A break from tourism

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by Jesmond Saliba

In just one year, global tourism dropped by 70 per cent, sending figures back to what they were 30 years ago. 

One of the first actions by governments the world over, when the coronavirus shifted its epicentre from China to Italy, was to seal off their borders to prevent Covid-19 imports. 

Clearly, enough roaming had taken place in the eight weeks between the first reported cluster in Wuhan and the first official case in Lombardy that an immediate travel ban could not stop the virus from surging in every part on the planet. Admittedly, the virus may have been creeping in different regions well before the alarm was raised at the end of 2019. 

International tourism experienced its lowest season in decades, sending shockwaves across economies. More importantly, it raised questions about the direction the sector was heading in. 

The empty hotels and unsubscribed tours laid bare a type of tourism that promises escapism rather than immersion. Leisure travel, which accounts for the largest share of tourism, serves more to distance tourists from their ordinary lives than to bring them closer to a destination. 

Tourism as a form of entertainment, undoubtedly, offers plenty of advantages. But it also risks building an artificial superstructure of experiences that accommodate the preferences of generic tourism at the expense of local resources and ways of living. 

Mass tourism, in particular, has a long-term damaging impact on environmental and cultural wealth. 

The flourish of local life in towns and cities during the pandemic opens the horizon to a more responsible tourism that is sensitive to the particularisms of a destination. Tourism that is integrated into the local community may tolerate a smaller capacity, but it presents greater opportunities for diversification, shaping associated industries into fairer and more sustainable activities. 

As countries find ways to live with the coronavirus, tourism is expected to reemerge as the powerful sector we know it. But before we restart that engine, we need to ask ourselves whether we want a repeat of the last three decades by 2050. 

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