09 April, 2020

What COVID spells for community-based tourism

Seven trends that will shape the future traveller and be beneficial for community-based tourism

COVID-19 has impacted many industries; tourism is perhaps one of the hardest hit. It is also likely to be one of the last ones to come out. What does it mean for community-based tourism (CBT)? Once the dust settles, what would happen? Would CBT also be as hard hit as other forms of tourism? Or will it be back to the old patterns after some time? Are there any lessons?

We don’t know when the crisis would blow over, but we can be certain about one fact: tourism will never be the same again because the tourist has changed for all times to come. The habits of people were forced to change due to this sudden development; some of those changes would get absorbed in their lifestyles even when things turn to normal. The following seven trends are emerging as the ones that would shape the future traveller and they also are highly beneficial for CBT as a whole.

1. Close-range travel would be the norm for quite some time to come: The lockdowns would be eased slowly and some of the destinations would be closed for an extended period. Travellers would be wary of venturing far, as many of us would be reluctant to plan that long, exotic holiday a few time zones away. That means that there would be a lot of domestic,local and super-local travel. The close-range travel would then morph from just being a day / week-end picnic to more meaningful engagement. This is good news for CBT enterprises that have deep, experiential engagements to offer.

2. More sensitivity towards man-made impact on environment: The UN environmental chief said that nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. To prevent further outbreaks, the experts said, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people. Communities that are involved in being a part of the solution would get noticed and appreciated; ergo, CBT operators that are nested in such communities would benefit too.

3. A renewed respect towards the healing powers of nature: While there is fake news doing the rounds on social media, dolphin and swan sightings in Venice's waterways for instance, not all sightings are fake. There are stories of balcony birders in Delhi spotting as many as 30 or 40 species. A renewed respect for nature would drive people to more natural and authentic surroundings rather than manicured lawns of resorts.

4. Mindful travel would be preferred: The forced shutdown / slowdown has started the dialogue around mindfulness. This is a change that would impact many industries, especially tourism. Immersive experiences would be preferred, while people would tend to spend longer time doing fewer things at destinations. Travellers will be more caring about locations, and would want to engage deeper with communities.

5. Voluntary action will help reclaim a sense of control: People are likely to start demanding action: from their governments and from their businesses. There would be a marked increase in travellers expecting true responsibility from their travel vendors. Travellers would also be more interested in being part of a solution post this largescale crisis that left people feeling helpless. As a result, voluntourism would gather newer sheen.

6. The hidden costs of travel would be recognised: At long last, there will be realisation that not everyone paid enough to offset the burden they imposed in terms of emissions, waste, consumption of natural resources and the use of public infrastructure. Often, CBT enterprises have not done enough to address and recover these hidden costs. More overall acceptance towards paying for such costs would help CBT enterprises.

7. Those with a credible reputation will be preferred: There has been so much social media noise and flurry of content with divergent views, that the need for a trusted voice has never been stronger. Brands that are doing the right thing and have had a reputation for the same would benefit. In tourism too, those who put their efforts behind building their reputation as ethical operators would get preference from travellers.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go waste”; now is the time to capitalise on these trends. COVID need not always spell disaster, it could spell trends that make for a better planet. Community Based Tourism enterprises would do well in reviewing their relationship with the ecology and its inter-dependence with the host communities to make the equation a re-generative one. That itself would be a very rewarding journey till the time the mindful travellers start arriving again!

— Mridula Tangirala, Head – Tourism, Tata Trusts