Ask an expert: how the coronavirus could affect the future of the tourism industry

30 April 2020

UCLan’s Richard Sharpley, Professor of Tourism, looks at the challenges faced by the industry and the changes we can expect to see in both the short and long term.

The tourism industry, both at home and abroad, is effectively closed for business. How will it respond once lockdown is lifted and will the crisis prompt a change in consumer behaviour?

The University of Central Lancashire’s (UCLan) Richard Sharpley, Professor of Tourism, looks into the future to give an insightful perspective on some of the changes we may see in the tourism industry as a result of a new economic reality and evolving consumer demand.

How do you think the current crisis will affect the future of the tourism industry in both the short and long term?

The tourism industry, both nationally and globally, has effectively closed. One of the main challenges the industry faces is that it’s primarily comprised of many smaller, micro-businesses which may not survive the crisis, though of course the hope is they will.

Those that do survive, from international airlines and hotel groups through to small, family-run operations, will immediately seek to rebuild their businesses (as will popular tourist destinations around the world) through predictable means such as advertising and special promotions. It is likely, however, this will only be in the shorter term, as airlines in particular seek to rebuild their balance sheets, implement ‘social distancing’ seating arrangements and rationalise their operations. In the longer term I would envisage a significant rise in airfares, with the coronavirus crisis adding impetus to a process that was already inevitable given the concerns of global warming (eg. environmental taxes on aviation fuel) and an unsustainable business model via low-cost carriers. 

The cruise ship sector may be slow to recover in the short-term given the publicity surrounding those suffering coronavirus outbreaks and a potential unease amongst passengers regarding health issues on cruises. Cruise ship destinations may also be less willing to welcome them back, perhaps using the crisis as a further excuse (as well as 'over-tourism’) to limit the number of ships. Overall, in the longer term, I suspect the tourism industry will be leaner.

In the UK do you foresee an upsurge in domestic tourism?

Domestic tourism will undoubtedly increase, at least in the shorter term. There may be a reluctance to immediately undertake international travel, particularly to those countries most affected by coronavirus - although the advertising and promotional activities noted will seek to counter such perceptions. The economic impact of the crisis must also be considered; it may well be that, again in the shorter term, many people might only be able to afford shorter domestic holidays or indeed, staycations. In the longer term, however, I can't honestly see a trend away from international tourism towards domestic - it will eventually be back to 'business as usual', though this will depend on factors such as the longer-term costs of flying.

Do you foresee a decline/upsurge in certain tourism destinations and types of holiday?

Whilst some are suggesting that the coronavirus crisis is leading many to reconsider how they live more meaningful lives, I personally don't believe this will translate into the future choice of tourism destinations. The 'habit' of tourism is too ingrained in most people, so I don't envisage any specific declines or upsurges in the longer term. 

Shorter term there is likely be an increase in domestic holidays; tourists may be wary of booking overseas trips until they believe the coronavirus crisis has completely come to an end. Also, there may be an upsurge in short beaks in the immediate shorter term, particularly based around visiting friends and relatives with busy roads opening potential opportunities for the domestic accommodation sector.

In the longer term, if the travel and tourism industry can offer the products and experiences we have long enjoyed, we could well see a sustained recovery. The only caveat is the business direction taken by the airlines; if the cost of flying increases significantly, there will be a shift away from long-haul tourism to shorter distance (and perhaps land-based) travel.

What are the important factors to consider when booking a holiday this year?

That’s a difficult question. The issue of whether destinations are no longer affected by coronavirus will be important, so checking Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories will be essential. So too will be ensuring full and appropriate travel insurance is taken out to cover for potential cancellations. There is some evidence to believe that caution will prevail; people are putting off booking anything until the situation has settled down.