The future of tourism in the coming new era

“For tourist destinations like Cuba and the Caribbean islands, the tourism markets of Europe, the United States and Canada [...] will be subject to several post-pandemic factors bound to shape the long road to tourism recovery once the situation returns to normal”.

Lea aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

This article is part of the series La Letra de Temas 2020. Postpandemia: ¿hacia dónde?

When the COVID-19 curve reached a new peak, Temas-Catalejo asked a group of researchers to examine Cuba’s present status and prospects for the rest of the year. We requested them to make a detailed diagnosis and scrutinize the pandemic, its significance from the clinical and public health viewpoints, as well as its subjective socioeconomic, political and international effects and probable future.

This series is not focused on the mountains of figures, reported facts, statements and reports currently flooding the media, nor on the countless wishes and requests sent to and scanned by the government which abound in the social networks. It’s intended instead to evaluate the country’s present and future so that we can see it better, like a path between politics and its circumstances.

As it’s usual in Catalejo, La Letra de Temas 2020 is more open to other analyses than to other opinions.

A necessary look back

Tourism as an economic sector is going through a string of negative events, without precedent since the establishment of the World Tourism Organization in 1975, whose consequences far exceed those of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, and the SARS (2003) and H1N1 (2009) pandemics.

There is evidence once again that tourism remains very susceptible to economic uncertainty, great pandemics, terrorist acts and international confrontations between the world’s top tourist powers.

Several factors have hindered the tourism and travel industries in the last five years. The slowdown in international trade has forced a change of behavior in the world economy and, therefore, in tourism. There’s been a significant deterioration of relations between countries and regional blocs, including a trade war between the United States and China; a tariff increase on the European Union, and growing tension between the United States and Russia marked by systematic clashes in various global conflict scenarios. The effects of these policies have fueled uncertainty, unrest and grievance within the public sector worldwide and become a big obstacle to world tourism and tour operators, mainly in Europe.

In these complicated circumstances, the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European common market (Brexit) had a negative impact on tourism enterprises, especially airlines and tourism intermediation groups, not only in that country but across Europe, traditionally a major source of outbound tourists.

The collapse of Europe’s top tour operator, Thomas Cook, following the cancellation of 8.3 million air tickets in the last quarter of 2019, prompted unrecoverable losses in several airlines and foreboded a deceleration of tourism and travel activities even before the outbreak of the new pandemic.

In the face of a coming era aggravated by a SARS-Cov2 of unheard-of consequences, we must accept that many of the conceptions that we took as paradigms all these years are now open to question and require reconsideration in keeping with the new times so that we can deal with present and future challenges. Obviously, it’s not about changes that occur with the passing of time, but rather about what happens as time passes.

We are on the threshold of a global transformation noted for the confluence of various political, economic and social factors, at a time when high digital, physical and biological technology are changing the world and our own views about the meaning of safety and welfare.

The changes that we need to cope with a new era will be historical in terms of magnitude, speed and scope, whereas the ensuing transformations will not involve just a particular type of emerging technologies, but also a transition toward new systems and processes built on digital infrastructures. These transformations will alter at top speed our way of producing, consuming, communicating, moving around and interacting with one another.

The new threats in this global picture have to do with the disruptions which will affect the labor market, the future sources of employment, the income differential, the geopolitical security, our perception of risk, and even our social and ethical value system; what is and isn’t true.

The irruption of the unknown increases people’s fear of traveling

Fear can have many effects, but the repeated exposure to what makes people feel fear can make long-lasting changes to their behavior, feelings and psychophysiological performance and heighten their anxiety and distress over the plans for the future. This also has a great impact on traveling and tourism.

Fear acts directly on our purchasing habits and relates to our perception of the risk of traveling as one of the disruptive factors that will most affect tourism in the next few years. It’s because the “psychology of fear” makes the perception of risk last longer, which upsets consumer trust and travel patterns.


The climate of fear caused by the SARS Co-V2 (COVID-19) pandemic, magnified by the mass media, the social networks, and unwise political decisions in many developed countries around the world blurred the perceptual distinction between what’s probable and what’s possible.

While on one hand the official messages were an appeal for calm, on the other the never-ending images indicated otherwise. We have seen what some experts call normative ambiguity (deconstruction) process. In this case, if resilience is the ability to learn from one’s mistakes in a state of emergency, this pandemic—once turned into a media event—marks the end of resilience. People are not afraid of what already happened, but of what has not happened yet, in some cases casting doubt upon our economic recovery, healthcare system, and scientific and technological progress.

