The travel industry is projected to bounce back more fully this year, in spite of a shaky economic climate. China has opened back up slowly, which is good news for global tourism’s rebound, amid an ongoing Russian war on Ukraine as well as grave political conflicts that don’t get as much coverage (Ethiopia, Peru). Another round of Covid pandemic cases is raging on though no longer dominating headlines, with much of the world lacking boosters. Last but not least, there’s inflation and everything is costly, from food to flights.
The year 2023 is indeed unfolding in unpredictable ways. But global tourism has now navigated three years of uncharted waters. The question is: What has it “built back better” during this time?
How are tourism businesses impacting nature and people more positively? How will host communities receive more of tourism’s revenues in their backyards, and how will tourism leaders show it in a transparent manner?
While there are some positive shifts from tourism boards and tour operators, for example, long-term solutions on a larger scale remain few. But shaping new ways of managing tourism—impacted by overcrowding, remote workers, heightened climate disasters, tourism staff shortages and increased global inequality—is an imperative if we are to see different results. There’s little time left to reinvent the wheel when tourism is heading back to its former problematic levels of visitors and its old ways of doing business.
Here are five issues that global tourism should acknowledge and confront in 2023.
1. Humanizing Tourism Staff
One morning in December 2022, the front page of a Caribbean destination’s news publication showed a bus accident. In the image, staff in uniform were exiting a yellow-colored bus tilted on the roadside, surrounded by a small crowd of onlookers and emergency personnel. They were hotel workers from a major multinational resort brand (one of the largest in the Caribbean region) being driven from home to work in a used US yellow school bus.
These buses are a dime a dozen in the region and often carry workers from their homes in the unglamorous outskirts of a resort town to the upscale grounds of their employer. Is it that a major foreign resort brand can’t afford to purchase a modern, air-conditioned van for its staff, similar to the one used to transport tourists on their airport runs or tours? (Of course not.)
Here’s another scenario: While attending a travel conference last year, I listened to a panel discussion about the worker shortage problem that continues to plague global tourism and hospitality. On stage were executives discussing what should be done to improve worker retention and increase the attractiveness of an employer.
There were no tourism workers on stage speaking. But that’s often the case at travel conferences: Folks in ivory towers pontificate on solutions while those who are affected aren’t in the room because they aren’t invited to be a part of these spaces, they can’t pay to be in that seat (as I found out some conferences charge this way) or they can’t afford to take the time off.
Whether it’s improved back-of-house spaces that include access to nature for mental well-being, higher salaries that allow for savings to purchase a home one day, a subsidized education for their kids, or a modern bus to carry staff to work: it’s time for the industry to do better beyond marketing videos about how great a tourism career can be. No one’s buying it. Show the track you’ve created for diverse people to get to professional positions and to have a healthy lifestyle as well. Bring out the folks who take care of guests onto a global stage. Then show there’s a willingness to listen and humanize this industry on a large scale.
2. A New Kind of Overtourist
Mexico City. Lisbon. Bali. Mallorca. Puerto Rico. The list of destinations is expanding where there’s simmering resentment at the increased number of remote workers (including wealthy folks) who are choosing to settle permanently or stay long-term and are now driving up the cost of housing for locals these past two years.
They are the new kind of overtourists—with higher earning power but lower living costs in the new places they choose to call home. Since the pandemic, more than 30 countries have been offering long term resident visas or remote work visas to this wave of untethered workers, and many more are choosing to give incentives such as property tax breaks, to foreign home buyers.
Social media groups are replete with questions about where to relocate are a dime a dozen, alongside ideas for remote work positions. There are also entire platforms dedicated to helping Americans take work sabbaticals or permanently resettle elsewhere.
The proliferation of remote jobs has made living abroad more possible today than in the past. Travel, remote work, new life abroad, lower costs of living for Americans and tax incentives in some cases, are meshing into an irresistible package. So much so that remote workers as bleisure travelers is considered one of the fastest growing segments of travel, according to Euromonitor International.
Remote Work Drove Over 60% of House-Price Surge – Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, September 2022.
Travel isn’t a bad thing, neither is living abroad and remote working; it expands one’s understanding of the world and the privileged role we play in it. But when this combination of freedom and privilege from one group of travelers leads to locals being continuously priced out of their home city and their dreams (also because incentives aren’t open to them), how will this tension on the ground impact tourism? It’s one that the travel industry has willfully avoided speaking out on for the most part, sticking its head in the sand.
The “work-tourists” heading abroad may be a boon for destinations and could lead to more sustainable tourism, but the travel industry hasn’t begun to catch up with the need to manage this rapidly evolving segment. (I do feel potential hope with this kind of program that’s emerging, aiming to place the tourist-worker in local accommodations and during slow seasons—on the surface, it sounds solid. At the very least, it points to the need for a more deliberate steering of this segment into areas that need it the most.)
The tension bubbling at the surface caused by this new kind of overtourist—a form of “settler colonialism”—is an issue that tourism leaders cannot afford to ignore and will directly impact the experience on the ground, as well as the long-term sustainability of their destinations.
