In an unexpected turn of events, a group of rogue Pangolins have succeeded in stopping the Olympic Games (I never honestly expected to write that sentence).
A year ago the hospitality sector was on a roll: Dan Reed started a Forbes article in April 2019 with the following sentence ‘The travel and tourism sector grew more in 2018 than all other economic sectors but one, adding a record $8.8 trillion to the world’s combined Gross Domestic Product, as well as creating 319 million new jobs.’ Mankind was on the move, chemtrails streaked the sky and international tourism hotspots were complaining about over-tourism.
A mere twelve months later, across the entire planet, planes, ships, restaurant, theatres, cinemas and hotels have been forcibly closed and more than a half of the world’s population is in lockdown.
Despite the globalization of trade, the unprecedented number of international tourist arrivals and the vast sums of capital invested into the travel and tourism industry; a microscopic, invisible virus (about a billionth of a meter in diameter) has brought the economy of the entire planet to an unprecedented halt.
Skies have cleared, insects have returned to the fields, turtles ahave taken to the beaches again, birdsong rings in the air and animals have come out of the forests to roam the streets. In one sense it sounds like something out of a Disney cartoon, but on further inspection it could be the end of a zombie movie.
The truth is that the humble pangolin has taught mankind a valuable lesson: we are, despite our technical prowess and philosophical pretentions, a part of our global eco-system, as vulnerable and fragile as all those species that have come before us; subject to the same inviolable rules as the dinosaur and the dodo.
The international tourism sector is young and has had a relatively smooth growth trajectory from the post war era, up to this point. It has not yet, been subjected to any truly significant litmus test to evaluate its resilience. There have been terrorist attacks, regional wars, natural disasters and recessions; but this is the first time in 100 years that a global crisis has provoked a serious impediment to its continued expansion. We have, in fact, been extremely lucky, so far.
Our politicians and business leaders would have us believe that the current epidemic is a black swan event [i], an unforeseeable misfortune for which they were entirely unprepared – but can we honestly claim that is the case?
As we can see in the chart above infectious diseases have accompanied mankind throughout its’ history – plagues, fevers and flus have annihilated entire ethnicities. These illnesses are so ingrained in our collective psyche, we still refer to them in children’s songs and playground games. Yet we seem to have ignored any, and all possibility, that a biological force could upset our economic apple cart. As a society we can build a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier, but we cannot provide facemasks for the sailors who operate it. Clearly, the time has come to seriously review our priorities.
In ecology, a disturbance is a temporary change in environmental conditions that causes a pronounced change in an ecosystem. These disturbances often act quickly and with great effect, to alter the physical structure or arrangement of biotic and abiotic elements. The outcome of these events depends on pre-existing conditions: forest fires, for example, occur more often in areas with a higher incidence of lightning and an accumulation of flammable biomass.
In truth, our current crisis bears all the hallmarks of a natural disaster and if we consider the outbreak as a natural, cyclical disturbance – much like a major storm or flash flood; we may learn how natural systems adapt to these events to see if we can draw any pertinent conclusions about what may transpire in the hospitality sector over the coming years and how we can build resilience in the sector to protect ourselves from these events in the future.
Often, when ecological disturbances occur naturally, they provide conditions that favor the success of different species over pre-disturbance organisms: With the passage of time, shifts in dominance may occur with ephemeral herbaceous life-forms progressively becoming over topped by taller perennials herbs, shrubs and trees.
In the travel and tourism sector it is becoming increasingly clear that a similar pattern will unfold: some sectors will bear the brunt of the effects of Covid 19 and may never entirely recover their former positions within the tourism hierarchy; while other nascent sectors may succeed in expanding their influence within the landscape.
However before making any kind of effort to evaluate which ‘hospitality species’ may gain dominance in the years ahead, and which may fall by the wayside; we must first recognize that even prior to the current chaos, the sector was in desperate need of a sustainable revamp.
Rather than considering how we can return to the status quo, we may want to consider this as an opportunity to address some of the endemic challenges that have plagued the industry for decades, such as over-tourism, environmental destruction, plastic pollution, exploitation, wildlife abuse, and corruption.
