Tourism in a Post-COVID world

In June 2020, The Brock News interviewed David Fennell, Professor in the Department of Geography and Tourism Studies, about what tourism might look like in the wake of the global pandemic, after he made the following statement:

“COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to reset tourism along the lines of sustainability, so our country, and the world, will need to make massive changes in order to be more integrative and resilient.”


Can you give some more detail on your vision of “resetting” tourism along the lines of sustainability? 


The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to re-imagine tourism along the lines of sustainability if there is the will to do so.

There are some good models of sustainability in tourism that currently exist around the world, but for many, sustainability is just a term that gets in the way of economic benefit.

For example, a recent webinar on COVID-19 by Destination Canada, a national tourism body that is mostly a marketing vehicle, focused on how we can remain commercially relevant during the pandemic. There was very little talk about sustainability in moving Canadian tourism situation forward.

I’m mindful of the need for families and companies to remain financially solvent, but we need firm leadership on how to achieve financial success. Increasingly, especially if we look at the actions of other countries, future success in tourism is being embedded in a sustainability agenda. Let me give you an example.

A UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO, 2019) report on sustainability and production/consumption found that 100% of tourism policies in 101 member states refer to sustainability as an objective; 67% refer to resource efficiency; 64% connect sustainability and competitiveness; and 55% refer to sustainability extensively. The report also mentions that people are seeking to travel to make some sort of change, and that there continues to be rising awareness about sustainability.

I find it encouraging that the industry will now have to implement sustainability measures in order to gain competitive advantage. Consumers, now more than ever, are demanding low carbon options in all sectors of the industry (e.g., accommodation and transportation), greener technologies (electricity), a circular economy focus based on life-cycle analysis, materials-flow analysis, and waste mapping, and other sustainability dimensions.

Other possible trends include long-haul travel becoming more expensive and elitist. Localism, or traveling at home, will provide an excellent option for those who wish to minimize their risks (and save money) and be with family. Tourists may look for tourism options that include less congestion from high densities of tourists, which means those destinations that are currently experiencing overtourism, like Venice. These destinations may become less popular in the future because of close proximity to so many people. Tourists may also focus more on destinations and attractions that emphasize the family unit, in much the same way we are living right now.

I also think that there will be a higher degree of social cost associated with tourism. Traveling often, and to far-off destinations, will raise the eyebrows of our colleagues and counterparts, who may view such travel as excessive and unnecessary.

What are some of the “massive changes” that will be required at the national level? What are some of the changes worldwide?


We need to do a much better job in Canada connecting knowledge to practice. There is a tight connection between industry and government here, but we are well behind other regions like the UK, Australia, and New Zealand when it comes to integrating knowledge from scholars, government, and industry. There is the sense that the heavy lifting should come from industry, and perhaps consultants, but it’s only through the combined, integrative intersection between all three entities that we’ll find a way forward.

Globally, I think the Dutch Manifesto on “Planning for Post-Corona: Five proposals to craft a radically more sustainable and equal world” is an interesting perspective on where we need to go. The Manifesto, signed by 174 scholars argues for five essential changes—fascinating in principle, but there is a very steep neoliberal hill to climb and overcome, if we are to reach such a state.

Could you speak to how Niagara might re-envision tourism in a more sustainable way, especially on the heels of the recent funding announcement from the federal government?


With the potential to lose 50% or more of tourism revenue this year because of COVID-19, marketing and has to be one of the solutions to the problem. It’s great to see that Niagara Falls is receiving $4.5 million to get the ball rolling. We see how important Niagara Falls is as a major gateway community in Ontario and Canada, relative to other large urban centres such as Toronto ($7.9 million in from Ottawa).

Niagara is an interesting case study when it comes to tourism. On one hand, we have a classic mass tourism model in Niagara Falls and Clifton Hill that may never need to change. Restaurants, hotels, casinos, and other attractions are full on a regular basis, and it is only global or regional disruptive influences that have momentary impacts on what appears to be a successful industry—financially speaking.

On the other hand, there are countless other attractions in the Niagara region that experience varying levels of visitation and success, from wineries right on down the line. These destinations, attractions, and products do an excellent job in what they offer. But to answer the question of how to implement a greater degree of sustainability in Niagara, I feel that there needs to be much more cooperation at every level.

