Coronavirus impact on travel industry and how we travel

Nupur Pradhan
Friday, 15 May 2020

Various reports have thrown up figures of the estimated loss to the tourism industry is going up in billions.

The global spread of COVID-19 has reached its peak right in the middle of the tourist season. For Indians, summer means escaping to colder places, in India and abroad. 

But with the lockdown in place, the only destination people can travel to is the milk/grocery shop, that too if you do not belong in the ‘containment zone’. 

Various reports have thrown up figures of the estimated loss to the tourism industry is going up in billions. IATA forecasts that the airline industry will see passenger revenues fall by US$314 billion this year, a 55 per cent decrease from the 2019 figures. 

Business travel has been greatly affected, as well. The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) predicts a hit of US$820 billion, with US$110 billion (8 per cent of forecast travel in 2020) attributable to Europe alone.

The number of people depending on the tourism sector, directly or indirectly, is humongous. Airlines, tourist bus and car operators, travel agencies, tour aggregators, countries heavily dependent on tourism, seasonal tourism businesses and countless social media travel influencers are just a few of the lot who have to face the consequences.  

This global hit is sure to alter the dynamics of the way we travel.

Twenty-year-old wildlife photographer Siddharth Damle cannot wait to get back to the jungle. Having spent most of his holidays capturing wildlife in his camera over the years, Damle’s life in lockdown feels hollow. 

“Summer is a good time for jungle safari. I am missing out on the action and will visit at the first chance,” he expressed. 

Frequent traveller Preeti (name changed), on the other hand, has been ordered by her mother not to travel this year even after the lockdown eventually gets lifted. “We have to live with the coronavirus. It is not going anywhere. We cannot just stay in one place forever. I had my whole travel year planned out which has now gone for a toss. My mother has emotionally blackmailed me into staying home for the year. Hopefully, she will let me travel next year,” she quipped. 

Like Damle, there might be many who cannot wait to get back out there. Travel agencies will be eager to resume their services and cover up their losses. They will end up pushing vulnerable people like Damle into buying travel packages. 

The mother of all questions remains how soon should we open our borders? And how much do we let the billion-dollar industry suffer? 

The virus epicentre China is the fifth-most visited country in the world. Pre-COVID-19, it was predicted that between 2016 and 2020, China will see 63.9 million international arrivals, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

The effects of COVID-19 pandemic and the global spread has severely impacted China as a tourism destination as well as Chinese travellers. China-outbound tourism is a significant contributor to the global tourism industry, accounting for 159 million global outbound travellers in 2019 alone. Moreover, the Chinese-outbound market had the second-highest spending last year, with an expenditure of US$275 billion. That amount has all but vanished into thin air. 

Amber Barnes, Travel and Tourism Analyst at GlobalData, said, “China as a tourist destination will not be able to rebound quickly, and it is uncertain how long it will take for the tourism industry to recover. Additionally, the brand image of China as a destination may be damaged.”

GlobalData’s latest report, ‘Case Study: Impact of COVID-19 on Destinations’, reveals that the predicted forecast of 64 million international arrivals in 2020 will be impacted due to COVID-19. 

The study covered China, the United States, Italy, France, and insights were provided for Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, and the Americas as a whole. 

“The uncertainty of COVID-19 indicates tourism destinations will take time to recover and travellers will have doubts and fears about travelling in the future,” Barnes noted.

As per the study, the three countries will show the most significant decline in inbound tourism. The US (-47.9%), Saudi Arabia (-46%) and France(-41.4%).  

The media coverage of the US’ experience with the virus has been pervasive and negative. This could be the single-most deterrence for would-be travellers. 

In Saudi Arabia, there is a ban on foreign entry. This affects pilgrimage, particularly Umrah, which is undertaken all year round. Saudi Arabia has a high level of dependence on religious pilgrimage for arrivals, and thus, the impact is notable. 

France, a country on everyone’s bucket list, receives tourists all year round. There are very stringent measures in place for international travellers, significantly impacting those depending on foreign bucks for survival.

Anshul Akhoury, a digital nomad, depends on travel for his livelihood. Akhoury collaborates with various NGOs which have now shut their operations. 

“NGOs in the Himalayas start their work in summers because of tourist footfall and improved accessibility. Many families depend on their operations like homestay programmes. The waste workers and farmers are just a few of them. NGOs like Waste Warriors have been providing necessary goods to the waste workers who are not getting any work, but if this continues, it will cause reverse migration to cities,” noted Akhoury.

