risk to nature conservation, cultural heritage, and social insurance benefits. But the coronavirus crisis has shown how much some destinations have become financially dependent on the associated flow of tourist euros.

Policy makers and the travel industry like to present tourism as a stable and sustainable economic engine for cities and regions. But the situation before the coronavirus showed that there is neither a clear vision nor a clear set of policy instruments to attach a stable livelihood to tourism or to achieve sustainability goals with it.

A tourist rarely comes alone

The coronavirus crisis has shown that invisible and undesirable things often catch a ride with tourists. Tourist flows cause all kinds of related material flows, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions, jobs and waste, to money, food, and viruses. Not all of them are dangerous or undesirable. But they could all have major consequences for tourist destinations and regions.

In many cases, they make the environment and society in tourist destinations more dependent and vulnerable to global shocks, such as a pandemic or future climate impacts. These effects are not always noticed in time, making it difficult to counteract them.

The coronavirus pandemic raises the question of how the dependence and vulnerability of tourism can be reduced. Shouldn't tourism be used much more as a means to a resilient and sustainable society, rather than as an end in itself? Based on the “build back better” principle, many ideas and plans are circulating to make tourism greener, smarter, of a better quality, and more inclusive. This is done by developing a more diverse range of products and activities, limiting or phasing out infrastructure for mass tourism, protecting natural areas better, stricter enforcement of environmental policies, etc.

Active government

At the same time, especially in the tourism industry itself, there is a strong urge to return to the way it was as soon as possible. And some government agencies would like to use tourism as a quick way to restore the economy, even before the longer term is considered.

The coronavirus has shown how fickle tourism can be, as a result of which the industry alone does not provide an adequate basis for economic stability. What we need is not just more tourism, but ways of tourism that lead to more positive and less negative material flows and effects. It is therefore important to gain control by getting a better understanding of the positive and negative effects of visitor flows on the environment and society.

As with the approach to the COVID crisis, there is also an urgent need for government authorities that are much more proactive in reducing vulnerability and promoting stability, inclusiveness, and sustainability.

Tourism is a beast with many heads that can be curbed with more monitoring systems and government control. The coronavirus pandemic has given us a break to implement sustainable policy changes. Experience shows that we are not yet rid of it for the time being. Let's take advantage of this before the urge to return to the old normal takes over.