What The Tourism Industry Should Look Like After This Crisis

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Bruges, Belgium (photo courtesy of the author)

I love it so much that I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Tourism. When I was much younger, an older cousin who had worked for an airline would travel for free every year. I wanted her life, so when I found out that she majored in Tourism, I followed in her footsteps.

There are many career options for a tourism major. You can work for an airline, cruises, travel agencies, hotels, resorts, food and beverage establishments and events management companies. I started my career in the hospitality industry as an intern at Singapore Airlines, then joined the Shangri-La group as a communications coordinator, then finally as an assistant vice president for a luxury resort here in the Philippines.

Because I write, I was hired by these companies to amp up their marketing communications. I got to know my colleagues well — my favorite part of the job. I collected anecdotes and wove them into stories that would humanize our company. I got to know the industry well through them. They are still my friends to this day, though some have moved on to other companies, while others are working in another industry. Thanks to social media, we have managed to keep tabs on each other.

It is in their honor that I write this piece. The tourism industry is being pummeled by a deadly virus. It could upend the lives of so many people, my friends included. But I also believe this reckoning is long overdue.

Multiplier effect

“The tourism sector, like no other economic activity with social impact, is based on interaction amongst people.” — United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

What stayed with me from my years as a tourism student was this thing called the multiplier effect, which is the impact of tourist dollars on multiple sectors of a country’s economy. This basically means that investment in, say, a new hotel, would create not only jobs directly in the hotel but also jobs for farmers from whom ingredients can be sourced, or fashion designers that will need textiles for staff uniforms. There is also the tourist demand for local products which will help local artisans. Travelers tend to spend on many things when they travel so high tourist arrivals are good for the economy.

Due to a concerted global effort spearheaded by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent the further spread of the disease, international travel has been heavily restricted. The UNWTO estimates that “international tourist arrivals will be down by 20% to 30% in 2020 when compared with 2019 figures.” This could mean a loss of $300–450 billion or 5–7 years worth of growth. What those numbers may exclude are the modest earnings of street food vendors, local souvenir manufacturers, part-time tour guides and translators. According to the WTO, around 80% of all tourism businesses are small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).”

Sustainability challenges

The global tourism industry will bounce back, as it always has, but that recovery should commence only after a careful review of the industry’s environmental impact.

Let me give you an example.

In my trip to India before the pandemic, I calculated how much single-use plastic I was likely adding to the world’s ocean pollution. There was the bottled water that came with my meal because my water bottle had to be empty before passing through the x-ray. There was the plastic saran wrap that protected my airline food from airborne bacteria. Multiply that by two to include the return flight. I consumed snacks on my road trip around Agra, Rajasthan and New Delhi, most of them packed in single-use plastic wrapping. As a health precaution, I only drank bottled mineral water at all my stops for the entire 10-day excursion. Then there is the amount of jet fuel consumed by the aircraft that transported me from Manila to Bangkok to Delhi and then back again on the same route.

All of this adds up, considering that I have been exploring the world independently since 2009. That is just me, one of the 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals recorded by the WTO in 2018, the year I visited 4 Southeast Asian countries.

My wanderlust had a high price and I was not exactly paying for it.

I am not about to suggest a self-imposed total ban on travel, which, given my intense passion for it, sounds like having to set myself on fire. The rest of the peripatetic world, I am certain, would find the prospect just as ludicrous. As far back as the 17th century, aristocrats have been engaged in “the Grand Tour” which traverses a particular route around Europe. Mayans and Phoenicians would travel out of curiosity and commerce. My country was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in his search for spices and gold in the East. Muslims performing the hajj to Mecca and other religious pilgrimages are well-established traditions that have been observed for centuries.

But all these global events and increased mobility by a growing population do add up, doesn’t it? The costs of 1.4 billion people traveling to other countries are staggering, as are the attendant responsibilities of the movers and shakers of the global tourism industry who profit from it. A typical example of waste that I have personally witnessed in my short-lived stint as a hotelier was the discarding of excess untouched food from hotel banquets. I recognize that the food has been paid for by the guest and that the quality and safety of food handling is a top priority for the hotel, but is there really no way of diverting some of that food towards charity rather than all of it to the trash?

The costs of 1.4 billion people traveling to other countries are staggering, as are the attendant responsibilities of the movers and shakers of the global tourism industry who profit from it.

Taking some action

Even before the pandemic, the impact of human populations on their environment has already reached alarming levels that local leaders had to step up.

