The corona crisis, among other consequences, has thrown tourism for a loop. Can the sector reinvent itself? And will this summer reveal to us that the ideal holiday destination lies within our own borders?
Obviously, this isn’t the first crisis to hit the tourism industry. Our own country temporarily became a no-go area for many travellers after the attacks of 22 March 2016 on Zaventem airport and the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels. Professor Dominique Vanneste (Division of Geography and Tourism) investigated the magnitude of this impact based on interviews with tourists and market figures on the number of flights and overnight stays. ‘We came to similar findings as previous studies after comparable crises; after six months to a year, confidence gradually returns and tourism in the affected region gradually recovers.’
But the current situation is of a different order. Says Vanneste, ‘We hadn’t yet experienced a crisis that really affects the entire world. You can’t just "skirt" the affected area and travel to a region where it’s business as usual. This crisis is also going to last a long time, which has already caused many vulnerable companies to go under. In any case, this is a stunning blow to the tourism sector.’
You can’t just "skirt" the affected area and travel to a region where it’s business as usual.
It is difficult to say exactly what tourism will look like after the corona crisis. According to Vanneste, visitor management is definitely here to stay. When we travel, the first requirement is that we feel safe and unthreatened at the destination. Due to this crisis, we’re prepared to accept measures that lead to a healthy flow of tourists: compulsory reservations, time slots, walking instructions, zoning, etc. An intervention that we’ll have less sympathy for is price increases, intended to dissuade all but truly motivated visitors.
‘That isn’t all new, of course,’ says Vanneste. ‘Museums and amusement parks have been using visitor management techniques for some time. But that’s now also going to occur in places that are more difficult to monitor. Will we have to buy a ticket to enter Venice or Bruges? We’re not that far along yet, but just look at what’s going on at the Belgian coast, where the mayors of the coastal municipalities have gathered to discuss a joint approach to the restart of coastal tourism. Something on that scale and that drastic was unthinkable before the corona crisis.’
The Richness of Belgium
For a long time, it seemed that foreign travel would be completely out of the question this summer. A number of destinations have now been given the green light again, but do you really want to sit in the confined space of an airplane for hours to get there? And take the risk that you might end up back in a lockdown? Or even worse, in a hospital where they don't speak your language? Many people are choosing to err on the side of caution and opt for a holiday in their own or a neighbouring country.‘In countries that traditionally target foreign tourists, they’ve had to make a switch,’ says Vanneste. ‘Certain Spanish resorts have reached the point where they’ve decided to divide the beaches into zones and emphasise their safety, initially just to get their own people to the coast.'
Belgium also has a – somewhat more modest – coastline, which usually attracts an influx of domestic tourists in the summer. Does our country have other assets in sufficient numbers that beach areas can avoid being overwhelmed? Isn't Belgium too monotonous? On the contrary, says Professor Vanneste. We have art cities that are the envy of those abroad, beautiful nature in the Kempen and the Ardennes, and ideal landscapes for slow tourism, such as the Westhoek or the Flemish Ardennes.
We have enormous variety in our landscape, which is also very fine-meshed. You just have to want to see it.
'We have enormous variety in our landscape, which is also very fine-meshed,’ says Vanneste. ‘Compare it to the US, where you can drive around for a day and still be stuck in the same scenery. With us, you’ll find very different views in a limited expanse, which is also a result of variation in land use, from livestock to arable farming, from rows of trees to open fields. You just have to want to see it.’
Walking with donkeys
The tourist sector can better help visitors with that, says Vanneste. She herself researched tourism in Haspengouw, a gently sloping landscape with fields and orchards, churches and castles. Interviews with policymakers from the local tourism and heritage sector show that they’re not yet fully exploiting the potential of their region. ‘They mainly focus on the flowering season of fruit trees to attract tourists, but they 're not taking full advantage of the fact that the Haspengouw landscape itself is a valuable heritage,’ says Vanneste.
However, you can promote that as a tourist product, for example by explaining how it has grown historically. Abroad, the landscape is often presented as heritage, such as the vineyards in France, Italy, Latin America or California. Or the coffee fields in Colombia and Brazil.’
Abroad, the landscape is often presented as heritage, such as the vineyards in France, Italy, Latin America or California.
Another tip from Vanneste for regions that want to increase their appeal is to bundle strengths together. Based on her own research, she thinks rural tourism in the Flemish Ardennes, for example, is missing opportunities on that front. ‘A number of municipalities are promoting their own offerings, but more is needed if they want to aim at attracting more than just day trippers. If the municipalities and tourism organizations work together, they can have a positive impact by advertising five churches instead of one, or ten farms instead of two. In this way you also increase the chance that tourists realise: There’s so much to see here, I will definitely come back.’
