Despite the Harm It’s Caused, the Coronavirus Disaster Presents a Silver Lining for Tourism

In the past, war or terrorism just diverted tourism elsewhere. But in the coronavirus lockdown everyone, rich or poor, is confined to their homes – a good opportunity to reevaluate the industry

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A woman with protective mask walks by the Esplanade du Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, during the coronavirus lockdown on the city.
A woman with protective mask walks by the Esplanade du Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, during the coronavirus lockdown on the city.Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

In one of Aesop’s fables, an old man is carrying a heavy load. Out of desperation he asks that someone, anyone, take the burden off his shoulders. In answer to his call, the Angel of Death appears at his side a moment later and offers his help. The moral is simple: Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

One can’t help but be reminded of this tale when witnessing the giant, totally unbelievable somersault performed by the world’s most popular tourism destinations during the past few weeks. It’s hard to believe that just two months ago, dozens of popular European locales were complaining that the deluge of visitors was killing them. Rents were soaring, huge numbers of flights were polluting city skylines and tourism was beginning to morph into a serious problem. There was a feeling among the locals that tourists were suffocating them and disrupting their lives.

Now – and in a way no one could have imagined – their wish has been granted in full. Indeed, it happened and continues to happen big-time, and at a staggering pace. Yet even so, there are voices emerging that are saying: The coronavirus epidemic is a disaster, but it perhaps something good will come of it.

No one is going to Venice, Barcelona, Madrid, Milan or Amsterdam these days. Actually, practically no one is going anywhere, except maybe back to quarantine in their home countries. The tourism engines all over the world have shut down. The places that were complaining about too many tourists are now choking from their absence. People’s livelihoods are gone. The joie de vivre has disappeared. Economic models have evaporated. Graphs have plunged at angles that remind one of someone jumping off the Eiffel Tower.

A man rides his scooter past the empty Spanish Steps, in Rome, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Andrew Medichini,AP

Meanwhile, no one has the slightest notion what will happen in the short or long term, and when it will all end – that is, when those tourists who local folks wanted to get rid of 50 days ago will return.

The most prominent difference between this tourism crisis and other travel slowdowns in the past is its global nature. The world has experienced diplomatic crises, mass terror attacks and wars, but those events merely diverted tourists elsewhere. If a war broke out in one place, travelers would rebook their tickets and head for a different destination. Not this time. This plague has hit everyone and everywhere.

The concern now is that if certain locales have barely been hit with coronavirus cases, the tide is likely to change in a few days. During past global economic crises there were still people who had money to travel and didn’t hesitate to do so. This time, rich and poor are all being confined to their homes.

Another difference between this and other crises is that in the past, when foreigners would disappear – as has happened in Israel plenty of times – the country’s tourism industry could rely to some degree on domestic clients. Marketing slogans like “Especially now, vacation in Israel” did the trick. At least some Israelis would opt to vacation locally. But it’s hard to see that happening anytime in the near future.

A security guard patrols with his dog near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, March 21, 2020.Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

Today people’s tendencies and the authorities’ demands are the same: to stay home until it’s all over. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how long that will take.

Meanwhile, the mounting numbers of shuttered hotels and tourist attractions is extremely depressing, and conversations with proprietors and employees bring tears to one’s eyes.

Crystal-clear canals

Exactly a year ago the management of the Cinque Terre National Park in northern Italy issued a new rule: Tourists wearing flip-flops, sandals or other shoes unsuited for hiking would be fined and possibly barred. Park inspectors enforced the new directive swiftly and effectively. It was the last in a series of restrictions imposed with the goal of helping authorities cope with an overabundance of tourists, many with improper footwear and thus liable to get stranded and require rescue.

More than 2.5 million people were walking the trails of Cinque Terre each year, around a million more than the park’s official capacity. The authorities begged for help. The trails between the five colorful seaside fishing villages, not far from the city of La Spezia, were simply too congested, and visitors could barely move on them. Week after week the Italian press would lament the damage to nature, to the environment and to the local heritage.

Until two months ago the situation there still looked hopeless. No one anticipated that the continuous trampling of nature along the lovely coastline would stop in the foreseeable future. But then it happened, virtually instantly.

Seaweed in clear waters in Venice, Italy, March 18, 2020.Credit: Andrea Pattaro/AFP

The coronavirus, which has hit Italy harder than any other European country so far, has chased the tourists away here as well. The trails surrounding Cinque Terre are emptier now than they have been for the past 50 years. Some point out that this is good for nature, that this is a necessary correction, that there will be a positive outcome of all this.

