Covid 19 and Travel: a Wake-up Call for an Unsustainable Business Model
The global economy is too dependent upon traavel and tourism. It is time for a rethink.
The business sector most impacted by the coronavirus Covid 19 epidemic is travel, tourism and hospitality. Some might suppose it ironic that this is a business model that facilitated the rapid spread of the infection.
It occurred to me the other day that Northern Italy is a popular holiday destination at this time of year. And Northern Italy was the first region outside China to be impacted by the virus. At the time of writing (15th March 2020), Italy is the country with the most confirmed cases and the most deaths attributed to the virus outside of China. As a proportion of the population the number of cases in Italy exceeds by a large margin the equivalent figure for China.
I wanted to check a theory that linked these facts. Did Chinese visitors to Italy infect other tourists who then carried the infection back to their home regions? It is certainly the case that Chinese visitors are an important market for Italy’s tourism industry. But Italy is not among the top ten destination for Chinese tourists. The countries that are do not appear to have been as badly impacted by the virus as has Italy. That does not necessarily invalidate the hypothesis, since there is a seasonal element to Italian tourism, especially to the Northern region with its emphasis on winter sports.
I have long felt that the extent to which many nations rely on tourism to boost their economies is unsustainable. The current crisis drove me to investigate the value of the sector globally and for individual countries.
It turns out that travel and tourism account for over 10% of global GDP, more than either chemicals manufacturing, agriculture, automotive manufacturing or financial services. The countries most dependent upon tourism are among the poorest in the world. But even in the richest nations travel and tourism account for over 8% of GDP.
For this sector to be shut down for a significant period is therefore disastrous for the global economy and especially so for the poorest regions. There is bound to be a knock-on effect in other sectors, too.
The broader point I want to make, however, is about the sustainability of a business model in which some countries rely on tourism for upwards of 15% of their economy. This is not only about the impact on climate, but the damage to the environment caused by the development of the necessary infrastructure. Hotels, golf courses, marinas, holiday villages, all occupy land that could be utilised for food production. They spew out sewerage and atmospheric pollutants. And then there are the cruise ships which have also played their part in spreading the virus.
We have moved from a time when hospitality meant sharing what little you had with travellers to one where it means ripping off the curious and exploiting the poor. A time when the poor served the rich by working in their homes and on their land to one where the poor serve the rich by working in hotels, restaurants and bars.
About the only good thing that can be said about this business is that it is a means of transferring wealth from rich to poor. But it is far from efficient at that and, of course, it is the owners/operators of airlines, hotel chains and cruise ships that reap the greatest benefit. For them it is just another way of increasing their wealth.
It is hard to predict how long the present crisis in the sector will continue. Perhaps it is a wake up call; a reminder that the land, labour and energy resources deployed to transport huge numbers of people around the globe could be better deployed to truly relieve poverty and feed the hungry, without causing so much damage to the environment.