Not only did the pandemic-related discourse bring social life to a standstill by forcing citizens to shut themselves in as a precaution, it also fueled their paranoia and visual dependence on whatever the press covered and the social media shared as they laid aside the urgent issues of climate change, the developing countries’ ever-increasing foreign debt, the aggravation of market laws, people’s unequal opportunities, terrorist acts, mistaken policies and other evils likely to have serious consequences for years to come. Under these circumstances, the solution to many of today’s problems will be the genesis of others which we will have to cope with in the future.

 World tourism in a context of economic crisis and unemployment

In the last few years the tourism sector has been the world economy’s top source of employment, with more than 127 million people directly employed in the hospitality industry, according to the World Tourism Organization and the International Labor Organization.

Obviously, we are going through a period of transformation in the world of labor. Technological development, demographic change, environmental and climatic imperatives, globalization, the weakness of health care systems in many countries, and sustained inequality: they all affect the future of labor.

If the sector works around all the difficulties of the economic crisis, it will manage in the medium term to take up again its role as a driving force of economic growth and job creator, depending on the design and implementation of new public policies and the structural renovation of tourist business organizations.

The accelerated penetration of new technologies in all states of traveling, a permanent customer orientation service, creativity and innovation will be key competencies to future labor in the field of tourism. In this connection, it’s clear that public policymakers must identify, right from the market itself, the need to create new functions and jobs not in keeping with the existing competencies.

The challenge to hotel companies and tourism intermediation involves the swift adoption of high technology and the ability to adapt to the new forms of work, mainly in areas related to labor management and the promotion of independent decision-making at all levels

As to the public decision makers, they will have to evaluate economic recovery on the basis of new realistic patterns consistent with society’s perception. Measuring the wrong things will pave the way for absurd decisions, since many public policies are designed and evaluated taking into account their contribution to economic growth based on the so-called Gross Domestic Product, whose indicators and concepts will have to be the object of modifications. Illegal activity is often recorded if it involves money transactions, such as in drug trafficking and arms trade, or if they are environmentally unfriendly, as in the case of mining, the overexploitation of non-renewable products and tree felling. Meanwhile, many generous non-transactional actions leading up to a better quality of life or welfare go unnoticed.

We will have to appreciate the pleasures derived from a fruitful and respectful relationship with nature and the environment, value health, health care and home care, as well as to consider hundreds of factors not addressed by any international or stock market, such as gender equality, child care or the protection of the elderly, and the access to health systems and education, among others deemed to be measures of a people’s confidence.

The situation demands a global transformation characterized by the convergence of various political, economic and social elements, where the state of the art in computer science, physics and biology will change the world and our own ideas about Solidarity and Humanity. In this regard, difficulties and circumstances notwithstanding, Cuba has proved that the human being belongs right in the middle of the “value chain”.

 An inclusive tourism in view of the evolution of the world population

The world’s demographic evolution is marked by a growing young population in some regions and the aging of the population in others, which is likely to put pressure on labor markets and health and social security systems. However, these changes break new ground by facilitating the appearance of more active societies based on care, safety and inclusion. We need to take advantage of these profound transformations and the chance they give us to maintain a sustainable economic growth based on a more promising future, and achieve economic security, equal opportunities and social justice, as well as reinforce the fabric of society.

In recent times, terms such as the economics of aging or population aging seem to herald the decline of human civilization, but they actually represent a victory and a badge of success of the advances in medical science, disease prevention and birth control. Nowadays the elderly live in a world of constant technological and economic progress, and those who have enjoyed high levels of instruction, education, health care and culture and take a positive view of labor and work, account for a predictable segment which in the near future will contribute to a rise in the economic activity indicators and counteract the prejudice about aging.

As an economic sector, tourism is deeply affected by the social and technological transformations that shape today’s new business models, consumption patterns, changes in tourism’s value chain and the supply-and-demand dynamics. As a result of this perception, the tourism-health binomial will become a truly novel concept bound to rank among the best business models and an opportunity for safe tourist destinations like Cuba and others known at international level for their health and medical care systems.

 Recovery of the Aeronautical Sector is key to World Tourism growth

In recent years, the growth rate of passenger air traffic volume went as far as to exceed that of the number of international tourists. As predicted by expert estimates, the early 2020s would bring a 5% increase in the number of scheduled flight passengers, whereas the World Tourism Organization aimed for 1.6 billion tourists in the year of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Dubai 2020 Expo, and Beethoven 2020 in Germany. The year 2019 had ended with 1,465 million international tourists, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced a 5.5% rise in the number of passengers.

