Has Travel Changed?

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

As things begin to open up, Aurora Santoro explores how COVID and its associated lockdowns have changed the tourism industry.

I remember the first time I really felt alive after Covid-19 hit like it was yesterday. It might have just been the rush of adrenaline of being thrown into the air at 160 km per hour by the slingshot at Wiener Prater amusement park, but it was the first time I didn’t feel restricted in almost a year. 2020 had been a tough year for me; I remember spending most summer nights studying for my Leaving Cert back in Italy,  where an hour oral exam was mandatory despite the five months of lockdown we had. So, as soon as I got my results back, (which, if I have to be honest, weren’t even that good) I decided to spoil myself with a trip. I somehow convinced two of my dumbest friends that booking a trip in the middle of a pandemic a month in advance was a smart and not at all risky idea, and, against all odds, we actually managed to arrive in Wien. It might have been us hallucinating because of the five-month lockdown or the twelve-hour journey, but it was just like a dream: realising that the Italian Covid-19 regulations weren’t in place there really made that experience unreal. Imagine going from being forced to wear a mask outdoors in 45-degree weather and your movements being limited to your town, to chilly Austrian weather with no movement or mask restrictions. It was paradise.

While the concept of a change to the nature of escape on a paradisiac holiday with the advent of Covid-19 might not seem very serious, the real effects of lockdown on mental health underline the importance of such experiences. That is one of the reasons why, during the lockdown, millions of people sought out both travel and cultural experiences available directly from their homes, leading to an ever-growing demand for virtual access not only to museums and historical sites but also to theatres and performances. The ever-growing debate of cultural accessibility for everyone led to the development by both private and public institutions of different cultural initiatives, which have also helped to minimise the economic damage brought by Covid-19 and the resulting lack of both local and international tourism. Among these responses, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "MetTwinning" initiative, and the TikTok event #MuseumMoment stands out, particularly because of their enormous yet unexpected success. 

during the lockdown, millions of people sought out both travel and cultural experiences available directly from their homes

The Met initiative, by challenging visitors to recreate pieces of art from the museum's large collection and post their creative outcomes on social media using the hashtag "MetTwinning”, led in just the first two weeks of lockdown, to a huge increase in engagement with its social media platforms: 95% on Instagram, 64% on Twitter and 17% on Facebook. This campaign, launched in both 2020 and 2021, also grew bigger than the initiative itself: resulting in social media trends such as the viral TikTok’s challenge of recreating renaissance paintings. The social media platform of also addressed the idea of cultural accessibility in such a difficult time by organising a 19-hour non-stop global event with the hashtag #MuseumMoment. The initiative was launched in 2020 to celebrate International Museum Day, and it involved 23 of the most renowned museums across the world: many of whom got involved with the promotion of initiatives to enhance their work, from the National Gallery of Singapore to Versailles’ Palace, Florence’s Uffizi Galleries and many more. Moreover, an interactive online map was organised allowed the most curious to navigate between not only all the gallery showcases but also exclusive exhibits and conferences.

Of course, the economic damage done by Covid-19 to the tourism industry has not been overlooked by governmental authorities either, especially those whose revenue is deeply rooted in tourism. That is why the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has issued a guideline on EU tourism funding, which highlights the broad set of financing programs available for the tourism ecosystem to properly recover. Many European countries got immediately invested, using the funding to promote international travel. Spain, for example, is planning to devote around 17% of its €72 billion budget to modernise and digitise industries and SMEs, as well as to assist the tourist sector's recovery and showcase Spain as an entrepreneurial country. Moreover, in March 2021 a €10 billion budget boost was approved to support the sectors harshly challenged by the pandemic. Part and parcel of the plan is Spain’s recently developed public relations campaign: "You Deserve Spain." Similarly,  countries like Greece and Italy have focused their funding on improving both health protocols and infrastructures.

At the same time, smaller initiatives have been undertaken by governments to promote local tourism; like in Belgium, where every resident was given the opportunity to get ten free rail tickets. Similarly in Italy, residents could be provided with a holiday bonus of up to 500 euros, trying to highlight both the importance of domestic tourism and of supporting local businesses. Moreover, thanks to the tangible positive effects of lockdown on the environment, environmental awareness is starting to rise in the tourism field as well. With clear water in the Venice canals and wild animals wandering freely in fenced-in towns, the campaigns encouraging travellers to consider a more conscious holiday are gaining traction. Two recent examples are Scotland’s marketing campaign for tourism "Yours to Enjoy. Responsibly", which promotes a more environmentally sensitive approach to tourism, asking its visitors to “Take only pictures and leave only footprints”. As well as  Portugal’s initiative “Hello World – It’s Me, Tomorrow”.

thanks to the tangible positive effects of lockdown on the environment, environmental awareness is starting to rise in the tourism field as well

By taking just a glance at how irrevocably and deeply Covid-19 has changed our lives when it comes to travel, it is fair to argue that tourism, while being an ever-shifting concept by nature, has been deeply influenced by the pandemic. A return to the old approach of travel seems almost impossible; however, the silver lining of this cloud seems to be a less shallow and more conscious approach to travel, promoting a more diverse and sustainable type of tourism.