The COVID-19 pandemic constituted a huge shock for tourism regions across Europe. National borders were closed, effectively reducing international tourism to zero, and in many countries national or regional lock downs closed tourism and hospitality businesses for long periods of time. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a great deal of discussion among academic commentators regarding the prospects for fundamental change. Many called for a transition to a more sustainable tourism future following COVID-19. Sectoral organisations and business leaders have, however, focused on restarting tourism and returning the sector to its previous growth path.
Crisis management and stabilisation
It is clear that the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on tourism regions in the short term. Europe has seen a drop of 77% in international visitor numbers in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic, and the UNWTO estimates that 100-120 million jobs are at risk globally. But what will the longer-term impacts be? This blog considers whether tourism regions will bounce back to old development paths after the pandemic or whether it will prove to be a transformative moment, triggering the establishment of new development trajectories. It draws on research, funded by the Regional Studies Association ‘Pandemics, Cities, Regions & Industry Small Grant Scheme’, which has investigated the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism regions and how destination organisations have reacted.
Findings from a survey of 102 regional destination organisations in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK, undertaken as part of the project, show that the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on short term priorities. Collaboration with public and private sector stakeholders were the two most highly prioritised destination issue pre-pandemic, but when asked to consider what issues would be most important in 2021/22, respondents highlighted domestic marketing and health and safety issues.
While 19% rated domestic marketing as a very high priority in 2019, for example, this increased to 66% for 2021/22.
These findings are unsurprising given the closure of international borders and focus on domestic tourism during 2020 and 2021, coupled with a huge focus on regulations and policies designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But what of longer-term plans? When asked how the pandemic had affected their organisation’s long-term vision, a mixed picture emerges. On the one hand, 45% said that the pandemic had not made a difference, while 38% said that it had, and 17% were unsure. The qualitative material reveals that many destination organisations feel that it is simply too soon to tell what the longer-term effects might be, while others suggest that the pandemic has simply accelerated and intensified existing trends, particularly digitalisation and efforts to make tourism more sustainable.
Cross-cutting issues and regional differences
Interviews with destination organisations reveal some cross-cutting priorities. Localisation is one issue that has shot to the top of the agenda in many tourism regions, due to the reduction in international travel. Instead, destination organisations have focused on marketing to domestic tourists and the development of activities aimed at local residents. Digitalisation is another key priority. Online booking systems and contactless ticketing, as well as digital experiences such as online concerts, digital tours and courses have been common responses to lock-downs and restrictions on mobility. However, a common concern is how to make these new initiatives profitable, and a feeling that digital experiences will always be only a supplement to analogue experiences. Finally, many destination organisations have taken on an even larger leadership role in their regions and have intensified their collaboration with public and private stakeholders.
There are, however, also important regional differences. The pandemic has had very different effects on urban and rural regions, for example. Cities saw a large decrease in the number of visitors, as business tourism was almost non-existent and domestic leisure tourists preferred to avoid crowded urban attractions and instead headed to more sparsely populated areas. Conversely, rural regions have thrived, with many experiencing relatively small decreases in visitor numbers, or even growth. Some mountain and nature-based areas report problems associated with over-tourism, as city-dwellers came in search of outdoor activities and beauty spots.
Tourism regions across Europe have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but urban regions and conference destinations have been hardest hit, while many rural and mountain regions report large inflows of domestic visitors. Data from this project indicates that there have been quite dramatic short-term changes to the priorities and activities of destination organisations, with a focus on domestic marketing, digital solutions, and communication with local and regional stakeholders.
However, the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the development of tourism regions are still unclear. So far, we see an acceleration and intensification of existing trends, such as digitalisation and sustainability, rather than completely new strategic priorities.
Laura James is Associate Professor of Tourism and Regional Change at the Department of Culutre and Learning, Aalborg University. Her research focuses on tourism policy and regional development. She is currently researching the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on European tourism regions and the sustainability of Arctic cruise tourism.
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