Grounding non-essential travel to a halt, the tourism sector has been dealt a bad hand by the Covid-19 outbreak. Now as governments lessen restrictions, travel brands are hastily putting plans in place for the safe return of tourists. But with the potential of a second wave plausible, how can the tourism industry get from A to B when the destination is still unknown?
“It quickly took us by surprise,” remembers Justin Reid, director of destination marketing, EMEA at TripAdvisor. “I remember sitting in a meeting with the Irish Tourist Board in mid to late February, discussing what Brexit was going to mean for us. Someone brought up Covid-19 but we thought it would be fine. No one could have expected how devastating it was doing to be.
“Two days later, we hear Italy has closed its borders. And things have sort of cascaded down so quickly."
Travel bans have been felt far and wide, leading to mass unemployment, loss of countries' GDP and some airlines teetering on the edge of collapse. This has also had a knock-on effect on agencies and media owners, as travel companies pull ad spend.
After a record year in 2019, Vicki Miller, director of marketing at VisitScotland, says the outbreak has been devastating. Building on a 2018 which saw growth in European travel to Scotland, 2019 brought unprecedented numbers of people from North America, as well as the UK domestic market.
“The visitor economy came to a standstill in March when we went into lockdown. In 2019 there were 50.5 million overnight trips to Scotland, with the tourism sector accounting for 8% of all employment in Scotland. It has been a key growth sector for the Scottish economy. So after a period of sustained growth its come to a standstill and we've got to now look to the future.”
Similarly Fletch Brunelle, vice president of marketing at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), says it was on record pace prior to the Covid-19 shutdown. Only in December, McCarran International Airport celebrated its 50 millionth passenger in its 71-year history. And to compare year-on-year, Las Vegas welcomed 3.5 million visitors in April 2019. In 2020, just 107,000 arrived, and they weren’t holidaymakers.
With one in four jobs is in tourism, Brunelle says: “We need to make sure that we're doing the right thing for our employees, our tourism sector and then the rest of the destination because when you think about exposure to this virus, we want to make sure that everyone's healthy and safe when they come back to the destination.”
Since the Las Vegas strip reopened in June for the first time since March, workers from Harrah’s and MGM Grand have sued casinos over Covid-19 safety concerns, highlighting the need for casino owners to ensure that both their visitors and staff feel safe.
After going into lockdown, Brunelle says the LVCVA conducted research in regards to health and safety, to understand how people were missing travel, and what they were thinking about from a short-term and long-term perspective. This identified three different tourist cohorts and phased messaging accordingly.
“For the first phase on 17 March, we put out a piece called ‘Only You’, to say Las Vegas is looking forward to seeing you back. But we need to make sure that you're safe. The only thing that matters is you,” Brunelle recalls.
“The next phase ‘Now Open’ looked at reimagining Las Vegas, how you can have a still have a Las Vegas experience of your own, but it's going to be a little bit different. It was eerie driving down the Las Vegas Strip because there were no cars, there were no people, no lights. So we flicked the switch and turned the lights back on.”
The latest phase is ‘Vegas Smart’ that works to ensure people feel safe on return, so utilizing technology to allow people to use their phones to check-in, adding Plexiglas at the gaming tables and cutting capacity by half.
With a potential start date of 15 July, Miller says VisitScotland will be following a similar phased of activity approach to Las Vegas - respond, reset, restart and then recover.
“When we first went into lockdown, ‘respond’ was about reinforcing the don’t travel message and making it clear that people couldn’t come to Scotland. There was still a need to keep Scotland top of mind, and people were still active on our social channels. So we created ‘Armchair Travels’ – 'dream now, travel later' type messaging, using virtual content, podcasts and quizzes to keep Scotland front of mind."
Now a date has been given, the team is working on the ‘restart’ phase, where it will promote day trips and short overnight stays, which it will start to ramp that up in Scotland.
As tourism boards start making up for lost time, TripAdvisor’s Reid says: “Looking for good things to come out of this is a little difficult, but it’s shone a spotlight on how important tourism is for so many countries GDPs and it's been good for people to realise the importance of tourists coming to your country.
“What happens going forward will be very interesting. A lot of the surveys show that people are looking more towards the outdoors and areas of relaxation."
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.