A few years and another lifetime ago, I gave keynote addresses about the phenomenon of “over-tourism.” Remember those news stories about Venice, Dubrovnik and even the Canadian Rockies being overrun with tourists? As a ‘bucket list’ expert, I felt complicit. Tourism’s explosive global growth was having a detrimental impact on the environment, historic landmarks and individual experience.
In Bali, I discovered polluted beaches, unscrupulous operators and heaving crowds doing nobody any favours. The pandemic has been devastating for tourism, but my hope is that the industry will rebound with a renewed sense of purpose, committing to a more sustainable, inclusive and responsible future. Alternatively, we could be on the cusp of a no-holds barred cash grab as desperate operators do anything they can to recover lost revenues. Barely surviving 18 months of almost zero revenue, one can hardly blame them. And yet, returning to the previous model of unsustainable growth digs us a deeper hole. Fortunately, there are new trends in the world of tourism suggesting a more positive future is on the horizon.
Transformative tourism places great emphasis on travel as a tool for personal growth, reflection and mindful action. It wants the industry to build experiences around strengthening relationships, inspiring healthy lifestyles, developing social purpose and helping tourists give back to the communities and environment they visit. The Seattle-based Transformational Travel Council has developed programs, workshops and certifications to guide operators, agencies and destination organizations around these important principles, shining a much-needed spotlight on the conscious choices we make and how they can positively impact ourselves and the world around us.
In the two decades since traditional couch-surfing caught the venture capital wave, the peer-to-peer tourism economy has matured into Airbnb and Vrbo and many similar digital services. Collaborative tourism is all about an exchange: from house-swapping and ride-shares to language immersion, voluntourism or work-for-experience. Both parties provide something of value to the other for the mutual benefit of all involved. The popularity and growth of collaborative tourism has been greatly aided by developments in mobile booking and rating technology, although as with anything you discover online, if it looks too good to be true, it usually is.
During the pandemic, my son explored the dinosaur exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History. I showed my daughter masterpieces at the Louvre, and we explored Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Lockdowns and restrictions have been a tremendous boost for virtual travel, as attractions rushed to create digital offerings to fill the void of physical visits. National Geographic launched virtual reality experiences that allow you to visit Machu Picchu and kayak alongside penguins in Antarctica. Google Arts and Culture guides you to more than 2,000 leading museums, showcasing their artifacts and allowing you to tour through the exhibits. Luxury safari lodges live-streamed game drives (see above), while virtual sightseeing tours offered 360-degree tours of major capitals, coral reefs and UNESCO world heritage sites. With tech companies making major investments in augmented and virtual reality, we may soon be able to visit anywhere we want to go, adopting an avatar to become anyone we want to be.
The earliest era of tourism belonged exclusively to the aristocracy and wealthy elite. Nobody else had the money or time to afford a grand tour of Europe. Modern travel has been greatly democratized with experiences for all budgets, but it is still catching up when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion — in terms of the consumers who take part, and empowering the tour owners, staff and entrepreneurs who drive the industry. Fortunately, organizations such as the non-profit Travel Unity are gaining ground, offering certifications, collegiate programs and other services to ensure the future of travel engages with diverse voices and cultures, supporting and developing opportunities for those beyond the privileged elite.
Whether remote working is here to stay or continues in a hybrid form, the phenomenon of digital nomadism shows no signs of slowing down. Prior to the pandemic, digital workers were already flocking to low-cost, stable, beautiful and tech-friendly destinations around the globe. Today, #vanlife has never been so appealing to millennials, just as RVing and caravanning attracts their parents. Record sales of RVs and caravans should result in much-needed innovations at RV Parks and campgrounds, who will either adapt to appeal to remote workers or be bought out by corporations eager to capitalize on this growing market. Either way, it’s going to be harder to escape Wi-Fi, which could a pro or a con depending on your lifestyle.
Restrictions forced many Canadians to discover their own provinces for the first time, as government tourism agencies pivoted to spending millions of marketing dollars attracting locals as opposed to foreign or out-of-province visitors. Post-COVID, this will continue to increase interest in our abundant home-grown wonders. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Canada’s bucket list continues to grow and thrive. As international travel resumes, many Canadians will be more than content to keep their journeys closer to home.