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Tourism after the coronavirus crisis

Kerstin Schmidt
April 24, 2020

Where will we travel to when it is safe to do so again? How will the coronavirus crisis change tourism in the long term? DW asked Ulf Sonntag from NIT, the Institute for Tourism and Spa Research in Northern Europe.

Deck chairs with alpine view on the Kanzelwand in Austria
The Kanzelwand in Austria: Alpine view at an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,561 feet)Image: picture-alliance/imageBroker/K. Kreder

Deutsche Welle: The World Tourism Organization UNWTO expects the number of international travelers to fall to the level of 2013: Instead of 1.4 billion travelers like last year, only one billion people will travel. That is one third less. Has there ever before been a decline of this magnitude?

Ulf Sonntag: No, there has never been one of this kind before. And I am not sure whether the estimates of the UNWTO are not even overly optimistic. The OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is predicting a drop of 40 to 70% in international travel for its 36 member states this year.

The Spanish Steps in Rome deserted
The Spanish Steps in Rome: The tourist hotspot is desertedImage: picture alliance/dpa

In Germany there is great discussion about summer holidays. What do you think: will we all have to stay home this year?

It all depends on the political framework conditions, and these are exceedingly difficult to predict. The political decision-makers seem to be prepared to do so. There are also first scenarios focusing on the order in which tourist businesses and gastronomy could reopen, i.e. first holiday apartments and guest houses, later hotels. I hope that perhaps from the middle or end of May we will see the first tender shoots of domestic tourism again. But nobody can really say now when we will be allowed to cross borders again.

After all, there are all kinds of suggestions: The German Baltic and North Sea resorts, for example, are considering occupying only every second hotel bed in order to reduce the masses. In Italy, there is a proposal to separate beach chairs and restaurant tables with plexiglass boxes. How realistic are such suggestions?

We will have to follow the rules of social distancing for a long time until a vaccine against the coronavirus becomes available. So, it's not surprising that such game plans are being made at the moment: How can we prevent too many people from being gathered in a confined space?  One solution could be to rent out only every second room. Or only every second hotel opens. Or not to get too close to each other on the beach. Whether plexiglass is really the solution remains to be seen on a case by case basis. But these examples show how creative and innovative efforts are to save the highly endangered tourism industry.

We in Germany are quite fortunate because we have the classic German wicker beach chair, right?

(Laughs) Right, I hadn't thought of that. The wicker beach chair was invented to protect holidaymakers on the North and Baltic Sea from the cold wind here in the north. But yes, it is also very suitable for use as a distance spacer.

Wicker beach chairs densely packed on the Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn
Baltic Sea island Fehmarn 2019: The beach chairs will probably not be that close together this summerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Scholz

Let's look into the distant future: Many people are worried about when there will be full freedom to travel again. What conditions must be met so that we can once again travel without restrictions?

I am afraid that we will only see the opening of borders for travel at the very end of the progressive return to normality. Perhaps here in Europe first. But globally? We will probably first need a vaccine against the coronavirus or an effective treatment.

Will people then travel just as carefree and naturally as before the pandemic or do you expect people's travel behavior to change, to shift away from mass tourism?

Tourism is part of normal life in almost all societies, especially in Europe. And people will be happy to travel again. To what extent they can afford it depends on how hard we are hit by the economic crisis that follows. But overall, there will be a lot of catching up to do.

Portrait photo of Ulf Sonntag
Ulf Sonntag, Head of Market Research at NIT - the Institute for Tourism and Spa Research in Northern EuropeImage: NIT

However, it is difficult to predict whether people will travel in exactly the same way as before or whether some will draw conclusions of their own. The current discussion in the industry is more in the direction of quality-oriented tourism. Tour operators and their partners in the destination regions often use the time to make their services more sustainable. There is also a certain willingness among customers to travel more sustainably in the future if costs permit. So, if there is an opportunity for the industry to redirect itself and change the face of future holiday products, it is now. But whether we have really moved away from mass tourism as we knew it after the coronavirus crisis remains to be seen.

A look at the cruise ship sector is also interesting. This has been in the news a lot in recent weeks. Will it suffer permanent damage to its image?

I can imagine that the cruise industry will have to present a stronger case and provide more information than perhaps other travel segments. Precisely because the unpleasant images of the ships under quarantine were covered in the press. And it is a form of vacation where many people live together in a small space for a long time. However, I am currently hearing that next year's cruises are already being well booked again. This means that customers are confident that the industry will be able to guarantee safety on the ships again. It is interesting to see the relationship between the fascination for a type of holiday on the one hand and the perception of risk and the need for safety on the other.

Last question: If travelling will again be possible without any restrictions, what will be your next holiday destination?

We were actually planning a trip to Portugal this summer. And to be honest, I haven't given up hope completely that a miracle might happen, and we can go there. If not, then we'll simply make up for it later. Otherwise I am the prototype of a multi-optional customer: I can imagine spending a nice vacation almost anywhere, depending on what is possible under the prevailing restrictions of the lockdown.

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