Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

If people in the travel industry speak of the pandemic's silver linings, it's often in the context of having time to think deeply about their companies and making profound changes or improvements to their businesses.

When enterprises are booming, as leisure travel companies did between the end of the Great Recession and the emergence of Covid-19, there's neither time nor incentive to do much more than manage growth to seek maximum profit.

And, in any case, continuing along a legacy path seemed more than justified by common wisdom: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Yes, follow trends, keep up with technology and tweak messaging, but when demand is high, making fundamental change in boom times is akin to changing one's clothes while running on a treadmill.

But all the while, the industry at large was exhibiting signs of rot -- major issues weren't being effectively addressed because no one company or destination could change the trajectory of long-term foundational threats. Primary among them were issues related to overtourism and elements of sustainability, such as reducing carbon emissions, confronting how to share tourism's economic benefits with local communities, diversifying workforces and minimizing environmental impacts. 

Ignoring these collective issues, or collectively ignoring them, had been identified as a serious threat by industry organizations. Some companies and destinations instituted remedial steps, but the underlying issues continued to worsen.

To be fair, during the shutdown, most companies were more focused on their own corporate survival than addressing broad industry needs. Some found overlap between the two and repositioned their businesses to address systemic issues. As we enter the next phase of recovery, however, it seems likely that when travel truly rebounds and companies get back on the profit treadmill, bigger industry issues will again take a back seat.

At this point, I believe meaningful change must be driven by governmental bodies that are clear-minded about what will and won't be allowed in their territories. But even for them, it may be problematic. The pandemic continues to take a toll on economies around the world, and countries and municipalities are unlikely to institute restrictions that might be seen as barriers to kick-starting inbound tourism.

Industry organizations can have a role to play in helping shape coordinated cross-border approaches. Earlier this month, a meeting was organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) in Panama City that suggests some destinations have indeed used the pandemic pause to seriously reconsider the nature of visitation as tourism rebuilds.

Tourism ministers from Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica as well as high-ranking tourism officials from Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul participated in a two-hour roundtable on issues related to underlying challenges to build sustainable tourism models. ATTA board member Malia Asfour, the North America director of the Jordan Tourism Board, also participated.

ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell said that when Panama tourism minister Ivan Eskildsen first proposed the meeting and produced a draft of a declaration for "transformation toward the tourism of the future," a document that defined long-term, regenerative stewardship to address social and environmental objectives, "I was supportive but imagined endless negotiations and possibly even rejection."

The group had never previously convened, and most participants had never met each other. But what came from the discussion, Stowell said, was "an incredible spirit of collaboration. It was a group of forward-thinking leaders who want tourism to come back in ways that protect their countries and the planet. Honestly, it was kind of dreamy."

None of these countries have severe problems with overtourism, and Stowell said much of the conversation revolved around what types of tourists they wanted to attract: volume or, overall, a lower tourism footprint.

"These are people who are under so much pressure to do mass tourism," Stowell said. "This is a bold thing for them to do."

But Stowell conceded that signing an agreement and walking away is not going to change anything. "They didn't get into a lot of details but agreed to meet again. They want to find ways to work together. Some of the neighboring countries began talking about wildlife corridors."

Stowell credited Panama's tourism minister as the driving force behind the meeting but said Eskildsen demurred when it was suggested that the document be called the Panama Declaration. Rather, the minister hopes it will be a model for all nations.

In reality, this is a seed document; even if Guatemala and Honduras become models of sustainability, it will not move the needle much. But the meeting is, I believe, symbolic of what must happen among much larger groups of nations. Stowell acknowledged the final document was high on ideals and spare of detail. The true measure of the gathering will become clear if and when subsequent meetings result in concrete action among signatory countries. Aspirations are nice, but often it comes down to fixing the plumbing. The silver lining must become a lead pipe cinch. 

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