Samuel Langhorne Clemens was an American writer, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. Among many achievements, he is credited with the saying “travel broadens the mind”. But something we have learned in recent weeks during this Covid-19 ‘lock in’ is that sometimes staying at home can do that too, or at least it can help refocus the mind.
Being limited to stay within 2km of our homes has caused many people to think about the normal freedom of movement which, like many things, you don’t miss until it is gone. It might seem trivial to be thinking about the tourism industry at a time of a global health pandemic and when many people find themselves out of work and uncertain about the future. But I’m reminded of something that Mark Henry (Director of Central Marketing, Tourism Ireland ) once said: “Tourism is the business of happiness”.
Now more than ever, we need some happiness and we will need this industry to help lift our spirits when we emerge from this pandemic. Tomorrow (Friday April 17 ) was to mark Ireland’s first national tourism day, however, like many events it is postponed. Tourism Day 2020 was an initiative of Irish tourism and hospitality agencies and businesses in Ireland, but instead of a celebration of all things good about our wonderful industry, many of those businesses find themselves closed and uncertain about their futures.
Galway offers a perfect microcosm of the successful tourism industry, with its city vibrancy and county landscapes that appeal to overseas and domestic visitors alike. Normally, at this time of the year, the streets and roads are busy with people making memories, but instead they are empty and quiet. The people involved in tourism, creators of positive experiences and those responsible for putting smiles on people’s faces are no longer on stage, instead they are waiting in the wings, hoping to be recalled sometime soon.
Galway 2020 contraction is a loss to everyone
I particularly feel for the people involved with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, who have decided on a significant contraction of the programme in light of the government restrictions. The performances that have been cancelled or postponed are not only a loss to those involved in their production, but to the audiences who may never get to experience them.
As a city and county famous for festivals and events, we must embrace the creativity that Galway is also famed for, to adapt our offerings and ensure that the show can go on. This is not the first crisis to hit the tourism industry in recent years, nor will it be the last.
In 2001, we had Foot and Mouth and 9/11, the SARS outbreak in 2003, the global recession in 2008, and Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud in 2010. Tourism has often been an industry to lead the way out of such challenging times and the hope is that it can do so again post-Covid-19. However, this one seems different, and the early indicators are quite bleak.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation is predicting global international tourist arrivals could decline between 20-30% this year (2020 ). The OECD Tourism Committee forecast a decline of 45%, which could rise to 70% if the recovery is delayed until September. In Ireland, the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC ) has made similar estimates, which could see the Irish tourism industry decline from earnings of €5 billion in 2019 to approximately €1.5 billion in 2020.
Nothing is certain, except that the tourism industry will be severely challenged for some time to come. Tourism has always been a significant force in driving the world economy. 2019 saw 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals, up from about 25 million in 1950. Ireland accounted for almost 10 million of those visitors in 2019 and the Industry supported 265,000 jobs here.
Improved access, targeted marketing and substantial investments have helped to grow the Irish tourism industry and these factors will be key to the revival. Our positive image and the quality of our tourism offering will remain, but there is major concern around access with most visitors arriving by air and that industry looks to be particularly challenged. This will put a huge focus on domestic tourism, which already accounts for a large share of the market. The strict travel limits have brought about a resurgence in returning to and supporting local businesses, mostly by necessity, but it has caused a surge of goodwill towards shopping local, which tourism will hope to benefit from in due course.
This provides a great opportunity as Irish people are avid travellers and many will not have the confidence to travel abroad for some time, so may be enticed to holiday at home. Indeed, even if we wish to travel abroad, we may not be able due to a lack of capacity to leave the island and destinations may not want any visitors, with the fear of what they might bring with them.
Government travel restrictions will obviously be central to all of this, but the notion of destinations actively campaigning against visitors is not new and notable recent examples include Barcelona and Venice. The residents in these areas opposed too many visitors, a phenomenon known as ‘overtourism’. It was interesting to see holiday destinations in Ireland also lobby people to stay away over the Easter weekend, a reversal of normal business and marketing approaches.
