General aviation

Reset, rethink, resize, re-adjust, restart and re-learn – the new tourism reality

When the time comes, getting tourists back in the air will require more than just reinstating flights

tourism reset
The departure board at Vancouver International airport (Brett Ballah).

Canada’s tourism industry is going to have to go through a major reset to adapt to the new COVID reality. Or, as an upcoming class puts it, they’ll also have to rethink, resize, re-adjust, restart, and re-learn how to run the business.

 “Will COVID-19 change the way people travel and do tourism forever?” MIDAS Aviation asks in a new online course on how to build a Tourism Restart and Recovery Plan. Truth is, no one really knows. And businesses have to survive long enough to find out.

Course instructor René Armas Maes says it comes down to a three phase approach.

“First phase: A business needs to be reset and rethought,” said the vice president of Commercial and regional partner at MIDAS Aviation. “Secondly and with a new strategy and vision going forward to match current lackluster demand, it must be resized and re-adjusted to meet new market dynamics.

“Finally, flexible and agile structures need to be in place to execute as many efficient restarts as needed as new travel restrictions, new infection waves, virus mutations and borders closures may occur at short notice. Therefore business will need to re-learn for past experience to guarantee they stay afloat until demand and revenue environment improve.”

Getting smaller

All tourism-related businesses are facing smaller demand for two years or more. It’s part of what Armas Maes calls rethinking and resetting. The International Civil Aviation Organization says the consensus is air travel won’t return to 2019 levels for another three years.

“From the very beginning, I was much more pessimistic than everybody else,” said William Haseltine, a U.S.- based scientist and philanthropist. He was speaking at a recent conference of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “You asked the question, is there a country that is tourist-friendly? They’d have to be crazy to be tourist-friendly today.”

It has become almost standard for countries to close their borders to stop the spread of COVID-19. For international flights, Canada requires negative COVID tests before departure and will soon require a second test on arrival. Then, travellers have to pay for a hotel stay while they wait for results. Decisions are made and implemented in as little as a week.

“It hurts the economy, airlines booking and the end-to-end travel chain,” said Armas Maes in an email. That chain includes tour operators, hotel, restaurants, and ground providers, among others. He said when governments imposed COVID tests, air bookings dropped 30%. “Instead, more robust protocols (testing at departure and arrivals point and contact tracing) should be implemented.”

But Haseltine pointed to China, where international travellers quarantine for three weeks on arrival.

“That’s what you need to do if you want to keep your country COVID-free at this point,” he said.

“The only way tourism businesses can survive this crisis is by rebalancing priorities, preserving liquidity and containing costs,” MIDAS argues in its course materials.

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Nascent efforts to reset tourism

Across the country, efforts at rebuilding post-COVID tourism are nascent at best. Travel Alberta has issued a Request for Proposals for strategies to increase tourism in the summer and beyond. Given the province’s distance from major markets, the Crown Corporation is concentrating on rebuilding aviation.

MIDAS has identified at least 12 domestic and 14 international tourism niches on which the industry can rebuild. They include family travel, community-based tourism, and Millennials and Generation Z. Data and setting the right profile will drive which strategy companies or regions choose.

But concerted efforts have already paid off in some countries, said Armas Maes.

“Indonesia’s Tourism Ministry announced a five ‘super priority’ destination strategy,” he said. “After reopening for domestic arrivals last June, one of those five super priority destinations through its local Tourism Authority channeled resources into the many outdoor activities including cycling, climbing, kayaking and camping. These efforts have paid off as hotel occupancy rates approached 80% in August 2020.”

MIDAS points out in its Tourism and Recovery Plan course that businesses will have to stimulate demand. That means offering incentives to attract visitors, and refunds when conditions sour.

For airports, rethinking their operations

Other countries are trying different approaches to get people travelling.

Rome established safe corridors to the United States. Safe corridors involve testing passengers within 48 hours of departure from Atlanta or JFK and again on arrival in Italy. Passengers are then free to travel the country without quarantine. The programme was launched November 23. Since then, traffic from the U.S. has more than doubled from New York. Testing has turned up only five positive cases among 4,000 passengers.

“We have a clear feeling that the virus will continue to impact air travel in the years to come,” said Ivan Bassato, a Vice President at Rome International Airport. “So we need travel protocols able to identify and control infected passengers. They will very likely stay in effect for the next years as society learns to coexist with the virus.”

Airports are a key component of the tourism structure. As Travel Alberta pointed out, many areas in the Americas are simply too remote to reach any other way than by air. So far, they have re-learned how to operate by automating processes and reducing passenger touch points.

But they may have to go farther, said an expert from the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University. That includes retrofitting buildings to improve ventilation, increase filter efficiency, even going as far as supplementing building systems with portable air cleaners. Maintaining a safe environment could also extend out to aircraft parked at gates, said Joseph Allen.

“Airport operators and airlines should make preparations to provide gate-based ventilation to all parked aircraft in the event of an emergency or pandemic,” he recommended eight years ago. “The reality is, this isn’t always happening.”

Focus on the traveller

It’s all about restoring traveller confidence. Confidence that has been shaken to its core by COVID-19.

“We’re seeing a continued focus on protecting passengers and crew,” said Laurie Garrow, the Co-Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Air Mobility at Georgia Tech. “It’s a very exciting time to be in aviation and to really tackle a lot of the problems going on.”

Of course, none of these efforts will pay off if people don’t know about them, the MIDAS course argues.

We have to think about airports and aircraft of the future as public health venues.

Lenny Marcus, Harvard University

“Both governments and tourism boards need to focus on putting together financial incentives and communicational campaigns at provincial, domestic, regional and international levels to rebuild bookings and demand,” the company said. “A bare minimum communicational strategy need to focus on trust, health and safety besides high hygiene standards and protocols.”

“It’s about people,” said Harvard Professor Lenny Marcus. “We often times think of an airport as a place where we can sell things, as a commercial venue. But we have to think about airports and aircraft of the future as public health venues.”

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