DOWN WITH TOURISM. The future of travel in the age of disasters.

Did last year teach us a lesson to think more about resilience in tourism as we know it? Could the Coronavirus, forest fires or warm winters finally demand us to take crucial measures in order to install emergency plans into every destination's daily schedule? In Riga, Latvia, Europe, World?

However sustainable we might be when travelling in the era of 1,5 billion tourists per year, the expected has come to an end - if a destination has no "Plan B" for tourism in the age of the unexpected, they're done, mate.
The Adventures of Calamity Dino.

Summer, 2017, was the first time I started thinking about emergency exits for the tourism industry, when working at the Latvian DMO. After Vilnius, Lithuania*, would close down its central, national airport for runway repairment, most of the travel sector would find hotels, restaurants, and museums being half-to-empty due to short notice (in the middle of summer!). Instead, all flights during the nearly 40-day period would be redirected to the second largest airport in Kaunas. Fun fact, 3100 flights with 300 000 passengers would be dropped on and off at an airport usually suitable for 460 flights and 75 000 the same period.

#GOVILNIUS campaign would then be launched, promoting the city as an alternative place for visitors (utmost from the Southern Baltic Sea Region + Belarus) to come and enjoy cheaper prices and less tourists. The campaign, obviously, would fail. Probably because of being created in a hurry; it would also look relatively bad. With one million visitors per year then, Vilnius would lose that 5-6 % margin of growth.

Sure, the Lithuanian case, generally speaking, was peanuts. To be honest, every Latvian situation as well, would probably be head and shoulders below to what can happen globally. But it made me think that Vilnius wasn't prepared at all for this, but what would be better if it was?

I started looking into greater national, continental and even global calamities that have affected the tourism sector for the last few decades. After all, leisure and travel is the 3rd largest industry in the world (after retail and financial services) that covers more than 10 % of the global GDP and has created every 5th new job over the last 5 years (WTTC; 2018).
May you be Kanye West with a private jet, a hitch-hiker, or Greta Thunberg on a train, everyone of us is a traveller today, and the industry, directly or indirectly, affects our lives whether we roam in our own city, country, or globe-trotter.
By checking out dozens of tragic incidents, catastrophes, misconduct, etc., I realized - some of the destinations haven't even got out from the pitfall 10 years later. Despite few cases and success stories, most countries, territories and cities affected have absolutely no clue what to do when force majeure, economical or social crisis, military conflict or terrorism, climate change, epidemics, or other human-made disasters take place in a travelling destination. What's worse, - most of destinations never had and, for some time, will not have any "TOURISMtoB" plan (e.i. - "tourism to be" and "from tourism to plan B").

Everybody remembers the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, that would put Iceland* on the map for many, yet would also create the largest airway crisis in the world since WWII, affecting 1,000,000 passengers and dozens of countries. Iceland would do well right after, but then face massive issues with boosted costs for everything and illegal, unpaid workforce.

In 2014, Russia would annex the Crimean peninsula that resulted in a massive loss of visitors to Ukraine* - it would drop by half from 24 millions nation-wide, while there would only be 1,6 million Russian visitors instead of 10 millions the year before. Instead, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 would drop the number of tourists to Japan* from 8,6 to whooping 6,2 millions.

A year earlier, in January, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti*. Claiming 316,000 lives, the Port-au-Prince tremor was not only a humanitarian catastrophe, but also a final end to recent efforts to put Haiti back on the tourism map.

It's been 10 years now, but Haiti still has to cope with the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of public infrastructure (roads, buildings, utilities) that was far from ideal even before the earthquake. Although the number of visitors has stayed and even grown, its 40 % of exports owned by tourism has now been going down to 30 % now. Maybe there are more curious cruise ship vacationers but less money is spent on the declining industry.

Speaking of force majeure, hurricane Irma would even wipe several Eastern Caribbean* countries and islands off the face of the earth in an area with 2 million people employed in tourism in 2017. On some of the islands the damage was larger than their annual GDP. The 2015 earthquake in Nepal* would result in 80% accommodation cancellations, and 1/3 less tourists the next year.

Terrorism damages the travel industry as well. Flight search to Paris* after the 2015 shooting would drop by half and result in -40% loss at hotels. If such situations usually normalize in 6 - 13 months, the 9/11 terror act in New York* would draw the industry in recession for six years! Egypt* would instead "play around" with political turmoil and falling planes and, from 2011 to 2016, the number of visitors would drop from 14 to 5,3 million and cause $ 3,6 billion loss every fiscal year around then.

