The Future is Unwritten: Mass Tourism in a Post-Pandemic World, by Edward MacDonald

“020 – COVID-19 HAL Cruise – Chile – Punta Arenas – Stella & Ventus Australis Cruise Ships,” by Ted McGrath (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In 2019 the word on the lips of most thoughtful observers of travel trends was “overtourism.” Growing annually by leaps and bounds, global tourism had become a juggernaut, crushing the world beneath its wheels.[1] Long-recognized trends were now too visible to ignore. The most popular sites were literally being overrun and physically degraded. Neighbourhoods were being compromised, the locals displaced by visitors. Instead of destinations manipulating tourism, the opposite was coming true: capital, which knows no country, was busy commodifying experience and culture in the places where it was invested. “Authenticity” itself had become a brand, a glib, selective packaging of the actual. The “devil’s bargain,” as Hal Rothman once termed local community’s embrace of tourism,[2] had been fulfilled with a vengeance in many popular destinations. Even champions of tourism’s revenue-generating capacity were daily confronted with looming questions of sustainability: physical, infrastructural, environmental, sociocultural, perceptual.[3] Literally as well as metaphysically, many tourist destinations were nearing their carrying capacity.

Then came COVID-19, and it turned out that the colossus was made of glass. Within weeks, the pandemic had shattered tourism into shards. More than any other industry, global tourism, a business built around travel and social intercourse, has suffered from the continuing pandemic’s lockdowns, travel embargos, and general climate of uncertainty. It is a stark reminder, if we needed one, that the tourism industry relies on fundamental prerequisites and presumptions. It requires masses of people with the means, the motive, and the leisure to travel. But it also depends on factors over which would-be tourists and their notional destinations have little control: economic prosperity; secure, reliable, affordable transportation; peace and political stability; an acceptable level of risk to travelers’ health and well-being. In other words, an assurance of safety. And since 2020, the world has become far less safe. If travel can be said to balance desire against trepidation, then fear has clearly trumped desire, sapping the ability to travel, but also, the inclination.

“Confederation Bridge & a New Journey,” by Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0).

On tiny Prince Edward Island, the Canadian province most dependent on the travel industry, 2019 was the latest in a string of banner tourism years. Just over 1.6 million visitors, ten times the population of the province, had descended on the “Garden of the Gulf” to consume its pastoral landscape, warm(ish) seawater, and assorted attractions, among them the literary setting for Anne of Green Gables and the historical setting for Canadian Confederation.[4]

And 2020 promised to be even better. Most prominent among mass tourism markers, over ninety cruise ships were slated to dock in Charlottetown (many of them during the chronically under-developed shoulder season), potentially disgorging two hundred thousand of that most ephemeral of tourists, the day-tripper.[5] Already the Island’s biggest employer, tourism seemed poised at last to overtake agriculture as the province’s most valuable industry, an event of enormous symbolic significance.

Six months later, Island tourism was on life support, dependent for its very survival on government bailouts and a precarious “Atlantic Bubble” that for a time allowed tourist travel within the region.[6] Tourism statistics for 2020 made for grim reading. Visitor numbers plummeted by two-thirds. Instead of ninety-three cruise ships, there were none (and none in 2021). Bus tours fared almost as disastrously: down 98.5%. Traffic on the Confederation Bridge, the main gateway into the province, fell by 42%, ferry traffic by 61%, air travel by 81%.[7] Visitor numbers at Green Gables, the province’s most popular tourist site, plummeted by 93%.[8]

Two years later tourism promoters are busy . . . promoting. Official projections have floated visitor numbers of 1.2 million for the upcoming season, a far cry from 2019 levels but nearly double the figure for 2021.[9] Already, amid the chorus of optimism, tourism operators are singing a familiar refrain, this time with a pandemic twist: a shortage of workers to perform the seasonally limited, modestly paid, largely menial tasks associated with a service industry that tasks employees with feeding, accommodating, entertaining, and (occasionally) educating visitors.[10]

