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COVID-19 has affected the tourism industry

Expert Q&A: RST's Sharon Zou on tourism and COVID-19

The College of Applied Health Sciences has experts in many areas that have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Periodically we will ask these experts about how their areas of expertise have been impacted and what we can expect in a post-COVID-19 world. Today, we ask Suiwen (Sharon) Zou, an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, about the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry.

Q: Which parts of the tourism industry are feeling the most pain now, and which will be the ones that are slowest to come back online when social distancing guidelines are eased or lifted?

A: The airlines and cruise industry are likely the worst affected by COVID-19. I would expect airlines, especially the international routes, and the cruise industry to be the ones that are slowest to come back. Once social distancing guidelines are lifted, people will be eager to travel but with caution. I expect most of these trips will be local or regional, and travelers will be more likely to travel by car. For the cruise industry, cruise companies will need to make heavy investments and substantial efforts to save their reputations affected by several outbreaks onboard. It will take a while before travelers feel comfortable traveling on the seas with several thousand people in one ship.

Q: How can cities and states that depend on tourism for large parts of their revenue adjust, if social distancing guidelines remain in place through 2022, as reported?

A: I hope we will not get to the point where social distancing lasts into 2022. However, if that's the case, people's lives will become very digital. Cities and states should consider offering various forms of virtual tour. Although virtual tour won't bring in revenues, it can be a viable way to keep in touch with potential visitors and maintain travel interest and confidence. This type of virtual tourism can help keep the destination brands afloat. Also, the idea of virtual tourism is to bring the destination to travelers when they cannot come. To capitalize on virtual tourism, destinations can develop some virtual vacation experience featuring local products (e.g., local artifacts, agriculture products) as a way to promote the local economy.

Q: What measures can tourism sites, such as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, take that allow them to re-open in a modified fashion but still assure the public?

A: Reopening tourism sites should be a slow process, and only areas/activities (e.g., hiking, fishing) in which tourists can easily follow social distancing guidelines should be open first. Activities or operations that encourage public congregation and interaction, such as shuttle bus and indoor interpretive programs, should remain closed until it is completely safe to reopen. Work closely with health officials and local/state level governments and strictly follow guidelines provided by health authorities such as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staff training is critical to the success of the implementation of these measures. Clear and effective communication and information transparency are the key to assure the public and restore travel confidence. All the measures taken to ensure a safe travel experience should be documented and communicated with the public. Leverage local and state destination management/marketing organizations' communication platforms (e.g., websites, social media sites) as they are seen as a trusted source of information by travelers.

Q: How does COVID-19 compare to other recent events such as SARS and 9/11 in terms of economic impact upon the tourism industry?

A: The economic impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry will be more significant than the 9/11 tragedy and the 2003 SARS outbreak, mostly because the magnitude and the scale of COVID-19 are unprecedented. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the tourism industry was hit hard in affected regions (mainly in Asia). The current pandemic, however, has been crushing the global tourism industry, as various parts of the world are closing borders, and most states in the U.S. have placed a stay-at-home order. Moreover, unlike SARS and 9/11 whose economic impacts were relatively short term, COVID-19 is expected to last until late summer or even longer, which means that the disruption will last for at least two quarters. The economic impacts on the tourism industry will be longer and greater.

Q: Do you agree with national parks allowing visitors without fees, and how does that impact their resources going forward?

A: I agree with national parks allowing visitors without fees for a short period after travel is resumed. Entrance fees usually have more impacts on local residents and frequent visitors from nearby areas. As I mentioned, trips after COVID-19 will be mostly local and regional, and thus free entrance for, say three to six months, will encourage local residents and nearby visitors to come and visit the park. Free entrance for a short period will have a minor impact on national parks' resources, but the visitors it brings to the gateway communities will likely help the local businesses such as restaurants and retailers.

Q: What would you advise a tourism company, such as a travel agency, to do at this time in order to survive?

A: I would advise tourism businesses, particularly small local businesses, to seek support from the local or state authorities such as interest-free short-term loans, and keep an eye on the financial support from the federal government. At the same time, find ways to cut back on unnecessary operational expenses while employees are working from home—suspend recurring office supplies, negotiate the lease with the landlord, freeze utilities, and adjust rental insurance. As for marketing, adjust marketing strategies to adapt to consumers' new normal such as cutting offline advertising, utilizing social media, and targeting the local tourist market. Marketing messages should be redesigned to focus on maintaining travelers' confidence and interest to visit once the crisis is over.

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