“There are small homestays in the Himalayas that support an entire community. The new season starts in April, and now those dependent on it will have to spend an entire year without earnings. Climate change had already affected their farming patterns. Hence, the travel industry has been an important source of income for them,” added Akhoury.

Businesses were shut in Rishikesh, a destination heavily dependent on pilgrim and adventure tourism. 

Hotels/cafes owners who have invested in new spaces or renovations, adventure sports companies, abundant yoga centres, businesses preparing to welcome season’s new travellers, are now facing heavy losses, and probable bankruptcy.  

Konkan which witnesses hoards of tourists, is now empty. Establishments anticipating a good income during the tourist season will now have to wait till the end of monsoon for vacationists to trickle in.  

Roadtrips, a quintessential travel experience has come to a standstill. The most affected are the highway dhabas and the locals who depend on it daily for livelihood. Businesses on highways survive mainly on its consumers’ aspiration to travel from one place to another. 

This multitudinal effect, stuck in a vicious cycle, should hopefully not dent permanent damage to the sector.   

Several Asians and people of Asian-origin were subjected to derogatory language, hate speech and racial abuse worldwide. Instances of violence have also been reported from the US, UK and many European countries. 

India was not far behind.

Not only foreign nationals but Indians from northeast too faced racial slurs. 

A Manipuri woman was ‘spat on’ and called ‘corona’ by a man in Delhi. Many others were shouted at and beaten. ‘Go Corona Go’ was the mantra directed to several of them across the country. 

Pranav Dev Badola, a youth travel professional in Rishikesh and also a corona warrior in Pauri district, said that on March 15, they received few guidelines from the government. After talking to nodal officers and the doctors, they found out that there is a positive case in the region.

“After that, in Rishikesh, locals started eyeing foreign nationals with suspicion,” Badola said.

Expressing his thoughts, Badola said, “Thinking about personal security is a responsible action but forgetting responsibilities for others in this hard time is unethical. Everyone started un-hosting them. We shut our property on March 18, and I remember, on the 21st, we received many people looking for accommodation.”

This attitudinal change, hopefully, gets contained faster than the virus.  

For nature, COVID-19 is godsend. 

Animals across the world have taken to the street. The decrease in air pollution levels and improvement in air quality in many north Indian cities has revealed magnificent sites of the stunning mountain ranges, something heard of only in stories. The mighty Ganga is now flowing much cleaner than before with many new birds being spotted. 

In Rishikesh, the constantly buzzing town full of believers, the sounds of temple bells and chirping of birds can now be heard from afar. A group of elephants come on the banks of the revered Ganga daily, where once it was littered only with humans. 

“This is the Rishikesh of my childhood,” Badola remarked. 

On a positive note, Akhoury said that low tourist footfall will revive many trekking and tourist destinations for some time. “By the time we return to those places, the air will be fresher, and the mountains will be cleaner,” he said. 

For everyone across the world, the pandemic altered a set pattern of living and ushered in a new way of life. Social distancing and personal hygiene are not just norms anymore. They are here to stay. They are our future. 

It will take months, or probably years for the industry to stabilise. 

Speaking on the future of travel, Barnes said, “Domestic tourism will have greater significance, not only in the short-term but also in the long-term. This is because many countries are promoting this market, which will create pent up demand, and consumers will have doubts over travelling long haul, which may take a long time to recover.”

“Consumer behaviour will also change permanently. We have done various consumer surveys recently and are already seeing how the behaviour is changing. More consumers are spending a lot more time browsing social media and reading online reviews. This will stick and hold a great significance permanently, so we would expect to see an uptick in destination and company marketing activity via this channel,” Barnes added. 

As life slowly returns to normal in many countries across the globe, travel companies need to be attentive towards mass tourism at this stage. Overcrowding, mass gatherings and careless behaviour will undo the positive impact the lockdown had created.

“Every human being, regardless of class, race and gender love to travel. Being humans, we spend most of our time and energy in making our life comfortable and worthwhile in the best possible way. Travel was a tool to explore oneself. I believe that the pandemic will trigger people to think on a deeper level,” Badola exclaimed.

With lockdowns easing in a few countries, we can only hope for a revival for the ailing travel industry that effects each one of us.

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