With the pandemic derailing major international events and upending recovery efforts in distressed destinations, marketers find themselves scrambling to keep travel dreams alive.

Florence Falls in Australia’s North Territory.

Florence Falls in Australia’s North Territory.

Florence Falls in Australia’s North Territory.

For some destinations, 2020 held out the tantalizing promise of record-breaking international arrivals. The prospect of hosting and producing a showcase megaevent — the Olympics, a world expo — would place their country squarely in the global spotlight. Marketing plans were put in place to entice a flood of visitors to explore every corner of their nation. 

For other destinations, 2020 offered the hope of a reset, a chance to get past a negative narrative of natural disaster or civil unrest that had cast a pall over previous promotional efforts.

But the pandemic, having all but quashed international travel, likewise all but quashed their dreams. Destinations that had high hopes for 2020 must now look nervously to 2021 and ponder whether megaevents or carefully designed recovery campaigns conceived before Covid-19 could even be salvaged. Would a pre-coronavirus plan retain relevance in a post-coronavirus world?

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Japan

On July 24, the eyes of the world were to have been on Tokyo, the designated host city of the 2020 Summer Olympics. Opening day was to have been the culmination of years of effort to bring the Games to Japan, a project that included detailed planning to ensure the country was ready to host visitors from across the globe.

In preparation, the country had implemented more efficient arrival procedures at airports. Free WiFi, an important amenity for international travelers, was made available aboard bullet trains for travelers who, Japan’s tourism industry hoped, would explore the area between Tokyo and Osaka. 

Indeed, for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), the Olympics offered an opportunity to call attention to destinations beyond Tokyo and Kyoto and promote year-round visitation. Touting the country’s charms across the calendar as well as across geography was a key component of the JNTO’s Enjoy My Japan campaign, which launched in 2018. That effort focused on appealing to travelers’ interests such as art, cuisine and nature. 

This year, JNTO’s promotional efforts were to center on its Your Japan campaign, in anticipation of a 2020 in which, to quote a late-2019 press release, “every corner of the country will be filled with a festive atmosphere.” The effort aimed to encourage exploration with “unprecedented discounts on both international and domestic flights” and “amazing deals and fun shopping experiences with special events and benefits at more than 1,000 stores.”

As recently as March, these initiatives were still in the game plan for the JNTO: A press release sent out that month was headlined “Where to Stay and Explore During 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.”

With these efforts in place, Japan had set a goal to reach 40 million visitors by 2020, roughly a 25% increase over 2019’s nearly 32 million arrivals. Instead, with the Games postponed till next summer, the JNTO has, like so many destination marketing organizations (DMOs), turned its attention toward appealing to its domestic market and, for the rest of the world, relaying a message of “dream now, travel later.”

In July, the JNTO launched a website dedicated to ensuring that travelers “can stay inspired by the promise of future travel to Japan.” 

The website features a minute-long, introductory video depicting iconic Japanese sights such as cherry blossoms and onsen baths, before concluding with the message “Hope lights the way.” The site offers virtual experiences such as meditation sessions and cooking classes and 360-degree videos.

This month, JNTO launched its Go To campaign, which Naohito Ise, executive director of the JNTO’s New York office, said “is not meant to address the uncertainly of travel, but rather to boost travel demand and consumption and to aim for speedy recovery” of Japan’s economy. 

In the meantime, he said, “We will utilize this period of time to further improve conditions and quality of travel experiences for visitors from around the world.” 

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Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Japan. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Japan. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Cherry blossoms in bloom in Yamataka, Japan. The country was to have hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and saw the event as an opportunity to showcase attractions outside the city. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Cherry blossoms in bloom in Yamataka, Japan. The country was to have hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and saw the event as an opportunity to showcase attractions outside the city. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Japan. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Japan. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Cherry blossoms in bloom in Yamataka, Japan. The country was to have hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and saw the event as an opportunity to showcase attractions outside the city. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Cherry blossoms in bloom in Yamataka, Japan. The country was to have hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and saw the event as an opportunity to showcase attractions outside the city. (Courtesy of JNTO)

Dubai/UAE

For the United Arab Emirates, its turn in the global spotlight was set to begin in October with the launch of Expo 2020 Dubai, an opportunity “for people to get to know who the real people of the UAE are, away from the glitz and glamour,” Marjan Faraidooni, the event’s deputy chief visitor experience officer, said last year. 

