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“Pandemic Tourism”: How Canada’s Tourism Industry Has Evolved to Survive COVID-19

COVID-19 restrictions on non-essential travel has led to new ways of travelling and exploration of the world. This month, our writers, Melissa Alves, Neelia Fuad and Michael Shlega, explore how tourism, particularly in Canada, has evolved and adapted to the new normal.

As the spread of the coronavirus continues, chances of travelling abroad for people across the world have mostly fallen through. Trips have been cancelled, plans got thrown out the window, and the excitement of going to new places has been put on hold. While Canadians were not able to visit their favourite destinations, it also meant that the usual flock of foreign tourists could not make their way here. According to Statista, the Canadian tourism industry contributed close to CAD 40 billion to the economy last year. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences for the industry. According to Destination Northern Ontario, the estimated loss of revenue in the early parts of summer was around CAD 8.9 million just for Northern Ontario province of Canada alone. Of those who had cancelled their trips, 80 per cent had done so due to border closures or social distancing policies in place. The decline in trip bookings as well as revenue losses has negatively impacted the tourism and hospitality industry. However, it has forced the industry to become innovative and devise alternate methods of promoting tourism.

Backyard Tourism

One way that the Canadian tourism industry has adapted to a pandemic economy is using ‘backyard tourism’. People have become tourists in their own cities and parks. In the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, a local tourism group, Ottawa Tourism, has taken a ‘hyperlocal’ approach to tourism with a ‘Rural Ottawa’ campaign that focuses on the exploration of the city’s outskirts. Outdoor tourism has also increased. Katrina Greenfield, Program Coordinator at Ontario Parks (the organization responsible for the regions’ provincial parks) reported an increase in visitation by 7 per cent and a whopping 29 per cent increase for backcountry camping visitation. Interestingly, COVID-19 has also had a positive impact on the wildlife of parks. Being in open-air spaces, this type of tourism also allows for people to drive up in their cars, maintain safe social distancing and avoid the confinement of traveling in airplanes or staying at hotels.

Canada’s capital is not the only place where backyard tourism is flourishing. This new phenomenon has resulted in people from all over the world, taking an active interest in the nooks and crannies of their own communities. Travel Manitoba, for instance, has launched a campaign called “Home is Where the Heart is” to promote local tourism within the province. The shift from international to local tourism may have resulted as an attempt to survive the economic devastation that the pandemic has brought with it, but it may open doors to long-term changes in how tourism is marketed to Canadians in the long run.

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Job Security in Tourism

For countries all across the world, the tourism and hospitality industry is considered an important source of income for local businesses. With the emergence of this COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rapid decline in the industry’s growth and revenue because of the restrictions and bans that have been put in place by government and regulatory bodies.

According to the United Nation World Trade Organization (UNWTO), travel restrictions were enforced on 100 per cent of destinations all around the world as a response to the pandemic. These restrictions were placed on a total of 217 countries. These countries faced economic casualties as they had to adhere to the new restrictions. Since this halted the functions of the tourism and hospitality industry, many flights were suspended from lack of demand, causing huge losses in the global economy. Additionally, people who did work in the industry were being laid off because consumer demand had plummeted. Airline companies experienced revenue losses and hotel occupancy rates also dropped. Due to this, companies like Air Canada had to cut at least 20,000 jobs (60 per cent  of their workforce) as a response to revenue losses[1] 

Evolving Business Strategies

This casualty has resulted in economic damage to countries that heavily rely on tourism for their national revenue. While some countries like Canada provide aid packages to keep the struggling industries running, other developing countries do not have the resources to do so. Speeding up the industry’s recovery could also be questioned as it is uncertain as to whether it will help countries in the long term. Though this is the case, countries are trying to adjust and work around this pandemic to make a profit.