Will tourism recover? Probably. Gazelles eventually return to the waterhole even though predators still lurk there. And the travel imperative in this age of mass tourism has repeatedly re-asserted itself after major disruptions. Tourism may even reach the 1.8 billion international visitors by 2030 that the UN’s World Tourism Organization projected back in 2016.[11] Will it “build back better”? Perhaps. But, faced with the pandemic’s stubborn persistence, a hot war in eastern Europe, economic uncertainty, and inflated gas prices, planners and promoters will likely settle for a return to “normalcy,” rather than contemplating fundamental changes to the way the industry has operated. The intangible costs of tourism will matter less in the short term than the all-too-tangible cost of no tourism. Inevitably, local economies will still court tourists – and outside capital — in the quest for economic prosperity. Destination life cycles spanning discovery, development, stagnation, and rejuvenation will continue to play out around the globe. Tourism will continue to bend cultures and societies to its will to cater to the relentless reductionism of commodification.

Within specific sectors, certainly, different futures may unfold in post-pandemic times. For example, the cruise ship industry, the fastest growing mode of tourism in 2019, may not fully recover, its seemingly unstoppable momentum braked by rising energy costs, ecological issues, and its tarnished image as pandemic petri-dish. Travellers, too, may parse potential destinations – as they do now — according to the level of health risk involved in getting, and staying, there. 

“Diamond Princess,” by Sid Mosdell (CC BY 2.0).

In tourism terms, then, the last three, lost years may yet go down as interruption rather than rupture. Even so, the shocking collapse of mass tourism in 2020 testifies that nothing is inevitable when it comes to the travel industry. A history of having mass tourism does not guarantee its continuance. Everything in tourism is contingent – and often contingent on the vagaries of uncontrollable events and trends. That, in turn, prompts another sober realization. Whether one regards tourism as blessing or curse, opportunity or trap, alien or organic, once coaxed into existence in a specific destination, it cannot easily be excised or operated on. By its nature it becomes interwoven into the fabric of the host society and its culture.

The future of Island tourism, like the future of global tourism, is built around a series of paradoxes. It presents as a “thing,” but is in practice a set of transactions within a web of relationships. It is always local, yet its fundamental premise is trans-border. It works best when it can market the actual, but the very processes of tourism render the actual artificial. Tourism is powerful, yet, as the coronavirus has shown, strangely fragile. It is at the same time bully and victim. Within certain limits it is tractable; it can be studied and steered and understood. Yet, its cycles and tendencies cannot really be predicted or controlled. Now that the pandemic has stripped away the industry’s veneer of insouciance, those paradoxes are more exposed than ever. And consciously living within a contradiction is inherently stressful. Tourism’s future is as yet unknown – but one certainty would seem to be that it will be assuredly more marked by uncertainty.

[1] See, for example, “How Tourists Are Destroying the Places They Love.” Spiegel Online, Link to source, accessed 17 May 2022; Rene Chun, “The Dutch War on Tourism,” The Atlantic, September 2019 Issue, Link to source, accessed 17 May 2022; Wendy Rose, “Is tourism a trap for Atlantic Canadians?” Guardian, 11 June 2019, Link to source, accessed 17 May 2022.

[2][2] Hal Rothman, Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998).

[3] These dimensions of carrying capacity are usefully outlined in Geoff Shirt, “Carrying Capacity,” in Tourism: The Key Concepts, ed. Peter Robinson (London and New York: Routledge, 2012): 22—26.

[4] Stu Neatby, “PEI Projects 1.2 Visitors in 2022,” Charlottetown Guardian, 7 April 2022, accessed 17 May 2022, Link to source.

[5] “Coronavirus Bad News for Cruises,” Charlottetown Guardian, 14 February 2020, A8.

[6] See, for example, Stu Neatby, “Atlantic bubble coming July 3,” Charlottetown Guardian, 25 June 2020, A1—2.

[7] “Tourism Indicators,” Department of Economic Growth, Tourism, and Culture, 30 November 2020, Link to source; and Prince Edward Island 47th Annual Statistical Review, 2020, 18-19.

[8] Dave Stewart, “The Magic Is Back,” Charlottetown Guardian, 28 August 2021, A1-2.

[9] Stu Neatby, “PEI Projects 1.2 Visitors in 2022.”

[10] Kevin Yarr, “Temporary Foreign Workers for Tourism Likely Won’t Help This Year,” CBC News, PEI, posted 8 April 2022; accessed 17 May 2022, Link to source.

[11] As cited in “How Tourists Are Destroying the Places They Love.”