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Going back to places but no going back: why the opening of regional tourism can give us a pre-taste of the next normal for tourism

The new models imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions and the fears of personal health in our working modes and lifestyles as well as on business operations, have slowed down every economic actor giving the opportunity to reflect on the impacts of our previous practices, rethink on their sustainability and viability, formulate, test, try and experience alternative operating models and reimagine new ways to move forward.

After of few months of lockdown and people being cooped at home due to COVID-19, states in Australian and worldwide are relaxing their travel and commerce restrictions to open up the economy for eliminating downturn and hardship on households and businesses. Measures differ in timing and type per state, but people will be allowed to travel again initially regionally, later inter-state and internationally in the long-term. But will people travel, and if they do, how will their travel behaviour differ in relation to pre-COVID-19? And are the tourism operators and destinations ready and willing to welcome tourists and satisfy their (new) expectations and needs?

The new models imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions and the fears of personal health in our working modes and lifestyles as well as on business operations, have slowed down every economic actor giving the opportunity to reflect on the impacts of our previous practices, rethink on their sustainability and viability, formulate, test, try and experience alternative operating models and reimagine new ways to move forward. Thus, a return back to the pre COVID-19 normal should not be taken for granted. Instead, a restart of the tourism industry (and of the whole economy) rather than a recovery to the previous normal is more likely to be expected. The root causes and the new realities imposed by the COVID-19 crisis have caused fundamental changes to the way we think, live, work and operate, which in turn are transforming the nature of tourism demand and supply alike. Some of these changes may be temporarily and seen only during a transition period, but some of them will be here to stay redefining the way we practice and experience tourism in the long term.

The post COVID-19 tourists: tourists redefined 
Tourism demand is highly heterogenous and so, the impacts and transformations caused by the COVID-19 are varied across different tourism market segments. Traveling for business (e.g. conference, exhibition, meetings, events, sales) is expected to experience the major and more long-term haircut. Businesses’ response to COVID-19 travel and working restrictions have accelerated their efforts to eliminate costs and time away from office. Online infrastructure for remote working, virtual meetings, conferences and team working have been built, tested, and heavily used, while businesses have been re-assessing what is essential and non-essential traveling. 

Although business travel is very unlikely to go back to the old normal in scale and scope, leisure travel is expected to boom immediately after the lift of COVID-19 restrictions (specifically within regions and in specific tourism forms), but in a slightly different format. With the COVID-19 still not being eradicated, the active measures of social distancing, public/social gatherings and people’s mobility tracing, will influence where, why and how people travel, what they do and how they experience their travel destinations.

People will prefer to take the wheel (e.g. cars, motor-homes, bikes, bicycles) than take the skies, even short after airlines will be allowed to start flying again. Flying costs and health risks would need to be addressed before we see travellers happily taking a plane again. People will travel in smaller groups, preferably with family and known friends that they trust. Flexible personal itineraries whereby travellers can customise the group size, the travel itinerary, activities and timings will dominate in expense of group packaged traveling that will suffer because of the need to keep social distancing and decide and change plans on last minute due to the dynamically changing situation and conditions (measures, employment status, health conditions and the risk of companies going bust). Equally, people will prefer to travel more often but in shorter periods with day trips to regions nearby large cities to have the highest preference. Stays in private second homes, small accommodation units, caravan parks, campsites, motor-homes and privately-owned vacation rentals will be preferred against stays at large crowded resorts and hotels. Travellers will seek leisure activities that are outdoors and eliminate their touch with others, as a result of feeding fed up being locked-in houses and their health fears. Theme parks, casinos, large museums, exhibitions, integrated resorts and spas will suffer in relation to parks, beaches and outback activities. As people had been isolating for long and missed many family events, visiting friends and family is a form of tourism that everyone had been waiting for. However, the tendency will be for people to travel from major cities out to the regions rather than the other way around, as major cities still suffer and cannot cope yet with large number of people. 

Overall, fears of personal health and trust on tourism businesses and destinations will heavily determine travellers’ intentions and behaviours. Some of these changes in tourism demand may not be bad and can hopefully stay to make travellers more responsible and sustainable consumers for their own and the destinations’ well-being. Irrespective if people travel more or less, hopefully they will travel better in terms of visiting destinations that make more meaning and impact to them and the communities or they visit, experience and ‘see’ the popular destinations from a refreshed approach. Ultimately, people’s understanding of luxury tourism may change from something too expensive and unaffordable, to something back to the basics and their capacities. Luxury is not only staying in expensive hotels, dining in up market restaurants and traveling in private jets and islands. Luxury tourism can and should be a safe and impactful trip to a destination next door that can provide uplifting and transformational experiences enabling people to see themselves and others in a much more meaningful way.

Resetting the tourism industry: the next normal
From a biological and health race aiming to save employees and customers lifes, the COVID-19 crisis has been changed into an economic race of tourism business and destinations to be the first to re-open and restart their economies with the aim to recoup revenues, jobs and economic downturn. However, gaining the first mover advantage may not always be the best strategy to restart a business and ensure competitiveness. As described above, travelers’ expectations, preferences and needs have changed. Tourism operators and destinations of different types, locations and sizes will be impacted at different degrees. However, even if some tourism operators and destinations may be advantaged due to their location, nature and size, are they ready to address the new operating reality and the changing customer behaviours and expectations?

