Long read: How Covid-19 could transform UK tourism

Published: 3 Sep 2020

Author: Terence Stevens
Long read: How Covid-19 could transform UK tourism

International tourism has plummeted from being the world’s largest economic sector and employer to being the worst hit part of the global economy.

"The pandemic has provided an unparalleled opportunity for us to integrate tourism with our educational curricula, with our health services and with our local societies" - Terence Stevens, Fellow

After decades of year-on-year growth in international tourist arrivals, we now face the challenge of re-building an entire industry. Tourism is an industry comprising millions of enterprises from micro-sized to internationally renowned household brands. It is now time to reset the tourism agenda and to learn the lessons from the years of unprecedented growth.   

The warning signs were beginning to appear in years before 2020, and dangerous cracks were obvious along the fault lines of a profit-focused and short-term industry. Communities were screaming about ‘over-tourism,’ the cruise industry was creating headlines for all the wrong reasons and the Travel Foundation exposed the hidden burden of tourism. The industry ignored these warnings and went from hero to zero in a few weeks.

The destinations that are emerging from the pandemic in a balanced, systematic, sustainable and resilient manner are those that had a well-structured vision and strategy for developing tourism before Covid-19. Over the past 20 years my consultancy, Stevens & Associates, has been benchmarking international exemplars of destination management and sharing the lessons of this best practice to those working within the leisure and tourism industry.

At this moment in time, our work is entirely focused upon helping destinations prepare their post-Covid-19 recovery plans. This has meant placing a greater emphasis than ever before on the principles of the 2018 Barcelona Declaration, which argues that a better place to live is a better place to visit. This includes understanding a destination’s assets and their ability be managed in a safe, sustainable, manner. This is known as their carrying capacity which is simply the agreed level of tourism that is acceptable for a sustainable future for the environment, the community and the economy. We are currently working on projects in New Zealand, Slovenia, Ireland and Scotland, where these principles for the brave new world of tourism will be placed centre-stage.

The international benchmarking of competent destination management has given us the opportunity to identify a new set of rules for tourism in the post-Covid-19 era, which focuses on the five ‘Rs’ of tourism: recognition, respect, responsibility, resilience and relationships. This gives tourism a more co-created approach that involves the community and the tourist. It builds mutual respect and trust, which allow long-term relationships to be built and ensure enhanced experiences for all concerned. 

Sharing this knowledge has involved a number of new initiatives, including the use of open access in on-line workshops, conferences and discussions. In addition, in May 2020 a group of 25 tourism specialists (all of whom are involved in teaching the post-graduate tourism marketing and management programme at the University of Bergamo, the original epicentre for the pandemic in Europe) collaborated to produce a book called Tourism Facing a Pandemic: From Crisis to Recovery.

Terence addressing the Cardiff Tourism Summit in 2019

In addition, Stevens & Associates created a new website and blog to share ideas for assisting the recovery of tourism. Two further books were also published about successful destination development: this included an ebook, Wish You Were Here: The art and the science of destination management) and a paperback book, Wish You Were Here: The stories behind 50 of the world’s great destinations.

What has been particularly revealing to me has been the enormous relevance of my 1976 Churchill Fellowship. Most notably, the importance of understanding destination asset management determining the destination’s appropriate levels of tourism activity. This provides the tourist and the host community with high quality experiences based upon local heritage, culture and people.

Drawing upon the learnings from my Fellowship, the most important messages for the future re-growth of tourism are, firstly, the need to respect the environment and community’s health and wealth in developing a destination for tourism; secondly, ensuring that there is mutual trust and openness between the host and the guest; and, thirdly, to involve the local community in sharing their stories, local products and cultural heritage to help their guests have the real, authentic, experiences that they crave.

Celebrating the local, the lure of the local, and the unique assets of a small place, provide the intrigue and the lodestones to pique our interest. The pandemic has provided an unparalleled opportunity for us to integrate tourism with our educational curricula, with our health services and with our local societies. In the words of Jacinda Ardern, the charismatic prime minister of New Zealand, “There is now an awesome opportunity to explore your own country, its history and culture.” 

For me, living in Wales, the pandemic has given me the chance to really get to know my own filltir sgwar (square mile), around the Afon Llwchwr and the Burry Estuary. It has also been a chance to look again at the area where I grew up: south Somerset. That part of south-west England is a good example of local tourist initiatives. It was John Steinbeck’s favourite place, where he was happiest. He lived at Discover Cottage, near Bruton, with his wife Elaine in 1959, and wrote: “I wish you could feel this place… There’s a goodness here… something that clears the eyes. This part of Somerset is the most enchanting of all counties. She has been stirring the soul since before the legends of King Arthur began. Nothing in sight hasn’t been here since the sixth century. I am depending on Somerset to give me something new, which I need. We couldn’t have found a more perfect place. A sense of wonder, the almost breathless thing.”

The Haselbury Mill tithe barn in Haselbury has been converted into a hotel to welcome local tourism 

Today Bruton is undergoing a remarkable revival, led by the art gallery Hauser & Wirth and the newly opened The Newt in Somerset. In Pilton there is the Glastonbury Festival. A little further south, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets are celebrated in East Coker, while West Coker has its restored the Dawes Twine Works together with The Twinemaker’s Arms and the delightful Lanes Hotel next to the village church. Down the road in Haselbury the irrepressable Roger Bastable and his team have converted the Haselbury Mill into a hotel and with the Great Tithe Barn being a world-class venue Julian Temperley is setting new standards with his Somerset Cider Brandy at Burrow Hill in Kingsbury Episcopi. These exemplify how the investment needed to raise the quality of a destination is happening across a number of villages across the UK. Together, these small rural villages are setting the tempo and raising the bar for domestic tourism.

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