This is a unique chance to introduce global tourism standards and best practices to protect destinations, workers, communities and wildlife for decades to come. Rather than funding disaster capitalists to buy up distressed assets at a dime on the dollar at the expense of furloughed workers or refinance dubious fast food chains; the government subsidies need to be tailored to fuel a regenerative tourism revolution.
To achieve this objective, the distribution of bailout funds should be associated with comprehensive sustainability criteria addressing destination management, carbon emissions, green building standards, waste management, and sustainable operating procedures, accompanied by a clearly defined protocol for long term accountability.
We are, to all intents and purposes, at a cross roads: on the one hand we can decide to finance redundant, exploitative, extractive business models that have repeatedly flouted environmental regulations and workers’ rights (for example funding a new flotilla of ‘luxury’ cruise ships to plough up our oceans, despite their appalling health and safety records); or we can take a leap of faith and envisage a new tourism sector based on circular economic models, renewable energy, regenerative development, social inclusion and dignified employment.
Just as agro-forestry technicians can shape the productivity of an evolving forest eco-system by removing invasive plants, protecting specific areas and introducing critical keystone species for the long-term ecological stability of the biotic community, we can curate the development of our economy to tackle some of the most important challenges of our era by integrating travel and tourism into a new green deal framework that addresses climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality as a core priority.
“Upon disaster depends good fortune; within good fortune hides disaster.” – Lao Tzu
The psychological and economic impacts of the Coronavirus and subsequent lockdown will be far-reaching: people will obviously re-evaluate their notions of personal space, work, family and hygiene; but they will also reconsider food security, travel, wellbeing and their relationship with nature.
People will be missed, scars will remain, but hopefully lessons will be learnt.
A new form of travel will arise from these ashes: a more authentic, respectful travel experience will blossom, and new pioneer companies will meet that demand. In all probability it may be simpler, smaller, slower and less glamorous. International buffets, cultural ‘shows’, and air-conditioned cruise cabins may not survive the transition; but would we really miss them?
Many innovative companies and organizations have been working tirelessly to develop low-impact, socially inclusive, sustainable hospitality models for years; as witnessed by the rise of experiential travel, eco-tourism, wellness retreats and alternative lodging trends; now is the time for governments, investment funds and banks to seize the moment and use ESG and bail-out funds to boost the sustainable hospitality sector and shift the paradigm.
The turmoil will end, the dust will settle, but things will never be the same again. In truth, the way we evaluate risk must change: other viruses and diseases will sporadically cause pandemonium, for years to come and our new concepts must accommodate that reality. Even if the re-opening of the economy is executed efficiently, a second wave of infection is avoided; and our leaders successfully navigate the ensuing recession; a new era lies ahead. A veil has been lifted, that has revealed a series of devastating truths about the society we have created: our treatment of older people and their role in our society, our perception of frontline workers and their actual value in times of need, and how we invest the vast financial resources that have been accumulated must be called into question.
The time is now, we are the people we have been waiting for.
Louis Thompson is founder of Nomadic Resorts, an interdisciplinary design & project development company servicing the hospitality industry with offices in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa.
Using a holistic approach, we create sustainable resorts, tented camps, lodges, treetop experiences and eco-villa projects that reflect a true sense of place and fit organically into their natural surroundings. We believe that designs should serve as a bridge to connect nature, culture and people.
Over the last 15 years our team has worked on some of the leading luxury tented camps across the world – including Wild Coast Tented Lodge, in the south of Sri Lanka, Soneva Kiri on Ko Kut island in Thailand and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia. The projects have won multiple awards in both the design and hospitality sectors including the 2019 Ahead award for the best resort in Asia and the 2018 UNESCO Prix Versailles for the best restaurant design in the world.
[i] According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb (founder of the Black Swan theory in the finance sector) a black swan is an unpredictable or unforeseen event (typically one with extreme consequences); beyond the realm of normal expectations in history.