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Build Back Better

March 14, 2021
Harold Goodwin
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There is debate about whether we shall “Build Back Better” post-Covid. Many have understood that there is an opportunity to “reset” the travel and tourism sector. It remains to be seen how many will take the opportunity and whether governments will step in to ensure that the “tragedy of the commons” does not preclude those willing to make the necessary changes from doing so. Reducing carbon emissions for some parts of the sector is expensive, and change will not occur if making the necessary changes puts the responsible businesses out of business.

The UN’s Secretary-General has written in a policy brief on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism of the crisis as “.. an unprecedented opportunity to transform the relationship of tourism with nature, climate and the economy. … to ensure a fair distribution of its benefits and to advance the transition towards a carbon-neutral and resilient tourism economy.

The pandemic has badly damaged our industry,  and we cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that travel spreads the virus. For many decades travellers and holidaymakers have jetted off across continents with little concern for their health and safety. No longer. For the foreseeable future, trust is the new currency of domestic and international travel.

We have learned from the pandemic that while we can through individual action avoid or lessen some of the impacts of COVID-19, we cannot isolate ourselves from consequences for the societies in which we live, work and play.

For example, a hotel can create a Covid secure environment, but the guest needs to travel safely to the check-in counter and to feel safe to explore the neighbourhood along with locals and other travellers. We are all dependent on what others in our industry are doing and on what travellers and locals are doing to avoid spreading Covid-19. There are very significant limits to what individual businesses can do to assure potential clients that it is safe to travel.

Climate change presents similar challenges – we can all make a contribution to countering the risk, we can all make a difference, but we are all dependent on what others do. It is, for this reason, that government regulation may be necessary to prevent responsible businesses being undercut by those refusing to accept their responsibility.

The future will be what we make it, but our choices are not made in the circumstances of our own choosing. What we can achieve will be critically affected by what others do. Inertia and the desire to return as quickly as possible to business-as-usual are strong forces shaping the future of our sector.

We have been ignoring biodiversity loss and climate change for decades hoping that someone else would deal with the problems, as the Prine of Wales remarked: “ I have long observed that people tend not to act until there is a real crisis. …. that crisis has been with us for far too many years – decried, denigrated and denied.  It is now rapidly becoming a comprehensive catastrophe that will dwarf the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.”

The pandemic has delivered a global shock; much has and will change. COVID-19 continues as a catalyst accelerating change. The crisis has created an opportunity to rethink tourism, a pause enabling us to reshape the sector and to do tourism better – if we want to and if we can. However, inertia and the desire to return as quickly as possible to business-as-usual are strong forces shaping the future of our sector.

Can we make tourism better?

Caroline Bremner (2020) Accelerating Travel Innovation After Coronavirus Euromonitor International

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