Now that destinations are free of visitors, the world over, it might be a time to pause and refocus on what sort of destinations they want to be. Galway is a proven tourism destination, but there is always room for improvement and enhancement. Sustainability is a term that has been bandied about for a long time, but now might be an opportunity to truly reflect on what it means.
In 2015, the United Nations gathered together world leaders and they agreed on a universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that committed all countries to pursue a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs ) that would lead to a better future for all. Tourism is an ideal industry to adopt these principles and much work has been done already in this regard, but I suggest that now is a time to really focus our combined efforts to pursue good practices and Galway could offer a good test case for this.
A good foundation for any destination is to begin at home. We should focus firstly on the needs of our local community and providing a place for them to live happily and peacefully. If the residents are not happy, then the visitors will not be happy and that was the problem with some destinations who experienced overtourism.
Strangely, we all find ourselves forced to focus on what is around us, in our immediate communities and within a 2km radius of our homes. Whilst this has been a major imposition on some, it has also provided others with an opportunity to get to know their own locality again, to engage (at a socially acceptable distance ) with their communities. The longer the restrictions go on, the more challenging it may be.
Collaboration is key for the future of tourism and there have been many examples of partnerships and joined up thinking during Covid-19, which bodes well for the tourism industry. Hopefully people will remember those who helped in a time of need; the hotels who are accommodating essential staff, the restaurants feeding those on the front line, the pubs who donated hand sanitiser and gloves, and so on.
This crisis has shown us some of the best traits in humanity and I am impressed once again with how the business and communities in Galway have shown solidarity and committment for common purposes. I hope that we can emerge from this situation with a renewed focus and even better perspective than before. Tourism and hospitality are often the first Industries to rise from the ashes of a crisis.
For that to happen, proper supports are needed for those businesses and their employees now and into the future. Confidence is key to getting the tourism industry up and running again, and confidence can be built by a coordinated effort of government, business, education and local communities all coming together with a clear focus and plan. ITIC have renewed their call for a dedicated tourism minister sitting at the Cabinet table and for the VAT rate to be reduced to 0% during the crisis, and then permanently left at 9% once the recovery has taken hold.
World Tourism Day is commemorated each year on 27 September. Its purpose is to foster international awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value. I believe there is a good appreciation of the importance of tourism in Ireland, particularly in Galway and I hope that by the time World Tourism Day 2020 arrives, we will be somewhat back to normal, or at least whatever the new normal is. It is all about hope - and tourism and travel has been a beacon of hope for people for many years.
The tourism industry offers adventure, dreams and experiences like no other. The inevitable recession that will come after Covid-19 will present challenges and opportunities, like every recession before. Disney, a heavy hitter in the tourism world, was launched in 1923, Mickey Mouse in 1928 in the throes of the Great Depression in the US (2019 revenue $70 billion ). Hyatt, a leader in the hospitality industry, was founded in 1957 (2019 revenue $5 billion ). Microsoft launched in 1979 (2019 revenue $126 billion ).
After the global recession of 2008, companies such as Uber, Instagram, WhatsApp and Airbnb were founded and turned into multimillion-dollar businesses. It might be easier for some of the large organisations to be agile, to shift directions and to reinvent themselves, but the majority of tourism businesses are small or even micro in size, and these are the ones in particular that we should all try to support when the time is right. The immediate battle against Covid-19 is being fought by nurses, doctors, carers and all those in the essential services.
Together, yet apart, we can help them to help flatten the curve. When the time is right, we need to come together again in hope and confidence to support our local businesses and restart the local tourism industry, and like Mark Twain did many years ago, we can write our own versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though ours should be more local. The Adventures of Galway will be a good start.
John Carty is a Lecturer in the Galway International Hotel School at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. @johnlcarty [email protected]