Review of Covid-19 and the Tourism Industry, by Ian McKay

Ian McKay reviews Covid-19 and the Tourism Industry, edited by Anukrati Sharma, Azizul Hassan and Priyakushna Mohanty.

Anukrati Sharma, Azizul Hassan and Priyakushna Mohanty, eds., COVID-19 and the Tourism Industry: Sustainability, Resilience and New Directions (London and New York: Routledge, 2022). $205.54 hardcover, $62.78 kindle.

Why travel? For millions of refugees and migrant workers, the primary motivation is survival. One does not risk one’s life crossing the Mediterranean in search of scenery nor labour long hours in California’s pistachio orchards to sharpen one’s understanding of horticulture.  

But, for those whose very survival does not hinge on travel, mobility offers rewards other than living another day. The traffic jams of climbers endeavouring to reach the summit of Everest, drawing upon the labour of countless exploited Gurkhas, are primarily caused by privileged Westerners seeking a moment of the Sublime – which, on one reading at least, is the sensation we feel when our experiences go beyond conventional understandings, when we are shaken from our torpor by the sight of starry heavens, unfathomable seas, or majestic mountains. It is that quasi-religious sense of hovering on the brink of the unknowable and the infinite.

Others pursue the Picturesque. They want, not soul-stirring vistas, but quaint fisherfolk, endearingly naïve peasants, colourful religious festivals, rustic cottages and summer camps. Many are in quest of history, but of a most comforting sort – that which affords an experience of time-travel back to a better and simpler time when rich and poor alike were bound together by tight bonds of common belonging. They pursue happy primitives, people who are as “beautiful as their land,” content to live their lives at a distance from the tumultuous modern world. Tahiti beckons. Or Tanzania. Or anywhere, really, offering experiences far removed from the confusions of modern life.

Many, more simply,  just yearn for an Escape. They want some time off – from their harshly alienating jobs, their cold northern cities, their grimly predictable lives. Vast numbers of North Americans and Europeans colonize the Caribbean every winter, in search of sea, sun, and sex. They too are seeking change in their lives, as they sip Margaritas by the pool in the Dominican Republic, watching ‘authentic’ folk dancers and prospecting for playmates.

It would also be wise to remember a fourth motivation: Status. One travels in order to accumulate cultural capital and present oneself to the world as a person of substance. There are points to be scored for having found an intriguing new exotic destination – and perhaps even more points for wearily pronouncing old favourites now hopelessly passé (in large part because they have been ruined by other tourists). In possessive individualist societies that measure a person’s value with reference to their claims to property, including cultural attainments,  one way of establishing a persuasive claim to respect is by traveling to distant places or flaunting one’s capacity to do so. Clubs cater to those who can reliably claim to have visited 100+ countries, and few middle-class dinner parties are complete without at least some mention of the exotic places attendees have visited or plan to explore. Oligarchs and yachts, tycoons and private jets, Elon Musk and missions to Mars: all are couplings as predictable as wine and cheese.  Nothing says you’ve ‘made it’ more than displaying one’s conspicuous capacity to move at will to exotic and expensive destinations.

Which leaves us with a fifth reason to travel: Empathetic Curiosity. It is easy to forget that many people travel for less selfish reasons. They hope to understand, and sometimes even improve, the world. They make friends, learn different languages,  consume intriguing foods, have authentic spiritual experiences, appreciate new landscapes. Writing in the 1930s, Antonio Gramsci envisaged developing (on the basis of the “touring club” popular in Italy) a transnational network connecting sports organizations, geographical societies, and many other groups of excursionists, all devoted to the acquisition of genuine knowledge of the world around them.[1] Some of this earnest idealism, albeit given a market-oriented neoliberal spin, echoes in Article 7 of the declaration of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in favour of the “universal right of discovering and harnessing the planet’s resources by direct and personal access through tourism.” Abrogation of this “right” will be taken as a sign of tyranny more egregious than masking and vaccine mandates.  