Tourism companies and destinations will have to change what they offer and how they offer it to comply with social distancing, hygiene and people’s mobility tracing requirements. Tourism experiences and business operations will have to change, while staff will have to be retrained to the new procedures and update their social interaction skills and customers’ behaviour discipline before communicating and serving tourists and managing crowds. Driven by their fears, the new travellers will also expect to see such measures before trusting and selecting a tourism company and destination, and that is why such measures are currently used as a ‘marketing tool’ to attract travellers.

Tourism companies are re-designing experiences (e.g. winery experiences, museum visits, tours, sports events, in-room dining and entertainment instead of hotel facilities) to feature smaller groups of tourists, outdoor activities and/or private experiences complying with social distancing and gathering restrictions and travellers’ expectations. Tourism companies have already upgraded their cleaning procedures by adopting new standards and restraining staff. Many of companies promote their hygiene certifications accredited by health expert associations. Tourism professionals are being trained to become ‘contact tracers’ obtaining relevant certifications confirming their skills to identify cases, build rapport and community with cases, identify their contact and stop community transmission. Restaurants, hotels, airports, public spaces are re-engineering their operations to make them contact-free or contactless. Mobile apps (for check-in, check-out, room keys, mobile payments, bookings-purchases), self-service kiosks, in-room technologies for entertainment and destination e-shopping (e.g. virtual reality for destination virtual visits to museums, attractions and destinations, movies), robots (for reception and concierge services, food delivery museum guides), artificial intelligence enabled websites and chatbox for customer communication and services, digital payments (e.g. digital wallets, paypal, credit cards). Travellers have been experiencing, tried, use and got accustomed to such technologies for long time during the COVID-19 lockdown. The current customers’ familiarity, easy of use and perceived value of such technologies is expected not only to continue but also to be expected as standard and as a must by tourism operators. In their efforts to cut costs and have an additional revenue channel, tourism companies are also expected to continue providing such digital contactless services and virtual experiences as a complementary distribution channel and experiences to their customers.

In addition, the new operating environment enforced by COVID-19 measures require firms to adopt new technologies and applications to ensure management of crowds and number of people gathered in public spaces (e.g. airports, shopping malls, museums, restaurants, hotels), human disinfectors and hand sanitiser equipment, applications identifying and managing people’s health identity and profiles. Equally, destinations are talking about health passports and certificate to allow people travel and work in destinations. Tourism organisations support and promote such technology standards to establish a new normal in the tourism industry. Such applications challenge privacy and ethical issues, but their adoption seems to be ‘socially’ acceptable and accelerated due to the health concerns.

The COVID-19 has accelerated technology adoption by tourism demand and supply, as well as boosted innovation and creativity in the tourism industry. However, reality has shown that those that managed to quickly virtualise their business to ensure business continuity during the COVID-19, where those companies that were digital ready. COVID-19 has deepened the digital and so, the economic gap between those that have and use technologies, and this is expected to continue and even enhanced in the post COVID-era. Technology adoption is not an option or a luxury anymore but a survival necessity.

Tourism operators and destinations will need to find ways to benefit from COVID-19 emerging advantages but also convert risks into a business opportunity.

Several operators have not managed to maintain cash flow liquidity during the COVID-19 crisis and they have shut down. Can the surviving tourism operators absorb the increasing operating costs of the new ‘operating’ standards? Are tourism destinations equipped with “contact tracers”, technology applications to measure and manage people’s gathering and flows in destinations,  and new measures to make and promote their destination COVID-19 free and safe?

Overall, there is a demand pull and a supply push for such changes within the tourism industry and the COVID-19 is both an accelerator and a generator of such changes. Whether adoption and/or adaptation of such measures by companies and destinations can ensure survival in the industry is still a question in a constant changing world. Time will show who the winner and looser is.

Professor - University of South Australia

Dr. Mariana Sigala is Professor in Tourism and Director of the Centre of Tourism & Leisure Management (CTLM) at the University of South Australia Business School.

Professor Sigala has a PhD from the University of Surrey as well as a Certificate of Advanced Academic Studies from the University of Strathclyde and an MSc in Tourism Management from the University of Surrey.

Professor Sigala is a widely published authority in the area of Service Operations Management and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) applications in Tourism and Hospitality. She also has an interest in e-learning models and pedagogies, having published several research studies in these areas. Professor Sigala’s research is multi-award winning featuring several best paper awards in international conferences and academic journals, such as papers published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management and the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

Professor Sigala is the current Chair of the ICHRIE Johnson and Wales Case Study Competition and Publication Series. She is also currently the co-editor of the international journal Journal of Service Theory and Practice, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Management and the editor of the International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Cases.

Professor Sigala has also served on the Board of Directors of the International Federation of Information Technology, Tourism and Travel (IFITT) (as Membership Director); the International Council on Hospitality, Restaurant and Institutional Education (I-CHRIE) (as Research Director, 2008 - 2010); the Hellenic Association of Information Systems (HeAIS) (as Publicity Director); and the Executive Board of the European Council on Hospitality, Restaurant and Institutional Education (EuroCHRIE) (as President, 2004 - 2005).

Professor Sigala joined the UniSA Business School in 2015 and brings more than 13 years of international academic and teaching experience to the UniSA Business School and the School of Management.