It’s too soon to see the upside of the visitors’ abrupt disappearance. The images coming out of Italy are extremely serious. The numbers of people who have fallen ill or died because of the pandemic is frightening – and yet, could the total absence (hopefully temporary) of tourists on the trails of Cinque Terre be beneficial to an area that had been trampled by flip-flops?

An initial indication of the possible lighter side of the disaster befalling Italy in general, in terms of tourism, came in an article last week on a news website called Wanted in Milan. Its report described in flowery, poetic terms the incredible improvement in the cleanliness of the water in Venice’s canals: The cessation of activities and crowds in the city has made them crystal clear. After decades, or perhaps even hundreds of years, one can see the seabed and it turns out that some lovely fish live there. The vaporetti, the water buses that serve tourists, had simply been obscuring them.

Coronavirus as opportunity

Some 83 million tourists visited Spain last year; tourism in 2019 was the third largest branch of the country’s economy and responsible for 11 percent of its gross domestic product. Even before the recent reports about the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Spain, the Spanish Hotel Association was reporting a 40 percent drop in bookings for the coming months. The areas most affected were Catalonia (Barcelona), Valencia, the Balearic Islands (Palma de Majorca) and the Canary Islands (Tenerife).

A view of Las Ramblas before an outbreak of the coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain, March 12, 2020.Credit: Albert Gea/Reuters
Las Ramblas during an outbreak of the coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain, March 18, 2020.Credit: Albert Gea/Reuters

The clearest drop was in tourists from China, Japan and South Korea. This fact is particularly difficult for the Catalans because these three countries are responsible for more than a third of their income from tourism. But there, too, some are saying that this is an opportunity to deal with the serious problems these masses of tourists bring. It’s hard to do anything about them right now, but one assumes such demands will be made when the number of virus cases is brought under control.

The first thing Barcelona residents will want to tackle is the city’s rising rents. The argument is that the conversion of more and more apartments into short-term rentals through agencies like Airbnb is leading to an unceasing increase in rents. Young people are finding it increasingly difficult to afford the skyrocketing prices.

Another problem is that local stores are being pushed out of the downtown area to make room for souvenir shops and bars aimed at tourists. An yet another is that the employment provided by the tourism industry is seasonal and irregular. This is a particularly serious problem in Spain, where the unemployment rate among young people has reached 40 percent.

Similar problems have emerged in Tel Aviv in recent years. Rents have shot up because some 10,000 apartments have been taken out of the long-term rental market and are being rented to tourists via Airbnb. Now, with these apartments sitting empty for lack of takers, one can assume that at least some of them will revert to long-term rentals. Perhaps the rents in Tel Aviv and other central cities will take a downward turn.

A conceptual change

Dr. Eran KetterCredit: Eyal Toueg

Dr. Eran Ketter, a tourism adviser and senior lecturer in the Tourism and Hotel Management Department at Kinneret Academic College believes that in the short term, one could definitely point to some positive trends. “With regard to anything related to sustainability, there’s a good side to all this,” he said. “If one were to be blunt, one could say we’ve been relieved of over-tourism, reduced the emission of greenhouse gases from airplanes and cars, and have reduced the excessive pressure on nature reserves.”

But according to Ketter, that’s less interesting than the conceptual change likely to emerge as a revolution in the tourism industry.

“It’s possible that in the end of this process, the world will absorb that we live in a pressured and vulnerable system,” he said. “We’ve all been living with the feeling that no crisis could really threaten us. Now we are processing that a powerful crisis could be just around the corner. We will also come to understand that in the future we will not know how to resolve everything and accept everything. It’s the realization that we will have to adopt a bit of humility, to internalize that our systems are more vulnerable than we thought. We may also have to start realizing that those people we think of as eccentric environmentalists are not. They may be right.”

Ketter also pointed out that the world is probably moving toward a global recession. “We’ve seen in the past that a recession is the strongest balancer of the tourism industry. A recession has a big influence on tourism, greater than wars or terror attacks. One can assume that the number of visitors to tourist attractions will drop.”

The empty square of the Louvre Pyramid amid a strict lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Paris, France, March 17, 2020.Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

As an example of the system’s imbalance, Ketter cited Africa. According to statistics from the UN World Tourism Organization, in 2018, 83 million people visited Spain alone, while the entire continent of Africa south of the Sahara Desert received only 68 million tourists. Ketter added that during this crisis, the stronger nations will have to tools to support airlines and tourists, while other places will suffer greatly.

Ketter added, however, that he was optimistic: “I don’t know the time frame, but the world will return to 1.4 billion tourists a year and it will happen relatively quickly. There will be a pushback against the current lockdown. People will want to travel.”