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If June was the beginning of “We’re reopening for tourism,” July is proving to be the time of “actually — not so fast.”
The UK government on Saturday abruptly announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving back in the UK from Spain, prompting a fall in travel stocks on Monday morning. The decree was so sudden that it caused a scramble of passengers who sought to get back quickly to avoid 14 days indoors at home. After rumors that the UK would exempt the popular holiday regions of the Balearic and Canary Islands, the Foreign Office said late on Monday they would be included as well.
Meanwhile, some nations in the Caribbean — one of the only regions that has been accepting American tourists — are rethinking that offer. The Bahamas and Puerto Rico both reneged their invitation to Americans as rising cases made them rethink the prospect of welcoming visitors from the U.S. hotspot. Then, on Monday, the Bahamas changed its policy again, saying that arrivals from all nations (including the U.S.) will have to quarantine for 14 days in a government facility at their own expense.
All the confusion raises the specter that reopening for international tourism when the pandemic isn’t just far from over — but far from even stabilized in many places — could have a worse impact on tourism in the long term than the marginal gains in the short term.
There are a variety of actors that determine when and whether a destination reopens. The are government policies in source markets, government policies in the destination itself, and the individual decisions of business owners and operators about whether it’s economically feasible to open for a lower number of arrivals. This matrix of factors mean that any “reopening” is less a coordinated strategy, and more a hope that everyone stays aligned for long enough to see a summer season. However, with governments that have proved as fickle and unpredictable as Boris Johnson’s — which changed its policy on foreign travel three times in one month — uncertainty is to be expected. Spain’s tourism industry is simply the latest casualty of its chaos.
It’s no secret and entirely understandable that tourism businesses need revenue to survive. But these jagged reopenings could also lead to sunk costs that prove to be the final straw for small operations without reliable cashflow. As many small businesses have painfully learned recently, spending the cash to reopen in keeping with new guidelines — only to find out days later that business isn’t coming after all — can be the the difference between just hanging on or closing shop entirely.
In addition, the confidence of travelers is already shaky, having survived the March global shutdown where many had traumatic experiences at borders, in airports, and long, fruitless waits on airline phone lines — and even longer waits for refunds. As the European Tourism Association’s Tim Fairhurst told Skift last week, there’s a considerable and understandable fear in some tourists’ minds about getting “stuck” on the wrong side of the border. More news of scrambling at airports or having to cancel a trip right as you were gearing up to go won’t help restore travelers’ long term confidence.
In response to the UK’s sudden quarantine decision, World Travel and Tourism Association President Gloria Guevara released a statement saying the move “will be hugely disappointing for thousands of UK holidaymakers — and is disastrous for the hard-pressed Travel & Tourism industry, both in Spain and the UK.”
“WTTC believes quarantines do nothing to help restore consumer confidence at a time when we need to encourage people to return to travelling, in line with our Safe Travels protocols, to give a hope of saving some of the 2020 summer season.”
That may be the case. But travel consumer confidence in the middle of a raging pandemic is a perhaps a misguided thing to chase. When it comes to tourism right now, there are no easy answers, no foolproof opening strategies, no risk-free trips. A month or so into the great reopening experiment, it’s worth pondering whether it not only carries public health risks, but economic ones too.
UPDATED: This post was updated to include developments about the Canary and Balearic Islands.