At the beginning of the fateful 2020, there were 29,000 commercial airliners operating worldwide for 297 companies. The United States’ top three airlines (American Airlines, United and Delta) counted on 1,600 aircraft, while China’s (China Southern, China Eastern and Air China Group) had around 1,550. According to estimates, by the 2030s there would be 46,950 commercial airliners in operation, 41,000 of them new aircraft.

In the middle of this idyllic scenario, the irruption of the SARS Co-V2 pandemic made it clear that aircraft have been main cause of widespread contagion around the world. The airlines and big airports with high air passenger flows paved a preferential way for the virus as they became a major source of infection due to the great concentrations of travelers and long waiting times. The countries with these important air terminals, hubs of global interconnections, turned into the pandemic’s epicenters of global contagion.

Aviation has been the main driving force behind the travel and tourism industries, but in the present circumstances the delay in recovery might wind up being very harmful to the revival of international tourism. It is to be expected that in the short term the great airlines will reorganize their structure and operations to make up for their huge losses and obtain the credits they need to bankroll their new air fleets. In this way, along with new measures to improve airport infrastructure, aviation can keep growing and still be the prime mover of international tourism.


International tourism in Cuba: a predictable impact

In 2019 Cuba received 4,275,561 international visitors, 9.3% less than the previous year. The imposition of new restrictions and a cruise ship travel ban by the U.S. government in June was the main reason for the reduction in the arrival of visitors from the neighboring country, a decrease of 49% from 2018.

Nevertheless, there were more overnight stays—10,203 more tourists than in 2018. Despite constant restrictions imposed by the U.S. Administration, 1,051,433 American residents traveled to Cuba, of them 552,895 Cuban-Americans and 498,538 Americans.

Those 3.7 million stays brought in a little more than 19.3 tourists per day, which amounted to 2,616.5 million CUCs in total revenues, a figure slightly higher than in 2018.

After the first ten weeks of 2020, at the height of the tourist season, Cuba was hosting 894,125 foreign visitors. Of them, 845,795 were overnight tourists, that is, 5.1 million foreign tourists per day in several modes of accommodation, an increase of 1.3% from the same period of 2019.

On March 11, when Cuba reported the first cases of COVID-19 infection, the tourist sector implemented at once the relevant health protocols designed by the Cuban Health System for these cases of emergency.

All the hotels halted their business operations as some 90,000 foreign tourists returned to their respective countries of residence, among them 42,000 Canadians; 6,000 Russians; 5,000 Americans; 4,000 French; and 3,000 Germans.

In these extraordinary times the hotels have engaged their own employees in the maintenance, sanitation and thorough cleaning of every facility, while the minor regional and municipal lodges and camping sites were eventually turned into isolation or quarantine units managed by their own employees together with health professionals.

Other tourism enterprises that provide complementary services, such as food preparation and tourist transportation, are directly assisting medical and other centers that provide care to vulnerable groups across the country. It’s about an internal reorganization in times of pandemic without interrupting the continuity of the strategic plans and projects for tourism development.


By way of conclusion

For tourist destinations like Cuba and the Caribbean islands, the tourism markets of Europe, the United States and Canada—countries with the highest rates of infection and mortality—will be subject to several post-pandemic factors bound to shape the long road to tourism recovery once the situation returns to normal.

The recovery of international tourism to Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean will depend on several important factors:

1. The intensity of the economic crisis and unemployment in the main emitting countries.

2. The recovery of international trade and the tourism supply chains needed to ensure provisions for visitors and hotels alike.

3. The recovery of the aeronautical sector, including both the aircraft and the airports, once the new regulations and protocols to guarantee the travelers’ perception of safety are in place.

4. The restoration of consumer confidence after the COVID-19 scare to encourage travel to mid- and long-haul destinations.

5. The accelerated implementation of high technology, e-commerce and digital platforms in all destinations and hotels.

6. The adoption of new hotel management functions and processes in human capital management areas, reducing individual and collective contacts particularly in hotel reception and information desks, restaurants and bars.

In light of the present situation in the Caribbean as a whole, the effects of climate change and the incipient hurricane season are unpredictable disruptive factors which will affect the efforts to recover the international flow of tourists to our region.


Translator: Jesús Bran

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