In a new study, Vanneste and colleagues from the Tourism research group are collecting even more ideas to make domestic tourism more attractive. They found some tourism industry organisations willing to put a playful survey on their Facebook pages. For example, visitors could select their preference from two travel scenarios – sailing with a canoe, or camping in a private garden – and then offer extra ideas themselves.
We see, for example, that people like to walk so long as there is an extra element to it; a walking tour with animals, for example.
‘There are many useful opinions among them, which we’re currently combing through with the tourist organisations in question,’ says Vanneste. ‘We see, for example, that people like to walk so long as there is an extra element to it; a walking tour with animals, for example. Moreover, these sorts of scenarios already exist. In the Flemish Ardennes you can go for a walk with donkeys that carry your picnic and your little ones, just to name one example.’
Honeymoon in Knokke-Heist
We consider vacation and travel to be a right. In times of burnout, it’s certainly not an unnecessary luxury. But do we receive as much psychological value from a holiday in our own country as from a long trip? ‘The perception of distance is indeed completely different from a hundred or even fifty years ago,’ says Vanneste. ‘People thought the Belgian coast was very far away back then. They sometimes went there for the first time on their honeymoon. Now we’re going on honeymoon to the Maldives.’
‘The long trips we make are sometimes a disappointment because the destination does not correspond to the idyllic picture that we’ve seen in brochures or in the media. Contrary to what they propose to us, we turn out not to be alone and we have to wait in line everywhere. So next time we’ll look even further.’
If you find a place in your own country where it is quiet and you can be yourself, you’ll realise that you really do not have to look far for that feeling of detachment.
In this respect too, Vanneste thinks the corona crisis can cause an about-face. ‘If you find a place in your own country where it is quiet and you can be yourself, you’ll realise that you really do not have to look far for that feeling of detachment. The weather will definitely play an important role; if we can enjoy a sunny holiday in our own country, with lots of peace and space, we’ll be less inclined to choose a crowded Spanish beach next year.’
Ban the buffet
Our planet would be grateful for this change, as mass tourism is starting to have more and more impact ecologically. ‘If we’re serious about more sustainable tourism, price increases seem inevitable to me,’ says Vanneste. ‘Airplane tickets, for example, should also include environmental costs, such as noise and air pollution.’
‘Due to the corona crisis, tourism is likely to become more expensive in a number of places anyway considering that a number of hotels and other businesses have already gone bankrupt, the competitive pressure on those that remain is lower. Price can certainly be a good regulator to help keep the stream of tourists under control, but you also have to keep in mind the social aspect; traveling should be feasible and affordable for everyone.’
Vanneste emphasizes that there is already a lot of goodwill in the tourist sector in terms of sustainability. Nevertheless, some initiatives are teetering dangerously close to greenwashing, meaning companies are appearing greener than they actually are. ‘Many hotels ask you not to put towels on the floor if they don't need to be replaced because they can save water,’ says Vanneste. ‘What they don't say is that they often have to throw out half of the buffet. Those less visible things must also be addressed, in that case by going back to serving the guests at their table. That way you also keep physical distance, which is handy in corona times.’
Flowers, bees, and fair contracts
Greener tourism is, of course, not only the responsibility of the provider; the consumer must also increase awareness. ‘I think there is certainly a change in mentality, but for the time being there’s only a small selection of people who are really concerned about climate change,’ said Vanneste. ‘If you look at who actually hits the street for climate marches, it is mainly the younger generation. But even for them, price remains the most important criterion when planning their holiday.’‘I just received a master's thesis from a student who investigated the extent to which sustainability is a factor in decision making for tourists on the Belgian coast. Do they take it into account when choosing a particular coastal city or accommodation? It turns out that sustainability appears to play hardly any role.’
Many hotels are so affordable because cheap workers behind the scenes keep everything going.
Another message that has not sufficiently gotten through is that sustainability is not only a question of ecology. Far from being just about the flowers and the bees, sustainability also has economic, cultural and social aspects. ‘Many hotels are so affordable because cheap workers behind the scenes keep everything going,’ says Vanneste. 'They often have so-called zero hour contracts, whereby the employer does not guarantee a minimum number of hours of work. In the winter there’s no work for them, and in the summer they have to be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, so to speak.’
‘Companies that want to present themselves as sustainable need to make an effort on that front by giving their people a fair contract and stating this in their communications. Then consumers can take this into account when making their choices. As it stands, we hardly have any eye for that aspect of tourism, because what we want above all is a carefree holiday.’
Speaking of choices, what holiday plans does Professor Vanneste have herself? ‘We stick to extended weekends in the Veluwe [region in the Netherlands with lots of nature] and in the Ardennes. So a real corona style holiday.’