The pandemic has placed our society in a situation that we would have hardly imagined a few months ago. The effect has been felt intensely in all areas of health, society and the economy.
The tourism sector has not been exempted from these effects, in fact, it suffers more intensely than other economic areas because for some months it has been in complete paralysis which has given way more recently to a partial, weak and intermittent restart of trade. The new context has especially surprised public and private actors, on the one hand because of the positive dynamics that the industry has historically had, and on the other hand, because of its capacity of resistance even in contexts of crisis. It is worth remembering that since 1950, tourism worldwide has seen how the indicators of income and arrivals from international tourism have grown continuously with only three slight inflections in 1982, 2003 and 2009. These last two years were due to the effect of the SARS and Influenza A pandemics.
Challenges to be faced
Until March of this year, we had two solid tools to guide the management of tourism in our country: the strategic plan and the tourism marketing plan of Catalonia. These two instruments had been configured to respond to the challenges that our industry was facing, both nationally and globally. We identified challenges such as security, growth, increasing competition, sociodemographic changes, innovation and technology, sustainability, knowledge, the role of the public sector and governance. The indicators for monitoring showed us that the strategy was achieving its goals.
The extent of the pandemic changes the scenario. The sector is facing an uncertain environment in which management becomes particularly difficult since it is not only a question of facing difficulties but precisely of managing uncertainty. This scenario calls for a review of the challenges, most of which will have an even greater dimension and demand to be interpreted with new nuances, given that some activities will see a decline whereas other new ones will start to play a key role.
Adapting to the new scenario
Until now we have seen that the analysis made in professional, technical and academic circles did not entirely coincide. We have seen approaches that draw future paradigms which are diametrically opposed to the current ones, with a sector being transformed in an absolute way by the new patterns of demand. In the same way, other hypotheses propose continuous scenarios in which the pandemic is under control, with containment during the immediately subsequent phases, but returning to already established patterns of activity. In both approaches, the most important element to be taken into account is the economic impact.
Probably there will be a greater emphasis on safety, an aspect that often was not at the forefront of thinking when tourist destinations were created. It is possible to foresee a containment of the industry in coming years, while the search for an effective treatment for the disease is conducted, but it is also true that other phenomena (SARS, influenza A, MERS) had a limited impact in time. The containment of demand will accentuate competition and may put downward pressure on prices for a period of time. The demand will initially react by seeking a guarantee of security, demanding flexible proposals, less dense and more open spaces, reducing the duration of stays, limiting mobility, demanding reward mechanisms and with greater sensitivity also for the price. Innovation will have to be more present throughout the value chain of products and services both in the visible and the perceived. Digitalization will increase and technological solutions will have to respond to new scenarios. We must also be aware that not all the information necessary for decision-making will be available, nor will it arrive through the usual sources. That is the reason why knowledge will be even more valuable. In relation to governance, we will see how the role of the public sector must be strengthened in order to accompany and try to mitigate the effects generated, favoring participation even more and creating spaces to promote greater levels of cooperation among stakeholders.
Finally, special mention must be made of sustainability. Unfortunately, this is probably a concept that has become banal because overuse of the term. COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to retrieve its meaning and apply it clearly in the definition of future policies. We must therefore pursue social sustainability, adjusting the balance between the needs of tourists and residents. We must also pursue cultural sustainability, with a tourism that helps to energize our own culture. Likewise, environmental sustainability must be pursued, minimizing the effects of the sector with an industry that can contribute to making the preservation of natural spaces economically sustainable. Economic sustainability must be pursued with tourism that, thanks to its cross-cutting and unifying effect, energizes trade, the agri-food sector and the cultural industries.
The road ahead will be difficult for the sector but it is worthwhile to take advantage of current experience to better readjust the strategy.