The headlines were almost as surprising as the Covid-19 outbreak and the resulting global shutdown.
In Venice, which had become the poster child for overtourism, the canals normally packed with tourist-carrying gondolas were so clear you could see fish. Los Angeles reported its lowest air pollution levels ever. Residents of smog-choked cities in India could suddenly see the Himalayas. And across the world, residents of popular destinations, who had been growing weary of the seasonal hordes of visitors, were suddenly able to wander nearly empty streets.
Indeed, 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 travelers and travel companies more socially aware and focused on sustainability.
“We fundamentally believe that the travel industry can only rebound stronger if it rebuilds more responsibly,” said James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Group.
“The Covid-19 crisis has brought our sector and the global economy to a crashing halt, and we would be remiss not to let it be for something good,” he said. “We shouldn’t be aspiring for things to go back to normal, but rather redefining what normal means, and use this time as a rare chance to think about how we travel and how we can aim to be more ethical and sustainable travelers and global citizens in the future.”
His counterpart at another adventure travel company known for its sustainability focus, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip, agreed. He has even used part of the downtime to author a short e-book, “Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still,” about the need for travelers and travel companies “to transform, to realize how we connect as a planet.”
Long a vocal critic of mass-market tourism, Poon Tip asserts that things like mega ocean liners and all-inclusive resorts have made amenities more important than destinations.
Post-pandemic, Poon Tip, Thornton and many others in the industry predict, travel will focus more on the outdoors and less-visited places, which will benefit the sustainable travel movement and offer destinations that had been struggling with overtourism a breather.
“In general I think the mindset of the traveler will change,” Poon Tip said. “We believe [the pandemic] is going to cause a lot of mainstream travelers who might have booked resorts or cruises but now don’t want the crowds … to be more mindful and purposeful, and [they] are going to be more interested in companies that have a positive impact on the ground.
“I think there is going to be an increased interest in people wanting to have a positive impact when they travel — a more engaged traveler. I am quite confident we are seeing that already.”
Others, citing travel companies’ struggle to survive, destinations eager for tourism’s return and consumers’ basic travel dreams, are skeptical of predictions for dramatic, long-term shifts in the travel landscape and traveler habits.
“My take on it is that people travel because they want to see something,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association. “They want to have an experience that they’ve identified as something that they’ve wished for, they want to fulfill. It’ll take a monumental shift for them to say, ‘I was wrong. I didn’t want to see Rome. I wanted to go to Pesche. It’s not the same proposal, any more than people sitting in Europe are going to say, ‘I’m not going to Manhattan, I’m going to Cape May, [N.J.]’ I just don’t buy it.”
Indeed, reports that cruises and Europe remain in high demand for 2021, while Mexico’s all-inclusive capital, Cancun, tops the list of Apple Leisure Group’s international comeback destinations, seem to back that.
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