COVID-19 prompts rethinking of mass tourism

Venice, Italy

Seafront in Jesolo, near Venice. Image: AFP/Vincenzo Pinto

The coronavirus pandemic has forced famous tourist destinations to question their business model, even though economic realities are likely to stand in the way of major changes.

Nature has quickly replaced hordes of visitors at sites like Machu Picchu in Peru, where sightings of elusive Andean bears have caused a buzz among conservationists.

And in Thailand, which has seen a drop in arrivals of more than 83%, marine wildlife including dugongs, turtles and whale sharks is experiencing a rebound.

The Thai government has decided to close more than 150 national parks for an average of three months a year and limit access to them so that animal and plant life can flourish.

“Now we want quality tourism, we don’t want a massive influx of tourists to our national parks,” said Varawut Silpa-archa, minister of natural resources and environment.

Visitation rights may have to increase to compensate for lost income but “that’s the price we have to pay” to preserve natural resources, he told AFP.

Educate travelers

Access to Machu Picchu has also been restricted, and Peruvian authorities are considering ways to develop a more exclusive model.

Local mayor Darwin Baca said he hoped tourists could be persuaded to stay longer, for example with guided tours of natural sites such as waterfalls while waiting to see Machu Picchu.

The site normally brings in around $5.5 billion a year according to official estimates.

Jean-François Rial, head of the Voyageurs du Monde travel agency, thought it might be possible to “educate visitors” to seek out lesser-known sites or to visit outside of high season.

Officials in Dubrovnik, Croatia, who typify the effects of overtourism, want to lure tourists to places outside the cramped medieval city walls.

They also want to “reposition Dubrovnik as a destination of excellence and sustainable tourism”, said Ana Hrnic, director of the Dubrovnik tourist office.

The pandemic could prove to be “a chance to move towards more responsible tourism” in the long term, said Damien Chaney, professor of marketing at EM Normandie.

“For radical solutions to emerge, it usually takes an external shock, such as COVID-19,” he noted.

“Addicted” to tourist dollars

But for many, tourism is an important, often life-saving activity.

In Tunisia, where it represents 14% of the gross domestic product, attendance on the island of Djerba has plunged by 80%.

“All the indicators are flashing red,” said Hichem Mehouachi, the region’s tourism commissioner.

In Barcelona, ​​Spain, most restaurants near the iconic Sagrada Familia basilica or along the busy Las Ramblas thoroughfare have closed or are struggling to make ends meet without tourists.

“Tourism has evicted local residents and now that the tourists are gone there is nothing,” said Marti Cuso, a social worker who has campaigned against tourists invading the city center.

Pablo Diaz, professor of economics at the Open University of Catalonia, added: “COVID has proven that the dependence on tourism turns certain regions into a desert”.

Guido Moltedo, founder of the Italian news site Ytali, launched a petition calling for the reopening of museums in Venice and for a consultation on the future of the city and its cultural vision.

Six thousand people have signed it so far.

“The city is on its knees,” warns Moltedo.

But Venice, like other tourist destinations, would struggle to do without the primary source of income for around 65% of its residents.

“Every little bar here earns 3,000 euros ($3,700) a day, the town is hooked,” Moltedo said.

“It is true that mass tourism is sometimes a problem in Venice, but no tourism at all is worse,” said Claudio Scarpa, head of the local hotel association.

Diaz fears things will go back to where they were in Catalonia once health restrictions are lifted.

“Even in cities like Barcelona where there were too many tourists and a strong movement against them, now we miss them,” he acknowledged.

Jean-Pierre Mas, head of French company Entreprises du Voyage, concluded that COVID-19 would likely cause “increased awareness” of the damage caused by mass tourism but “not a revolution”.

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