Nowadays we can only predict what a downfall will tourism experience after the Coronavirus ends. Although not being more deadly than any regular flu, Hilton has already closed about 150 hotels in China* now, - that’s about 33,000 rooms out of commission. The chain predicts the aftermath will stick to the industry for up to 12 months and will bring $ 25 - 50 M loss in earnings. Wyndham Hotels and Resorts has closed about 1,000 of its hotels in China (70% of their total amount) that would result into $ 8 - 12 M loss.

In retrospect, we already know that in 2009 the H1N1 flu would make Mexico* lose around 5 billion dollars and would boost criminal massacres in the country to stabilize only in 5 years. Price dumping from 50 - 70 % would follow, a $ 40-million worth welcoming campaign too. Some, though, would would prise Enrique Pena Nieto, the president of Mexico then, for taking the most effective steps.
By pushing "positive news" instead of illustrating the war on drugs and cartels like the previous presidents did, he would make searching and finding results of negative topics falling by 50 % thus promoting the country being safe enough at all instances.
To top all this with several cherries - there have been other recent calamities like constant floods in Czechia, the collapsing Azure window in Malta, revolts in Hong Kong, forest fires in the Amazon, overtourism in Barcelona, bombings in Sri Lanka, and so on, and so forth. 

So what can we do? For now, Australia* seems to be one of the only countries really looking into working around some emergency plan that also includes the practice of Enrique Peña Nieto. After all, this is crucial when you run a country with travel and tourism covering almost 11 % of the national GDP and contributing to more than 12 % of total employment (WTTC; 2018). And, looking at what happened to the fires last month, what other option do you have?

After the touristic Victoria state (3 M international + 29 M domestic visits in 2019) survived another bushfire in 2009, most people around the world would think all the country is in flames. Even the majority of Australians thought that almost all of Victoria state is a "no-go" area. The next year would result in a 30 % income fall to many businesses, but it also brought solid steps of how to get better as fast as possible.

The matter was pushed through The University of Queensland by Gabby Walters, Judith Mair and Brent Ritchie. They would round-up several revelations and suggestions:
  • Manage the media
  • Make use of social media
  • Provide factual information
  • Differentiate your destination
  • Don’t discount
  • Beware of being ‘open for business’ too soon
  • Be prepared
  • Learn from the past
If someone were to give me more time and ability to dedicate it to exploring areas touched by crisis, researching and analysing the past and then collecting and developing critical tips, suggestions and strategies on how to get your "TOURISMtoB" plan enforced, - I would, no doubt, agree. When enjoying travelling myself, sadly I still need to think twice about any place to go nowadays. Not because it feels unsafe, but because I believe I will be disappointed professionally.

That vocational negligence, ignorance, lack of further planning or maintenance, unsustainable business, no waste management or environmental policies would hit me. I don't want to be a party pooper every time when travelling, but many, who come along, need to cope with my dissatisfaction from time to time. Tourism is still looked upon as an irresponsible act from both parties globally - the guests and hosts.
As the numbers of travellers grow, every country and individual should understand the potential and fragility of tourism. All of us have become visitors or tourism objects of some sort and, in this relentless change befalling on Earth, travelling will test our maturity to be resilient in economy, sanity, environment, future.
Recently I met a random, fairly young Sicilian in Riga, who stated that he does not believe in climate change; that the temperature will return to normal in 20 - 30 years. I hastily disagreed with him saying that the climate change is much more than the temperature. It's breaking patterns and unpredictability, it's rising waters and changing currents. Its storms, massive rainfalls, hurricanes and smog. It's eventually food shortages and twists in natural, plant or animal, processes.

I told him that some people don't get the climate change because it does not happen at their doorstep. This winter, for example, has been devastating to almost every resort simply because this season has been the most snowless and frostless most of us remember. With exception of Žagarkalns who luckily planned ahead and preserved some snow from the previous year for one or two weekends this season, vast majority of tourism & leisure businesses struggled to make ends meet. Sooner than later most of them will go bankrupt and close down for operation, or will be pushed to adapt to new opportunities, clients, weather conditions.

Maybe things will return back to "normal" in 20-30 years. Maybe we won't be terminally flooded, scorched, suffocated, blown away or poisoned. But most of destinations relying on tourism, be them a country, island or a ski resort, will be deaden already the next year. If any country expects tourism to boost GDP by as much as 66 % (like in Maldives*), is it the responsibility of the businesses to keep them resilient or the duty of the government to protect their assets?

Mārtiņš Eņģelis

* Australia -
* The Caribbean -

* Egypt -
* Haiti -
* Iceland -
* Japan -
* Lithuania -
* Maldives -
* Mexico -
* Nepal -
* New York, Paris -
* Ukraine -
* Taiwan -