Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Looking back at the travel stories that dominated 2020, it's clear that the enormity of the Covid crisis and its impact on our industry was slow to sink in. When the EU shut its external borders to international travelers back in March, for example, it was only supposed to be for 30 days.

Then we watched as the reopening date was pushed back to June, to September, to "sometime in 2021."

While I'm all for optimism, and I do unequivocally believe that Europe will come roaring back once time and the vaccine work their magic, I also think it's a good idea to temper that rosy view with a dose of reality.

One clear-eyed proponent of "hoping for the best but planning for the worst" is Petra Hedorfer, CEO of the German National Tourist Board (GNTB), whose unvarnished assessment of European travel is refreshing in its honesty and long-term vision.

"The figures for global tourism are indeed worrying," Hedorfer said, noting that overall tourist arrivals fell by more than 70% in 2020, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

She goes on to predict that the recovery phase will last at least through the end of 2023, per the latest findings from Tourism Economics.

Why so long? 

"Travel patterns will take some time to recover, even if the introduction of vaccines is successful, and airline and hotel capacity needs to be gradually rebuilt," she said, adding that we should expect -- and be prepared for -- setbacks along the way to recovery.

Germany is generally acknowledged to have handled the Covid crisis relatively well in comparison to some of its neighbors, for example, and the country experienced a significant drop in cases of infection this summer, she said, "only to see an equally dramatic surge in autumn that is now affecting many European countries."

How do we retain optimism in the face of so much uncertainty? 

Luckily, Hedorfer offers convincing reasons for hope.

"The most important one is that millions of people are looking forward to worry-free travel again, to discovering other countries and experiencing other cultures, to going on successful business trips and to sharing their experiences with others," she said. 

She backs up her predictions with studies by market research institute IPK International, which show that the willingness to travel abroad has already increased significantly in many countries over the course of this year, and the 2020 Anholt Ipsos Nation Brands Index, which ranks Germany No. 1 among tourism destination brands.

One way the GNTB is strategizing for its recovery has been to identify various areas of action to focus on. Since inbound tourism "depends not just on the situation in our own country but also on what is happening in our source markets," the tourism board is analyzing markets and market segments very carefully for their potential for recovery.

"It is here that we will concentrate our marketing activities," she said.

The second focus will be what Hedorfer calls "customer centricity," or anticipating what tomorrow's travelers will expect.

Those expectations include an interest in sustainable tourism, and Hedorfer touts Germany's commitment to combating climate change as a key draw. "[Germany's] environment is in good health, and a lot is being done to keep it that way. With 16 national parks, 16 Unesco biosphere reserves and 104 nature parks, around a third of Germany's land area enjoys special protection status," she said.

The country also features nearly 125,000 miles of marked hiking trails and about 43,000-plus miles of long-distance cycling routes

But while there are bright spots, Hedorfer is frank that "generally, the segments in which Germany is particularly strong are also the ones hit hardest. For example, Germany is the No. 1 cultural and city break destination for European holidaymakers, but many of the large events that dominate this segment could not take place, or only to a very limited extent, in 2020."

"We hope that events such as the Oktoberfest and the Christmas markets will be able to take place on the usual scale in 2021," Hedorfer said.

She also said business travel will remain a challenge "for the foreseeable future. We expect significant changes in these areas. ... Alternatives such as virtual event formats and hybrid events are likely to grow in significance in the future."

Finally, Hedorfer expects inbound tourism from non-EU markets -- including from the U.S. -- to recover more slowly than from neighboring European countries, "even if we can travel again without restrictions." 

"In the case of overseas markets, the airlines will only ramp up their capacity again if they see that there is sufficient demand. We have also seen that many travelers have a very clear idea of the conditions under which they would consider traveling again." 

In the meantime, while we endure the last, grueling months of the crisis, we can take heart by remembering that globally, as cliche at it sounds, we really are all in this together. And until we can see those iconic European sights again, we can dream it.

Or, as Hedorfer said: "Our brand, Destination Germany -- Simply Inspiring, will continue to carry us through this difficult time."

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