The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the travel and tourism sector. In 2019, 330 million jobs were supported by travel and tourism. The novel coronavirus has impacted over 120 million of those jobs and livelihoods, and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates a loss of $3.4 trillion in global GDP from lack of travel that continues to accrue. The unrivaled global scale of financial loss, unemployment, and permanent business closure within travel and tourism will affect destinations and their surrounding communities for years.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, travel and tourism was a booming industry, experiencing notable annual growth. Consumers were traveling further, longer, and more frequently. In 2019 travel and tourism grew globally by 3.5%, outpacing total economic growth—in 2019, 2.5%—for the ninth consecutive year. While travel is an important part of our increasingly globalized world, the safety of travelers and of host communities is increasingly at risk. COVID-19's harmful impact has been uniquely universal, but natural disasters have had similarly catastrophic regional effects when communities are not equipped to withstand the increasing strength of storms, earthquakes, droughts, and extreme heat.
With vaccinations presenting the first genuine hope of return to normalcy, travel and tourism will ultimately wake from its 2020 hibernation and rebound. Like many other sectors, it will not look the same as it did before the pandemic. However, from unparalleled loss comes unparalleled opportunity to not only rebuild tourism to its 2019 prestige, but to fundamentally change the way stakeholders think about travel.
Use multiple strategies to jump start recovery efforts
By leveraging public funding for economic development, disaster mitigation and recovery—as well as COVID-19 relief to help U.S.-based travel and tourism restart—governments could rebuild local economies, bolster an engaged workforce, reconstruct dilapidated and unsafe infrastructure, and improve the environmental impact tourism has on destinations and communities. By considering tourism from the perspective of the host as much as we consider the experience of the traveler, communities can use tourism as a force for long-term economic development as travelers continue to have enriched cultural experiences away from home.
One popular vacation destination where we’ve seen this play out is Puerto Rico. The devastating 2017 hurricane season, in which Category 5 storms Maria and Irma directly hit Puerto Rico two weeks apart, had a historically lasting impact: damaging property, vital infrastructure, and power grids across the territory. Since 2018, our team has quickly and efficiently helped revitalize the island by providing residents the tools needed to rebuild the community themselves by supporting two key programs.
Through the Puerto Rico Department of Housing (PRDOH), we provide project management services for a HUD CDBG-DR program for repair and reconstruction of households, and relocation of homeowners. With Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience (COR3), we help local municipalities, state agencies, and private non-profits obtain FEMA recovery funds for projects related to infrastructure, such as road and bridge improvements, repair of housing complexes, schools, and hospitals, and preservation of parks, outdoor spaces, and historic buildings.
What makes our work on the island unique is that 90% of our staff is Puerto Rican, and many of those individuals were affected by the severity of the hurricanes. Recovery in Puerto Rico is well underway, thanks in part to the assistance and support of our team. To date, over 1,400 homeowners have been deemed eligible for housing assistance by the PRDOH and 1,420 grants have been given by the COR3 team, totaling over $3.8 billion in FEMA funding disbursed.
Despite the monumental improvements made through these two successful programs, the number of travelers headed to hurricane-impacted Puerto Rico dropped 19.6% during the 2017 holiday season. Puerto Rico lost more than 500,000 airline traveler seats, a crushing blow to the island’s travel and tourism economy. Like many other tourism destinations, the WTTC reports that travel and tourism in Puerto Rico was growing annually. In fact, industry had grown from 7.3% of GDP to 8.4% between 2014 and 2017.
Be prepared for the next crisis
Natural disasters pose an irrefutable risk to the growth and stability of tourism in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Stabilizing travel and tourism should be seen as a vital component of recovery efforts and activities to ensure that the pattern of harmful economic losses do not follow the destruction caused by hurricanes.