Covid-19, a disease brought to much of humanity courtesy of mass tourism,  shut down much of the industry. Its conspicuous environmental and humanitarian enormities, nowhere more graphically revealed than in the cruise ship business, made tourism one of the most prominent focal points of pandemic coverage. Such problems were so glaring that in 2020-2, many observers – such as the contributors to this useful and illuminating collection edited by renowned tourism scholar Anukrati Sharma and addressing questions specific to the Global South as well as more general international issues  – hope that world tourism will adopt a very different, more humanistic and less money-driven post-pandemic paradigm. Tourism education, the governance of the industry, and its vexing ethical issues – all are analyzed, and a common note is sounded: the existing structure must be reformed. After this obligatory pandemic-induced “pause,” many authors urge, we must remember its lessons: mass tourism never did deliver the masses from poverty and precarity, and if its future record is to be any different, it must change fundamentally.

As Adejumoke Abiose and Hosea Patrick point out, a crisis in a sphere accounting for an annual $8.9 trillion (USD) of global GDP (roughly 10%), with 120 million jobs directly on the line, risks plunging millions into poverty. Thirteen million Europeans are employed in the tourism industry. For some small island and sub-Saharan African states, as much as 30% of their economies may be directly reliant on it. In South Africa, the continent’s largest tourism economy, Zanete Garanti, John Violaris, Galina Berjozkina and Iordanis Katemliadis estimate a 90% drop in total tourism in 2020. 

The tourism ‘value chain’ is made up of innumerable human parts, ranging from the multibillion dollar cruise ship industry to the ‘small tourism enterprises’ of northern Pakistan, memorably brought to our attention in a fascinating chapter by Kalsoom B. Sumra and Mehtab Alam. They reveal how small traders – guides, proprietors of small huts, street venders – have been reduced to conditions they can only term “appalling.” The 2020s will echo and re-echo to the cries of those who, having lost their livelihoods and investments, will now be obliged to fight just to survive.  

Darling of neoliberal policymakers worldwide, the tourism megamachine has grown exponentially over the past four decades. In 2020, it was both a remarkably efficient device for the spreading of pathogens and a failing mechanism for those individuals and entire countries that had grown dependent upon it. For a short time in 2020, according to the UNWTO, 100% of countries imposed some form of travel restriction, with some curtailing the flow of tourists altogether.

On the plus side, as Yue Wang and  Laura Ell write, the pandemic has strengthened the case of those who want to rethink tourism. Many imagine a greener future for the industry, which is one of the world’s top polluters, with a new emphasis on Indigenous, adventure, health-oriented and ecologically responsible forms of it. They often envisage a sphere in which earnings are retained by local populations, rather than leaking out to distant corporate headquarters. Some, like Maria José Magalhães and  Susana Marques in this collection, even ponder the “de-marketing” of destinations afflicted with too many tourists, or with Zanete Garanti, John Violaris, Galina Berjozkina and Iordanis Katemliadis, imagine a “rebranded” sector premised on sustainability, with leaders of “destination management organizations”  changing the branding of their products (often entire communities, cities, and countries), making them “greener, more sustainable and more authentic.”

Anila Thomas hopes to see the advent of “Responsible Tourism,” contributing to a higher quality of life for communities and likely encouraging far more domestic rather than transnational travel. Priyakrushna Mohanty, Pinaz Tiwari and Nimit Chowdhary envisage a turning away from mega-events as short-term cash generators, given such events’ reputation for disrupting the quality of residents’ lives while often providing “very little return to the local community.” (They are also, we now know, brilliant disease spreaders). Dália Liberato, Beatriz Limbado, Bruno Sousa, and Pedro Liberato dream of a “different tourist,” a person who “wants to get to know his country better, who looks for authenticity and genuineness of the places, who gives more importance to hiking, cycling, and nature.” In Harold Goodwin’s terms, overburdened destinations have had a “holiday from tourism,” one that prompts the hope that the sector can, as the saying goes, “build back better.” He cites polling data from consultants that suggest large majorities of respondents would be responsive to this project.  

This is this collection’s core theme. Covid-19 has revealed just how unequal, irrational and dangerous a global tourism megamachine, premised on near-limitless human mobility for the select few,  can be. It has also given those with a stake in the industry a chance to redesign it to function more humanely and responsibly. New directions are needed.