3. Climate Action Plans
Half of the top future risks in the world are related to climate, according to the results of the World Economic Forum’s annual survey on global risks, released in January 2023. It’s true that the past year has seen more climate action from the tourism sector, albeit in trickles.
At least reporting in 2022, more than 700 tourism businesses and destinations had signed the Glasgow Declaration since its launch in 2021, in partnership with the Travel Foundation, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and the World Travel & Tourism Council. Those who signed pledged to halve their emissions in half by 2030 and to file climate plans within a year. It’s unclear how many of those climate plans were filed on time, thus too early for the accolades.
Business as usual is continuing in many aspects as travel returns (those short-haul flight cuts in Europe that got so much press coverage barely made a dent in overall aviation emissions by the way). A best-case scenario for decarbonizing tourism in line with the Paris Agreement would require a reduction in long-haul trips between now and 2050, until emissions-free technology and SAFs are available, according to a joint study that I reported on in November 2022. But expecting consumers to cut down their trips is as realistic as expecting tourism stakeholders not to fly all over the world to attend conferences (it’s almost celebratory at this point, to attend the usual travel megaevents; back to 2019 we go).
The majority of tourism stakeholders are delaying the inevitable, while increased climate disasters or changes in temperature continue to decimate the lives of residents and diminish the longevity of destinations’ draw.
There’s one big positive light in the tunnel: the increased demand for the outdoors, and the evolution of outdoor travel towards more inclusive and carbon-free itineraries, with the potential to integrate climate action in a more seamless and impactful manner across the tourism chain.
4. Same Metrics, Same Results
In 2021, I wrote an essay for Skift advocating for the tourism industry to deliver new success metrics. Three years post-pandemic, tourism arrival numbers and contributions to gross domestic product continue to be the dominating measures of success for this industry.
Yet the latter continue to tell an incomplete and erroneous tale that tourism is doing good, particularly amid exacerbated inequalities post-pandemic and escalating climate impacts.
If destinations are indeed becoming stewards of their natural and human resources, and touting “regenerative tourism” and low-carbon tourism as their newly adopted principles, where are the new metrics to back up these statements? What about tourism’s revenue benefiting more host communities and small businesses, how will tourism show it?
A recent discussion on LinkedIn among tourism professionals about the lack of any recent data on tourism leakage is a reminder of the failure of global tourism in stepping up to its promises. If we don’t measure differently, how can tourism avoid failing host communities over again? Because new flights to a destination or filled resorts, as we know, do not translate into wealth for locals. As long as additional success metrics for the industry are slow in being developed, tourism’s inequitable, negative impact on places will continue and no destination can pretend to be “building back better.”
5. Neocolonial Tourism Models
The preferential treatment of western leisure travelers over residents and host communities continues post-pandemic. It’s a bit better camouflaged in some cases, perhaps, but it is alive and well in many parts of the world.
Consider an example as simple as encroaching on locals’ access to nature areas, including public beaches and parks that doctors now are saying is essential to mental and physical well-being. It’s a practice that many multinational resorts and wealthy foreigners in numerous parts of the world have perfected while tourism boards turn a blind eye as the government folds to deep pocketed investors. You can see it on islands in the Caribbean or Pacific to East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania. Tourism must prioritize reversing this outcome and easing access for residents.
There are also the exceptions that destinations make in their treatment of locals versus tourists; like Indonesia’s future law banning sex outside of marriage, which sent tourism in an uproar and led the government to clarify that it won’t impact tourists, or the ways that western visitors in certain Middle Eastern countries can be free to do things that aren’t allowed for women in that destination.
How about the silence over the displacement of Indigenous populations from their lands for the sake of tourism dollars, while local peoples’ lives, their families’ and their culture fall apart, because their identity is tied to the land?
Can a destination claim to be pro-sustainability when it continues to allow these various types of “tourist-first” approaches?
There are, of course, exceptions. Destinations and tour operators are increasingly collaborating with Indigenous and BIPOC host communities and small businesses, integrating them into tourism and guiding consumers to experience culture in a more authentic manner while spending locally. It’s an encouraging and long overdue development in parts of the US and Australia, for example, in part driven in large part by consumer demand and post-pandemic societal shifts.
Indigenous people who have lived in this land for centuries with the wildlife have been evicted,tortured,killed,denied access to this lands to pave way for the westerners to come and enjoy the luxury! #StopMaasaiEviction pic.twitter.com/3pHbMywi2U— Joel Meitaya (@JoelyMeitaya) December 8, 2022
Building back better, ultimately, requires abandoning the futile approach of “balancing” resident needs with those of tourists that some destinations have touted. The latter is nothing more than an attempt to hold on to neocolonial notions of an already extractive tourism industry.
In these tumultuous times, in which multicultural consumers seek increased transparency and value while locals are rightfully pushing back, can the industry afford to put a band-aid on the layers of inequities it creates? Or will it have the courage to embrace sustainability in its full sense, which requires placing residents first?