COVID-19 prompts rethink of mass tourism
The coronavirus pandemic has forced famous tourist destinations to question their business model, 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 fauna including dugongs, turtles and whale sharks are enjoying a rebound.
The Thai government has decided to close more than 150 national parks for an average of three months a year and to limit access so that animal and plant life can flourish.
“From now on, we want quality tourism, we don’t want a mass tourist influx into our national parks,” said Varawut Silpa-archa, minister of natural resources and the environment.
Visitor fees might have to rise to compensate for the lost income but “it is the price we have to pay” to preserve natural resources, he told AFP.
Access to Machu Picchu has also been curbed, and Peruvian authorities are mulling ways to develop a more exclusive model.
Local mayor Darwin Baca said they hope tourists can be convinced to stay longer, for example with guided visits to natural sites such as waterfalls while waiting to see Machu Picchu.
The site normally takes in about $5.5 billion per year according to official estimates.
Jean-Francois Rial, head of the travel agency Voyageurs du Monde, thought it might be possible to “educate visitors” to seek out less well known sites, or to visit outside of the peak seasons.
Officials in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which typifies the effects of excessive tourism, want to attract tourists to places outside the walls of the cramped medieval city.
They also want “to reposition Dubrovnik into a destination of excellence and sustainable tourism,” said Ana Hrnic, director of the Dubrovnik tourist board.
The pandemic might turn out to be “a chance to move towards more responsible tourism” over the long term, said Damien Chaney, a marketing professor at the French business school EM Normandie.
“For radical solutions to emerge, it generally takes an external shock, such as COVID-19,” he noted.
‘Addicted’ to tourist dollars
But for many, tourism is big, often vital, business.
In Tunisia, where it accounts for 14% of gross domestic product, the number of visitors to the island of Djerba has plunged by 80%.
“All indicators are flashing red,” said Hichem Mehouachi, the region’s tourist commissioner.
In Barcelona, Spain, most restaurants near the iconic Sagrada Familia basilica or along the well-trodden thoroughfare of Las Ramblas have closed or are struggling to make ends meet without tourists.
“Tourism kicked out local residents and now that the tourists are gone, there is nothing,” said Marti Cuso, a social worker who has been campaigning against tourists invading the city centre.
Pablo Diaz, an economy professor at the Open University of Catalonia, added, “COVID has proved that tourism dependence turns some areas into a desert.”
Guido Moltedo, founder of the Italian news website Ytali, has launched a petition calling on museums in Venice to reopen and for a consultation on the city’s future and its cultural vision.
Six thousand people have signed it so far.
“The city is on its knees,” Moltedo warns.
But Venice, like other tourist destinations, would find it hard to do without the primary source of income for around 65% of its inhabitants.
“Every little bar here earns 3,000 euros ($3,700) a day, the city is addicted,” Moltedo said.
“It’s 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 is worried things will go right back to where they were before in Catalonia once health restrictions are lifted.
“Even in cities such as Barcelona where there were too many tourists and a strong movement against them, now we miss them,” he acknowledged.
Jean-Pierre Mas, head of the French company Entreprises du Voyage, concluded that COVID-19 would likely provoke “heightened awareness” of damage from mass tourism but “not a revolution.”