(Image: AAP/James Gourley)

Among the many, many other things it is, COVID-19 is the most substantial threat to the viability of global tourism in at least 100 years.

“At this stage, any forecasts about a travel industry recovery are better described as guesses,” Rod Cuthbert, founder and former CEO of travel-booking service Viator, told Crikey. “There’s no science underpinning them, and nothing in our history serves well as a guide.”

Everyone Crikey spoke to offered that caveat.

In mid-March Crikey asked what effect closing the borders to China would have on the Australian domestic tourism market. Just over a week later, our borders were closed to every other country. By the end of the month, we were facing fines for straying too far from our homes without a good reason.

“Tourism may actually be the industry that’s most affected, because it completely relies on people’s ability to move,” Sam Huang, professor of tourism and services marketing at Edith Cowan University, told Crikey.

“There are a lot of depressed and frankly scared people in the industry right now,” Cuthbert said.

“I did a webinar last week with 1100 Italian hoteliers and tour operators, all searching for advice and guidance and ideas to help them get through a situation they never imagined they’d find themselves in.” 

“The biggest change going forward, and you don’t have to be Nostradamus to see this, is going to be in aviation,” David Beirman, senior lecturer in the management discipline group at UTS, told Crikey.

Carriers like Etihad are toying with removing centre seats, Beirman said. As the recent collapse of Virgin illustrates, the future of low-cost mass travel may be in serious peril.

“The whole tourism industry has operated — particularly in the last 15 years — on the model of ‘get as many people into as small a space as possible, for as little money as possible’. That was true of aviation, tours, hotels, cruises,” Beirman said.

“This democratisation of travel might be over. We may be seeing travel return to its status as an elite pursuit — something you can only do if you can afford it.”

And of course this will be compounded by Australia’s coming recession — potentially the worst since the Great Depression — and the hit disposable incomes will take as a result.

Apart from availability of flights, and possible increases in airfares, Cuthbert suggested air travel might also be subject to pre-conditions for booking. “Might they impose a maximum age restriction? A pre-flight health check?” he said.

So the news isn’t good for international travel, but domestic tourism may be about to see a jump. News that borders may stay closed until 2021 could boost domestic tourism in the short term, according to data and analytics company GlobalData.

“The companies that survive will really need to focus on domestic travel,” Beirman said.

“The government is likely to force [people to remain within Australia], initially,” Cuthbert said. “Then I guess we’ll see the concept of acceptable pairs — Australians will travel to New Zealand and other countries on our ‘good list’, while other countries will have their own pairs, say, China and Vietnam.” 

As the restrictions ease further, Huang said, it is likely that tourism businesses — and tourism-adjacent businesses, like restaurants, bars and cafes — will all face stricter safety and public health policies.

Beyond the economic and legal restrictions on travel, the issue will turn to traveler attitudes about their health and safety.

Cuthbert said “of course” travellers on the whole would be more conservative for the foreseeable future, “but there will always be a subset of the population who are early adopters and will return to ‘risky’ activities and destinations — cruises, Italy, ete — before the mainstream follows, sometime later”.

“I was interviewing people in China about two months ago, when things were at their worst there, to gauge their plans and they said they all still planned to travel,” Huang said. “It is a human need, and that’s not likely to change.”

“Sadly,” Cuthbert said, “many operators will have folded their tent by the time a recovery occurs.”