Travel service providers are responding to this casualty by adjusting their advertising and marketing to be inclusive of social distancing measures. This is to give a sense of reconnection for their long-term customers that have had to put their travelling plans on halt due to the pandemic. In April, Air Canada, created an advertisement titled  “Air Canada: Inspired by Canadians, we are proud to be doing our part” ” to remind clients’ of the kindness and strength of crew members during the quarantine period. They were also using this to provide clients with a sense of hope towards a new beginning. With this, they have adjusted the narrative of panic due to uncertainty, into a narrative of hope.

To Travel or Not to Travel

The important question that pops up in regard to this is: What will happen to the industry in the long run? While it is hard to predict exactly what will happen with tourism and when, once countries do begin to open for business, tourists should expect a different travelling experience. It is not the first time in history that a crisis has changed the way people travel either — after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security around the world tightened up and new rules were implemented, many of which are in place even 20 years later.

            Elizabeth Becker, journalist and author of “OVERBOOKED, The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism” described two different responses to the tourism industry in Foreign Policy back in June. She believes “some national and local governments will redesign their tourism strategies to keep down crowds, keep more money in the local economy, and enforce local regulations including those protecting the environment,” in addition to permanent health protocols to help prevent an outbreak of this scale from happening again. Other governments are likely to adopt an opposite strategy: competing for the tourists’ money by “allowing the travel industry to regulate itself, using deep discounts to fill hotels and airplanes and revive over-tourism.” It is likely that countries that rely heavily on tourist dollars for their economy to thrive will adopt the latter strategy, but nothing is certain yet.

            Governments are not the only ones who will have to adapt their strategies post-pandemic. Cruise lines, which had a bad reputation for harbouring unsanitary conditions  even before the pandemic, have been among the worst-hit sectors of the tourism industry due to tight quarters that allow the spread of person-to-person, foodborne, and waterborne diseases. Airlines have managed to stay alive due to domestic flights, but their future is still up in the air;  Warren Buffet sold off his firm’s entire holdings in four major US airlines, according to The Guardian.  Both cruise lines and airlines will likely need to scale down the number of passengers, modify cleaning procedures, and increase passenger knowledge and awareness around hygiene procedures to continue to operate in the future. The Canadian Minister for Transport announced in a statement that cruises carrying over 100 people are banned from operating in Canada (and on Canadian waters) until October 31, 2020.  

Is Virtual Tourism Here to Stay?

There is one glimmer of hope for Canadians who cannot shake their travel bug: virtual tourism. Whilst people are enjoying mini road trips and staycations close to home, others are seeking the use of technology to give them that experience. Since the pandemic began, there has been a rise in interest in visiting exciting places around the globe either through virtual reality systems or by video. The technology is not new to the travel industry — companies such as Travel World VR in New Jersey have been offering virtual tours to help travel agencies book vacations, and with the ever-increasing Zoom meetings, it was almost inevitable that companies would harness that to host massive tours, like a tour of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The event has had 1.4 million responses on Facebook to date. In Toronto, Ripley’s Aquarium is offering educational virtual experiences called “Virtual Field Trips” for students of various different grades. These reasonably priced group virtual tour presentations may be the only type of field trips available for school children in this academic year.

However, the experience of travelling and experiencing a destination first-hand may be difficult to simulate through technology. Furthermore, tourism does not only generate revenue through the direct use of hotels and entry fees. Activities like shopping, eating at local restaurant and availing local services bring significant revenue to the destination. Virtual tourism may still impact subsidiary businesses at the destination, and further innovation will need to save those businesses from closing shop.

Post-pandemic, travel will hopefully be seen for the modern miracle that it is, rather than a routine process that drives millions of people to hundreds of destinations across the world. complain about their 10-hour flights when they know how easily it can be taken away from them. Nonetheless, the tourism industry is putting up a strong fight with its innovative strategies.

Writer(s)

  • Melissa currently works in the marketing and advertising industries and has experience writing for magazines and online publications. On the side, she enjoys wildlife and landscape photography and runs her own design business, Nettle Creative. She is passionate about entrepreneurship, environmental issues, and social justice. Her experience growing up as a first-generation Canadian with a small business in the family has greatly shaped her outlook on life.

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