Top tourist attractions around the world are imposing control measures. Mayor Dirk De fauw of Bruges, Belgium has announced that the municipality will no longer promote day trips, and will limit the number of cruise ships that can dock at the nearby port. “We have to control the influx more if we don’t want Bruges to become a complete Disneyland here,” De fauw said.

Tourist behavior is also being controlled. In Paris, the tourist tradition of tying a “love lock” on the Pont des Arts (a pedestrian bridge) and then throwing the key into the River Seine has been banned because part of the bridge’s railings collapsed under the weight. In Rome, authorities have set rules requiring tourists to “not dress as a Roman” by walking around bare-chested and to avoid dragging wheeled suitcases down historic staircases.


“Look at all of the things that happen in nature and you’ll realize that almost anything is possible.” — Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, Head of the Center for Infection and Immunity, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

Can we pandemic-proof a $1.5 trillion global tourism industry?

No. Pandemics will keep occurring as long as animals, plants, and humans interact and co-exist.

Nevertheless, the tourism industry should not remain fixed in the status quo. This crisis is a wake-up call for an industry that has long tolerated unsustainable practices that exacerbate the destruction of the environment.

But let’s face it — we are accountable too. Our more recent nomadic adventures were made possible by ridiculously cheap fares, Airbnb, and online booking apps. Where there is demand, there is supply and we keep buying, even if the source of our joy could mean untold suffering for our planet.

This crisis is a wake-up call for an industry that has long tolerated unsustainable practices that exacerbate the destruction of the environment.

What is crystal clear is that many of us love to travel, so we need to help the tourism industry get back on its feet sooner rather than later. But can we raise our standards a bit and demand for more sincerity from our employers, landlords and the community when it comes to implementing sustainable measures?

Here are a few things to start with:

Can we ask our lawmakers to require or maybe incentivize hotels, restaurants and other dining establishments big or small to offer plant-based options? Sars-CoV-2 seems to have originated from bats, but its intermediate animal host is something that humans like to eat, likely a pangolin. This is why a food market in Wuhan became the epicenter of the coronavirus.

China is the main supplier of the world. If the world wants meat, China will provide the meat, even if some of its suppliers are forced to grow the “wild” exotic variety that is closer to bat populations. To prevent the next pandemic from happening right away, because it will happen again, we need to change our dietary habits. Non-meat options, therefore, should be more prolific and available.

This pandemic is our fault, not China’s. We keep increasing our demand for meat, and the mercantile classes of the East will provide those needs. Those who exact racial abuse on Asians in the West are either badly informed or blatantly ignorant.

Can we demand from our governments stronger restrictions in overcrowded tourist areas? Social distancing would help if people carry on even after the crisis. But with or without a pending health emergency, preventing over tourism should be a legislative act. Take for example the overcrowding on Mount Everest, which many a mountaineer, whether expert or amateur, has attempted to climb. The peak permit alone would set a climber back around $11,000 in Nepal, but in Tibet, it would cost around $8,000. That does not include the fee for the entire expedition that could go up to $100,000. Money is clearly no object for the huge suicidal market that ascends the highest mountain of the world every year, but at what cost to their lives, to their family, to the Himalayas and the local residents who rely on the mountains for sustenance?

When things begin to normalize, can we ask our respective companies to present a clear-cut post-pandemic sustainability plan given what the organization now knows about working from home? Your HR Manager, if she is not yet in and over her head, would be a good resource. Think about it: if your company is still operational while everyone is working remotely, how much did it save in rent, utilities, and travel expenses? Is it possible to continue a flexible work arrangement of maybe 2–3 times a week for employees who qualify after the lockdown? Is the meeting conducted over Zoom a satisfactory alternative to 1:1 meetings that require foreign travel and its attendant costs?

These questions have to be asked because this pandemic is teaching us something — the earth had to breathe. It is at its chokepoint with more than 7 billion people competing for its limited resources. Just go outside now for a while and look at that bright unpolluted sky. Isn’t that marvelous? There was a drone video of my city without vehicular traffic. It looked like a scene from a sci-fi thriller. It was a city I wanted to live in, and I want my company and community to honor and enable that.

We have a long way to go before we can fully repent for the sins we have committed against the only home that we have. A cross-cutting industry such as tourism, raking in over a trillion dollars each year, has a critical role to play. It cannot sit idly by and profit from the damage. Not anymore.

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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