Over the course of six months, Expo 2020 Dubai — the first such event (commonly referred to as a world’s fair) to be held in the Middle East — was to draw representatives from over 200 nations to a 1.7-square-mile site, with exhibits and other programming falling under the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” 

Organizers expected 25 million visitors at the expo, 70% of them from abroad. The event was poised to be a tourism boon for Dubai, which had welcomed a record 16.7 million international overnight visitors in 2019, a 5.1% year-over-year increase. Combined, the emirate’s key source markets — India, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Oman, China and Russia — accounted for nearly a third of that number.

Despite having pavilions from around the world, “delivery of the expo is a national project,” Faraidooni had said, adding that Expo 2020 Dubai organizers sought to encourage visitors to explore the UAE beyond its largest city. “So for example, we work a lot with tour operators and ticket resellers in terms of getting people to the UAE, and clearly there’s going to be development of itineraries that are not only specifically expo-based [but also] provide options of extending the itinerary to key areas” such as Abu Dhabi, an important arrival hub for many expo visitors. 

Today, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism is striving to stay engaged with the travel community. In May, it launched its Abu Dhabi Specialist e-learning platform for tour operators and agents in 17 markets across the globe; the launch included a chance for North American travel professionals who complete the course to win a trip to Abu Dhabi next year. 

And like so many DMOs that are finding it difficult to motivate international travelers, Abu Dhabi is directing promotional messages to locals: Its Rediscover Abu Dhabi campaign invites residents to “refresh themselves with the best that the amazing emirate of Abu Dhabi has to offer through a number of exciting staycation, dining, entertainment and shopping deals at hundreds of locations.” Participating hotels are certified under the emirate’s Go Safe program, which “sets stringent standards of cleanliness and hygiene to ensure guests’ wellbeing.” 

Although UAE visitors will have to wait till 2021 for Expo 2020 Dubai — organizers say the event will keep that name, 2020 and all — “the theme of our expo, ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ is now more relevant and timely than ever,” said Mohamed Al Ansaari, the expo’s vice president of communications.

“Throughout history, world expos have always been a mirror of the time in which they are held,” Al Ansaari said. “The Covid pandemic has changed the world in ways we are only just beginning to realize.” 

He added that the additional year “allows us to assess its impact and prepare an event that reflects this changed global reality.” 

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A rendering of the Expo 2020 Dubai site. The six-month event was expected to open in October and draw 25 million visitors, 70% of them from abroad.

A rendering of the Expo 2020 Dubai site. The six-month event was expected to open in October and draw 25 million visitors, 70% of them from abroad.

Al Wasi Plaza in Dubai, which was to have hosted Expo 2020 in October.

Al Wasi Plaza in Dubai, which was to have hosted Expo 2020 in October.

A rendering of the Expo 2020 Dubai site. The six-month event was expected to open in October and draw 25 million visitors, 70% of them from abroad.

A rendering of the Expo 2020 Dubai site. The six-month event was expected to open in October and draw 25 million visitors, 70% of them from abroad.

Al Wasi Plaza in Dubai, which was to have hosted Expo 2020 in October.

Al Wasi Plaza in Dubai, which was to have hosted Expo 2020 in October.

Hong Kong

For Hong Kong, 2019 started promisingly, with a nearly 14% increase in arrivals for the first six months of the year. But as pro-democracy protests swelled, at one point prompting the closure of the city’s airport, Hong Kong saw visitation plummet, and it closed out 2019 with a 14.2% decline in arrivals.

By the start of 2020, things were looking up for tourism, as unrest largely subsided and the city readied to host its Art Basel in late March. But the event was canceled as the pandemic tightened its grip on the world, and the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) was forced back to the drawing board.

HKTB’s marketing pivot might by now sound familiar: The “Holiday at Home” campaign, rolled out in June, sought to provide locals “with a wealth of information on traveling around Hong Kong,” according to the tourism board. The campaign included Insiders’ Guides for more than 100 points of interest, “many of which are lesser-known venues and activities,” according to the HKTB, and thousands of dining, shopping and entertainment discounts.

All of which, of course, would depend on Hong Kong’s progress in recovering from the pandemic and preparations to welcome back visitors, as well as the HKTB’s ability to execute its three-phase recovery plan: resilience (the preparation stage), recovery (focus on the local market) and relaunch (“megaevents and a new tourism brand campaign will be launched to rebuild Hong Kong’s tourism image”).

“Everyone’s at a different stage of tackling this virus,” HKTB executive director Dane Cheng said in May, as the board was preparing to enter recovery mode. “So that makes things so much more difficult for us to talk about recovery.” 

