Tourism and disruptive change

When the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) annual global summit takes place in Dallas on April 6/7, its participants will hear speakers address topics that even a decade ago would have seemed alien to the tourism industry.

Although much of the WTTC’s agenda addresses what you might expect – topics related to the environment, the changing market place being created by digitisation, and the challenges facing aviation and the cruise industry – it also includes quite new issues that indicate how as an industry, tourism is finding itself, sometimes quite literally, on the frontline of global change.

The effect is to make parts of the WTTC’s proceedings appear more like the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, the event where senior figures and world leaders meet to try to look over the horizon to see what might lie ahead, and make the necessary adjustments to their thinking.

In much the same way, the WTTC’s 2016 event is likely to take participants beyond their comfort zone, causing, one suspects, some in an industry that sometimes seems over-focussed on the bottom line and image, to recognise that tourism globally is now in a less happy place.

Some of the issues that fall into this category while challenging, are technical. They include consideration of the way in which global interconnectivity is changing cost structures and the ability of groups within the industry such as hoteliers to control and manage their own future; and how the need for ever greater investment in the sector’s development is resulting in the capital markets requiring greater control, transparency, good governance and responsibility from an industry that can be notoriously secretive, even buccaneering, about its business model.

Other issues, however, cross boundaries into darker areas that much of the industry, including that in the Caribbean, has not previously given much long term thought to but are likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future. In this respect three areas stand out.

The first is the implication of disease and migration on the industry, and the consequent effects they are having.  As the still uncertain effect of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, the displacement of millions of refugees from Syria and other conflict zones to Mediterranean tourism destinations, and the destruction of ancient world heritage sites, have demonstrated, tourism is the industry that is first to suffer.  The consequence has been not only the displacement of visitors away from countries and regions considered unsafe to other destinations or continents that are perceived to be safer, but also increased border controls, restrictions on travel, and new challenges in media management.

The second relates to the need for the industry to truly understand the nature of the security threat that it now faces globally and the long-term implications of recent horrific events aimed at visitors in Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Turkey, India and elsewhere. There is growing evidence that specifically targeted attacks against tourists are on the rise, with the intent of destabilising nations where tourism provides a significant part of GDP, and that even fleeing refugees have become a way in which economic damage can be created by changing the character of destinations.

And the third relates to the challenge potentially posed by technology and automation, raising questions for all employed in the industry about how tourism can best strike a future balance between service and technological skills in a sector that traditionally differentiates its offering by providing high levels of personal attention, about which more in a future column.

As the WTTC agenda demonstrates, tourism while selling dreams, can no longer stand apart from the world.

As the industry in the Caribbean well knows, if tourism is to thrive and provide a significant contribution to the regional economy, provide employment, and sustain a large penumbra of businesses small and large, it like other destinations requires relatively open borders, ease of travel, interconnectivity, and stability.

However, there are indications that this may change, suggesting that the industry in the region may find itself having to adapt rapidly to address disruptive new forces whether they be led by technological advance, or those who wish to close down the global industry through fear.

Thankfully the Caribbean is largely immune from the latter, but as the most tourism dependent region of the world, governments and the industry cannot avoid giving considering as to how to manage and respond to all the future risks that the WTTC’s conference identifies.