Such a change of consciousness – from blithely consuming the world to consciously caring for it – can only seem overdue to those aware of the increasingly tragic consequences of tourism’s present hyper-capitalist structure. Yet, in the field of tourism studies, such critics must wage a “war” (to use a word used by one contributor) against the more numerous organic intellectuals of the world tourism system, for whom the purpose of the study of tourism is to prepare individuals, societies and the world to internalize and develop its sovereign market logic. As Johan R. Edelheim explains in a seminal chapter, for many in the academy (which itself has been transformed into a commodity-producing business),  the point of the discipline of tourism studies is to provide vocational training to a competent workforce. In any struggle between such garage mechanics of the tourism order and their humanistic critics  (i.e.,  those interested not in sustaining an industry but in grasping and transforming a phenomenon),  only an incautious person would  bet heavily on the latter.

Can the paradigm change that so many of the admirable authors in this collection earnestly desire, really come about?  Who will achieve it? Around the world, millions of people and thousands of the managers of the  ‘destinations’ in which they live wait impatiently for the return of the golden hordes, bothersome as their philistine intrusions had once seemed. The Sublime and the Picturesque, such tourism-boosters hope, can once more lure the millions back, with the hope of deliverance from the drab realities of their all-too-modern lives. Lockdown’s confinements spawn post-pandemic dreams of great escapes to sunlit paradises. For those in quest of status, the cruise lines are reissuing their brochures advertising yet more extraordinary cities-at-sea with even more jaw-dropping amenities, brought to you by some of the most cruelly exploited workers on the planet.  That such pleasures come at the cost of the incalculable pain and precarity of toilers and small traders who make them possible is, for those who have fully internalized the industry’s neoliberal axioms,  strictly secondary to the sovereign rule of the market and its more-is-better mantra:  “accumulate, accumulate, accumulate.”  

Every Everest climber in pursuit of sublimity, Tahiti-bound tourist in pursuit of picturesque peasants, southbound Northerner yearning for a poolside Pina Colada, or status-conscious consumer determined to enhance their cultural capital by vacationing with the rich and famous in St. Barts or Sardinia – and all such tourists in their many millions – are in search of something:  meaning, beauty, fun, prestige. In most cases, the megamachine comes through for them, with curated landscapes, seemingly contented villagers, fleeting moments of escape, check-marks on bucket-lists.

Yet, such commodities can only do so much. Seeking antidotes to the contradictions of capitalist modernity, tourists find themselves enmeshed in them. They are buying commodities many vainly hope will deliver them from a world in which they themselves are only commodities. (In the tourism business, one tourist is pretty much the same as another, always provided an equal capacity to shoulder their obligations to Visa and Mastercard). They are pursuing cures for alienation guaranteed to deliver yet more alienation.

Of course, they are hardly ‘victims’ comparable to the legions of the  starving subalterns who once made their illusions possible. Such subalterns, for their part, are understandably anxious that their jobs, or at least some shrunken semblance of them, come back.  For them, the “quick recovery” which of these authors warn against, because it threatens to displace any rethinking of the system, has become something of a matter of life and death. There will be mass support for an almost total abandonment of state controls over tourist flows, a veritable ‘race to the bottom’ as destinations compete with each other for the tourist dollar – until the inevitable next pandemic, unleashed upon the world by unregulated and profit-driven interconnectivity, reveals once more how ramshackle and illogical and inhumane this global system truly is.

Until its logic is transformed, by grounded and powerful agents with an alternative to fight for – some of whom figure among the thoughtful authors in this valuable collection – these contradictions are likely to persist, with ever-more-lamentable consequences. Many predictions point to a decade of expansion for global tourism – environmental, economic and cultural consequences be damned. This tourist megamachine may come to be seen, alongside global climate change, nuclear weaponry, and ever-mounting levels of inequality, to be one of the most worrying harbingers of our collective and imminent ruination.  

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Trans. and ed. Derek Boothman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995; Q8§188.