COVID-19 temporarily decimated the tourism industry. Now that global travel is getting back on track, there is an opportunity to change the industry for a better future – and tourism authorities have a chance to lead from the front

The pandemic has receded, people are on the move again and demand for global travel is bouncing back. This is good news for the industry, public sector tourism authorities and for economies, but with the welcome return to commercial travel come questions about whether tourism strategies are fit for the future.

During a Mastercard webinar, expert panellists talked about the travel people want in a post-COVID world – including demand for ever-more sophisticated digital means to find and book experiences, and sustainable goods and services.  

Kicking off the conversation was Quim Martínez Bosch, vice president of Mastercard’s Tourism Innovation Hub, which launched last year. Bosch explained that one of the hub’s earliest projects was to digitalise artisanal businesses in Costa Rica so that producers of handmade crafts could advertise and sell their wares more widely.

People increasingly seek novelty in their experiences abroad and want those experiences to feel authentic, Martínez Bosch said. Where once the average tourist might have accepted a transactional relationship with the places they travelled to, now they want to know that they are giving back too.

He pointed to a study of more than 2,000 people planning a trip in Europe within the next 12 months which showed that more than half considered themselves sustainable consumers. However, only 16% displayed behaviours consistent with this description. So, what accounts for the gap?

According to Mastercard’s analysis, “the main reason is that [tourists] don’t have [enough] information, or they don’t know how they can make their travel more sustainable,” Martínez Bosch said. And as he explained, providing people with the information they need to travel more sustainably has multiple benefits, not least that truly sustainable travellers tend to stay longer in a location and spend more money.

Moving on to the increasing importance of digital in the travel sector, Martínez Bosch pointed out that around 83% of millennials turn to social networks for travel inspiration, while a report by the online travel agent Booking.com showed that 43% of travellers are keen to use virtual reality when planning their trips.  

He also touched on concerns about the potential of new technologies such as ChatGPT to undermine the credibility of tourism information.

Webinar moderator Siobhan Benita noted that the question of whether public sector authorities could influence the development of such tools was worth exploring, before handing over to Rose Wangen-Jones, managing director of marketing, destination and commercial at London & Partners – a London-based business growth and destination agency.

Managing the destination   

Wangen-Jones drew the focus of the conversation to the London economy, to which tourists contribute around £36bn (US$45.5bn) annually. London is now well on its way to recovery after three very turbulent years. Chief among the lessons learned from the pandemic, she said, is the importance of a destination’s resilience to global shocks.

“One of the things that we have done is revisit our approach to tourism,” Wangen-Jones explained, adding that London & Partners’ ambition is to make the city “the best tourist experience, both for visitors and for Londoners alike”.

To do this, Wangen-Jones said she and her team have been working on what she called “managing the destination”: expanding what London has to offer by thinking differently about how parts of the city are showcased.

Aligning with the themes of novelty and authenticity raised by Bosch, this also involves “focusing positively on independent retail versus chains… on unique accommodations, immersive experiences. How can we make it local and authentic for the visitor?”

The second prong to ensuring London remains a world-leading tourist destination is ensuring that the benefits of tourism are shared by local communities, Wangen-Jones said.

“This is about making sure that our industry is driving positive change… both from jobs but also from what we get to do around the city.

“It’s important that as we build towards the future, we are building on the city’s diversity [and] inclusivity… which are core values of what we are. Visitors that we want to attract ideally are those visitors that share those core values with us as a city.”

Wangen-Jones also touched on AI – she believes it could help rather than hinder tourism – and on the importance of creating experiences that tap into travellers’ need for personal wellbeing.

“Our data [shows] that people want to relax on holiday. There is a desire for outdoor space. When we think about London, we are very fortunate to have a lot of outdoor space, so how do we craft that visit to include an experience of calm in areas where [tourists are] very busy?”

The over-use of ‘sustainability’

Next of the panellists to speak was Jeremy Sampson, CEO of international sustainable travel NGO, The Travel Foundation, who raised caution around use of the word ‘sustainable’.

“It’s been co-opted by various stakeholders to mean different things. And I think the net result [of this] is that it has lost a bit of its meaning. It’s not that I don’t believe in sustainability [but] calling travellers and products and hotels and various components of the industry ‘sustainable’ in and of themselves… I am not sure that’s possible.”

Sampson added that the gap Martínez Bosch highlighted between people’s expressed values around sustainability and their actions when travelling abroad, were cause for concern, though not surprising.

When asked, people often define sustainability as a set of “simple, good practices and behaviours around the environment”, whether it applies to their daily routine or their travel itineraries, Sampson said. In practice, this can mean not using disposable water bottles or reusing hotel towels to reduce the strain on water resources.

“But sustainability is [also] about outdoor experiences. It is about balance [and] engaging more with local communities,” he said.

Over the last few years, there had been an increase in businesses undergoing certification programmes and promoting their sustainability efforts. Without question, the will to conform to sustainability standards is more concrete and visible than ever, he said.

“That’s a good thing… but there’s also a big fear that I have about greenwashing here. Visitors are increasingly savvy, and stakeholders, like residents and local communities, are [also] increasingly savvy about… the long-term viability of the industry’s impact on places.”

In Sampson’s view, public sector tourism authorities have an opportunity to lead social change from the front, whether by “treating people and employees equitably”, or “reducing conflicts between local communities and local residents and the industry itself”.

Tourism can genuinely benefit places from which it generates capital, he said, but he also stressed that authorities would have to work harder to “reduce the [financial] leakage that can plague destinations”.

If tourism authorities and companies don’t confront these problems, he warned that younger generations could reject commercial travel altogether.

The measure of success

A question from the webinar’s live audience centred on the kind of traveller who practices what they preach when it comes to sustainability. If the greenest tourists tend to spend more on average, can we infer that green tourism itself comes at a premium?

“I don’t think the onus [for green tourism] is always on the visitor. I think the onus is on us,” Wangen-Jones said. “If we believe in [sustainability], then the offer needs to be there. And not just the offer. We need to make [sustainability] easy for people, whether it’s premium or not.”

The panel finished with a discussion about how tourism authorities and businesses could analyse tourist behaviours and measure the success of campaigns and initiatives.

Martínez Bosch offered one example of an effective metric developed by Mastercard in partnership with the city of Prague, whereby behavioural data from heat maps applied to a set of 300-metre areas across the city allowed it to devise ways to maximise tourism experiences that also benefitted businesses. 

In addition to helping to digitalise small businesses in specific countries, Martínez Bosch said Mastercard’s Tourism Innovation Hub is partnering with the United Nations World Trade Organization (UNWTO) to do the same with SMEs around the world. The Digital Futures Programme’s, goal is to ensure that SMEs are properly integrated into the value chain and able to participate in tourism’s forward growth.

Sampson highlighted that success will ultimately be measured by tourism authorities’ ability to plan for future risks. This will include fully digitalised infrastructure and require the nature of products and services to change when the situation demands, he said.

“What’s coming is unknown. It’s a bit scary, but I think we don’t know exactly what the shape of tourism will look like in the future. And those who are more prepared to be delivering a diversification of product and experience and be able to adapt… will be the winners in that situation. Now is the time to innovate, not when you’re on your heels.”

To learn all this and more, you can watch the full Purposeful, experiential and digital: how public sector tourism strategies can adapt to today’s traveller webinar on our dedicated events page. The webinar, hosted by Mastercard with support from Global Government Forum, was held on 15 June 2023.