I sit on the board of the Ohnia:kara Aspiring Geopark, a UNESCO-driven program that recognizes places with international geological significance. These places must be managed in a bottom-up, holistic way around protection, education, sustainable development, and the involving local communities. One of the main driving forces of the initiative is to work with all municipalities in Niagara for the purpose of showcasing the unique people, places and products that we have to domestic and international markets. Getting sustainability right in our geopark is of considerable importance, because we feel it can be an excellent model for Ontario, Canada and the rest of the world.

What did you think was the top priority in terms of sustainable tourism prior to COVID-19? Has your thinking on that issue changed in light of the pandemic?


The top priorities for me, and many others, I suspect, are climate change, sustainability, and safety and security.

Tourism is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and most of this comes from the transportation sector. These numbers will only increase if travel and tourism continues to grow at the annual rate of 5-6%. The COVID-19 crisis is obviously having a significant impact on numbers for 2020, but experts are predicting that there will be recovery in the last quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.

We should keep in mind that tourism is an extremely resilient industry. I don’t mean resilient in a human-ecological systems capacity – I mean from an economic and experiential standpoint. Tourism bounces back quickly after significant human and ecological events. How tourism responds to COVID-19 is a question of considerable weight. I believe – I hope – that COVID-19 has the effect of making everyone, from policymakers, to tourism brokers, to tourists, to local people, sit up and take notice of the changes that we need to make in forging ahead.

From where should the changes be coming—government, large or small industry players, business operators, tourists themselves? Your last book, Sustainable Tourism, used the UN framework. What part will international bodies play?


Bridging from your earlier question about the changes needed worldwide, there needs to be a coordinated approach nationally and internationally to address the impact that COVID-19 is having on Canadians and the planet in general.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals must play a central role in al of this. These 17 goals, which are operational from 2015-2030, provide a roadmap for significant transformation in how we do business, how we treat each other, and the degree to which we act as stewards of the natural world.

Sustainability incentives need to be established for individuals and organizations to do a better job in all facets of life: eco-taxes, even though these have proven difficult to accept in the past, the creation of new technologies, and businesses that represent best practice when it comes to tourism sustainability.

What role do individuals – who long to be out and about after the shutdown – have to play in ensuring that tourism is reshaped in a sustainable way?


There are really two scenarios that could play out in our efforts to build sustainability in tourism. The first is what I have been describing above: new technologies, new policy, new practices, and new knowledge around how people and organizations navigate the new realities that we are forced to live with. This may include a steady state economy in which considerably more emphasis is placed on the Manifesto mentioned above.

The second scenario is business-as-usual. The pessimist in me says that individual and organizational self-interest will continue to rule the day. It’s rational to take care of our own interests over the interests of others if this allows us to benefit in the manner in which we see fit. So, it matters not that others are left to hold the bag with all the negative socio-cultural, economic and environmental problems that go along with tourism.

For example, we often succumb to akrasia, or weakness of will, in the pursuit of our touristic ends. Even though we know that option “A” is the right or good course of action, we often choose option “B” because it enhances our experience, even at the cost to something or someone else, like a donkey or elephant ride on an animal that has been severely abused. However, sometimes we truly do not know the impacts that we create from our travel, which means that educating tourists and the tourism industry is absolutely critical if we are to make the right changes.

The burning question for me is if we will return to our conventional ways under pre-COVID-19 conditions. I don’t think we can. And it’s obviously just not tourism that has to change in addressing our global crises. We will see in the coming months and years, indeed, if it is scenario one or two.

The images of young adults congregating in Toronto parks not long ago was disturbing. This is a sign of the need for human social contact, the need to think and act as an autonomous human agent, and the fact that people are likely going a little stir crazy. For me, this tips the scales in the direction of scenario two.

What do you make of the reported 17% reduction in carbon emissions since the shutdown?


The news has been important in showing us the positive impacts that can happen if we cease industrial activity. The Earth apparently has very impressive recuperative powers, but we should be mindful of tipping points. Climate change scholars have been effective in showing us what these tipping points are, and it is bleak.

I join countless others the world over in the hope that COVID-19 is managed properly; that we listen to, and act upon, sound scientific evidence; and that those who have the privilege of power act in ways that emphasize the sustainability imperative – if there is the will.