A month later, with the reopening of Hong Kong Disneyland and other indicators of recovery underway, HKTB chairman Pang Yiu-kai shared a similar sentiment during a webinar and added that when it comes to recovery, “we can expect setbacks and surprises along the way.” Last month, that proved prophetic, as the Chinese central government’s new national security law sparked more protests and, concurrently, a spike in Covid-19 cases saw Hong Kong’s shutdown renewed.

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West Kowloon Art Park in Hong Kong.

West Kowloon Art Park in Hong Kong.

Kite surfers along Shui Hau Beach in Hong Kong. With pro-democracy protests subsiding at the start of the year, the destination was poised for a comeback in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

Kite surfers along Shui Hau Beach in Hong Kong. With pro-democracy protests subsiding at the start of the year, the destination was poised for a comeback in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

West Kowloon Art Park in Hong Kong.

West Kowloon Art Park in Hong Kong.

Kite surfers along Shui Hau Beach in Hong Kong. With pro-democracy protests subsiding at the start of the year, the destination was poised for a comeback in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

Kite surfers along Shui Hau Beach in Hong Kong. With pro-democracy protests subsiding at the start of the year, the destination was poised for a comeback in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

Australia

For most destinations, it’s been a major adjustment to focus their marketing efforts on locals. Australia, on the other hand, had been directing its attention toward residents since before Covid-19 struck, after bush fires early this year made international tourists wary of visiting anywhere in the country, threatening to derail even 2019’s modest tourism gains: 8.7 million international visitors (a 2% increase) spending $45.4 billion (up 3%). Back then, the Australian government devoted about $13 million of its tourism recovery fund toward a Holiday Here This Year campaign to encourage domestic travel.

But alongside that focus on locals, Tourism Australia is striving to stay in touch with travelers around the world with initiatives such as “With Love From Aus,” a live-streaming event highlighting adventure tourism and other quintessential Australian experiences with which the organization aimed to “inspire people to visit when they can.”

“Although most of the world has been in lockdown or isolation, there are still opportunities to engage by sharing content that feeds people’s escapism and inspires them to visit Australia when consumer confidence returns,” said a Tourism Australia representative.

Tourism Australia is continuing to engage with travel advisors, as well. It is encouraging agents to complete its online Aussie Specialist Program, created in partnership with the country’s regional marketing organizations. Its new Virtual Fam Trips combine video content and livestreams from all over Australia, and after completing a Virtual Fam Trip, advisors can find deals for fam trips at a later date within the Aussie Specialist Program Travel Club.

Tourism Australia anticipates that the country’s attributes will prove especially appealing once travel resumes in earnest. “Given that people have spent considerable time indoors, there will no doubt be a great deal of appeal in spending more time outdoors and enjoying the wide-open spaces of our incredible landscapes and more remote, less crowded destinations,” the representative said. “People will certainly be eager to do things they have missed, like dining out and exploring nature, whether it is revisiting their favorite holiday spots or discovering new ones.”

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Uluru, two attractions in Australia. Tourism Australia has redirected its focus to residents this year.

Uluru, two attractions in Australia. Tourism Australia has redirected its focus to residents this year.

The Scenic Rim Trail in Queensland. (Courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland)

The Scenic Rim Trail in Queensland. (Courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland)

Uluru, two attractions in Australia. Tourism Australia has redirected its focus to residents this year.

Uluru, two attractions in Australia. Tourism Australia has redirected its focus to residents this year.

The Scenic Rim Trail in Queensland. (Courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland)

The Scenic Rim Trail in Queensland. (Courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland)

DMOs’ new challenge

For research firm MMGY Travel Intelligence, one key aspect of its pandemic-era efforts has been to track how consumers are feeling about travel and what they might prioritize once travel resumes in earnest. Its Travel Safety Barometer surveys have been monitoring sentiment about aspects of travel such as flying, staying in a hotel or visiting theme parks. 

According to Chris Davidson, executive vice president of insights and strategy for MMGY Travel Intelligence, the challenge for DMOs has become how to “overcome the perception of not only what is safe but what is potentially irresponsible.” 

That task could prove especially challenging for destinations wishing to host high-profile events that by their nature are not conducive to social distancing. The key, Davidson said, will be for destinations to continue to engage with their residents, even after they’re no longer the target for their DMOs’ vacation-at-home promotional efforts. 

“One of the things that’s pretty important is building more of a relationship with residents,” he said. “Are they willing to welcome tourists to their destination now? Are they concerned that tourists will come in and potentially take a limited number of intensive care unit beds if they were to get sick? Or on the other side of that, do they recognize the value of tourism and the visitor economy? 

“I think the destinations that do the best job in cultivating those relationships will be more effective in navigating through,” he said.

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