Tourism has virtually stopped thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns. This is hitting many cities hard – see this report about New York galleries and museums losing millions of dollars, for example. Many tourist businesses are now contemplating a future without lucrative international visitors, having to rely instead on those closer to home.
In Scotland, where I am based, the chief executive of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions believes that 80% of the country’s attractions may not survive the next 12 months. He thinks many will not be viable if you combine a massive drop in international numbers with the current rules about two-metre social distancing and other health and safety requirements.
Obviously, such damage would spread far beyond the tourist attractions. It threatens thousands of jobs and business closures in everything from hotels to ice cream vans, particularly since the pandemic has reduced the summer season, which generates a large portion of annual income for many companies.
Tourism businesses in Scotland now have a timeframe for reopening from the government – July 15, subject to infection rates. But industry leaders tell me that as things stand on social distancing, and given the lack of guidance on safe business practices for staff and visitors, many attractions may not open until much later in the year. Even when attractions do open, they are likely to be running at a loss.
To the extent that businesses can open, there is clearly an opportunity to attract more domestic visitors. As many as 63% of Scots intend to avoid travelling to Europe this summer and 75% will avoid long-haul, while growing numbers are talking about visiting Scottish attractions in the next three months. As for younger people with no children to entertain, the industry reckons they could flock to Scottish beaches and rural getaways.
Local residents, particularly in rural areas, will inevitably worry that visitors will import the virus and overwhelm the infrastructure. We have seen this reaction in England, where the lockdown has been eased more quickly. With news stories about crowds of people ignoring social-distancing guidelines, councils in places like Dorset in the south and Blackpool in the north-west have been keeping public facilities closed and telling visitors to stay away.
This is a new version of the overtourism problem that was bedevilling many popular tourist destinations long before COVID-19. The price of surging visitor numbers in cities from Edinburgh to Venice has been residents being priced out of their own cities; too much development; and large crowds compromising the visitor experience and putting intolerable strain on old buildings and streets.
Yet when it comes to addressing the risks of 2020-style overtourism, simply closing car parks and toilets is not a long-term solution. Councils and tourism associations should instead help to make facilities and attractions comply with the restrictions. This would maximise the economic benefits from tourism and enable people to re-engage with destinations while keeping local residents safe.
The challenge is to achieve this without completely sanitising the experience. Tourists should be sufficiently confident of their safety that they can still enjoy the visitor experience and service.
To this end, tourism associations in Scotland have produced webinars with reopening advice for local attractions. Topics include developing hygiene practices to reassure visitors; considering the whole customer journey to identify potential issues and opportunities; and offering virtual experiences such as those at the National Trust for Scotland.
Meanwhile, staff from recently reopened European attractions have been sharing ideas with Scottish operators on things like moving entrance systems to an online “touchless experience” where visitors pre-book a time slot and pre-purchase tickets, food and merchandise online. This is more challenging for the 70% of attractions with no admission charge or online booking system, as they will need to invest in setting these up and administering them.
The travel guru Doug Lansky recently made some suggestions on how to make post-lockdown tourism workable as well. These included letting visitors know what they can do rather than what they can’t, encouraging them to police themselves, and incentivising good behaviour by offering lottery tickets to those who act responsibly.
Another question is how to make local tourist attractions more attractive to domestic visitors. One priority should be getting people from the local community to manage and run attractions, since there is evidence that this can make them more culturally relevant to visitors from the same country.
This would potentially help recent efforts by places like Glasgow and Edinburgh to encourage residents to become “tourists in their own cities” once lockdown restrictions end. The beauty of domestic visitors, particularly local ones, is that they revisit, and tend to bring visiting friends and relatives. This makes them very valuable to tourism businesses, particularly in the period ahead.
Another way to attract domestic visitors is to get them to stay engaged for the long term. For instance, operators might offer new forms of membership. They might also consider commercial sponsorship, such as the retail chain Iceland’s new tie-up with Chester zoo’s penguins, which aims to raise the profile of the attraction and may encourage public support via donations and visits in the future.
At any rate, tourist destinations everywhere are still in the early stages of figuring out what the “new normal” should look like. We know that a year from now tourism could look very different to before. The challenge for the sector is to do everything it can to adapt.