The use of public funds to ensure vacation hotspots have the capacity to host an influx of tourists post-COVID is paramount. Communities need widespread stabilization of dining, hospitality, and other tourist-oriented markets, along with community-wide workforce development that includes education in business, personal finance, and vocational training. The time has also come to boost environmental sustainability and move toward carbon-neutrality through improved gray and green infrastructure, alternative energy sources, and better protection of local resources and land.
Additionally, improving public transportation, building codes, and power and internet reliability will bolster consumer confidence in the security of destinations. Through these initiatives, local tourism economies will not only recover from a once-in-a-century pandemic, but they will also be able to withstand and endure increasingly active annual hurricane seasons, power outages, and smaller-scale economic downshifts—good for communities, and good for business.
Governments with traditionally high percentages of their GDP coming from tourism must consider the benefits of investing in recovery and resilience of the travel industry now. Proactive engagement will drive a robust and thriving economic recovery through tourism, rather than one that quickly peters out post-COVID. The ecological benefit this will have on destinations and host communities will be significant. The financial benefit will also be significant, as more and more consumers consider environmental factors in their decision making, and more companies weed out their B2B dealings predicated on environmental and carbon cost. Local destinations can become the go-to for family vacations, and the obvious choice for business retreats, conferences, and events.
So, how can you boost annual rates of travelers post-disaster?
In 2013, we partnered with the Belize Tourism Board to help the country differentiate itself from other vacation hotspots in and around the Caribbean as a distinct, unique destination. Our goal was to inspire and identify a new market of travelers seeking adventure, exploration, and an enriched cultural environment and landscape. After putting in place a brand strategy, PR plan, and social media campaign, Belize’s GDP increased by 3.3%. Thanks in part to our efforts, Belize was the fastest growing destination in the Caribbean.
For U.S. destinations in the Caribbean, there is an immediate opportunity to establish consumer desire for the local or shorter-haul vacation. This is not only in accordance with projections that individuals and families will prefer destinations closer to home in the near future; there’s also an increasing social and moral awareness of the benefits of “shopping local” and the merits of more ethical and conscious consumption. If U.S. destinations capitalize on the desire to consciously consume, an increase in traveler loyalty and repeat trips to local places are likely to occur.
Additionally, advancements in destination marketing technology can help tourism recover better than before. Virtual reality tours and aerial footage from drones allow consumers to choose their desired vacation from their home. Plus, the ever-increasing interconnectedness of our global community through social media can help promote the stories of individuals whose livelihoods are dependent on tourism. Because travel has been on hold for so long, using the power of influencing to highlight the safety of destinations will be paramount. Consumers will no longer simply rely on word of mouth and will be cautious as things begin to open up. Traveler confidence in a destination’s safety and security will bump it to the top of their tourism bucket list.
While in recovery mode, destinations should consider influencer and earned media as a way to re-establish themselves as safe places to travel. This will allow countries to demonstrate and showcase new health safety protocols, improved infrastructure, and all that their destination has to offer in a more authentic and believable way. By emphasizing the individuals, communities, and ecologies of travel locations, consumers will start to see destinations not as “places to visit” but rather as areas “willing to host.” This mindset allows tourists to see themselves as an integral part of the community and economy’s recovery, not as an outsider.
Invest in the customer experience
Reshaping how governments and public entities market their destinations for post-COVID travel is vital to the shorter-term recovery of travel and tourism, and the longer-term sustainability of the industry. With the right marketing and awareness campaigns, we can change how consumers think about travel, and their roles as tourists. By promoting the benefits of spending in local tourism communities along with the improved environmental and economic stability of such destinations, we can help travelers feel good about participating in recovery efforts while also taking a much-needed vacation.
Revitalizing confidence in public facilities, airlines, and local transportation services is equally important. This is another reason why infrastructure improvements that focus on safety and sustainability must occur simultaneously.
The travel and tourism sector has an opportunity to recover and sustainably grow by considering and investing in the development of the host as much as investing in the experience of the consumer. The wonderful thing about this model is that the two are not mutually exclusive—in fact, it is important, if not imperative, that destinations and travelers recover together.