Tourism policy in corona times: what about travel…?

The lockdown hits the tourism industry hard. But it also broadens the view of new structures for ecological and earth-friendly travel.

The ongoing lockdown is having a disastrous effect on the travel industry in many places Photo: Stefan Boness/Ipon

site: Mr. Tressel, ongoing lockdown. How is the travel industry faring with it?

Markus Tressel: In many places, especially among tour operators and local service providers, it looks catastrophic. It’s extremely difficult for tour operators and in distribution because they have no planning perspective. But in many destinations, too, the prolonged closure of hotels, restaurants and other service providers is bringing many to the brink of extinction or beyond. The travel industry has been hit hardest by the lockdown, along with the cultural and retail sectors.

What concrete help is available?

There are various aid pledges from the federal and state governments, from immediate aid to bridging aid to November or December aid. The problem is not so much the amount, but the question of how well, to what extent and, above all, how quickly those affected can get the money. In some cases, the federal government has not organized it in a way that is low-threshold, and has made it complicated and opaque to lay people. In many cases, this has been done with a hot needle, and I fear that some companies will not live to see the money arrive.

So a bureaucracy problem?

Partly, but also a problem due to the complexity of tax law, for example. We should have started talking to the people affected, the associations, much earlier and more intensively in order to come up with more practicable solutions with a higher level of commitment. In the first lockdown, the German government took months to even recognize the plight of the industry.

You don’t hear much from the associations.

Yes, outwardly that is certainly the case, but my impression is that they are all working very hard to get the federal government to move in the right direction. This is a logistical feat for both sides. The associations are now trying to make adjustments in one place or another in the background. But I believe that without the grassroots movement in the summer, when travel agencies and the bus travel industry took to the streets, the industry’s plight would not have reached the federal government with the necessary force.

Markus Tressel has been chairman of the Green Party in Saarland since 2017. He is the spokesman for tourism policy and rural areas for the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

Is the crisis having an impact on regional development?

That depends very much on how much the regions live from tourism. There were destinations in Germany that were very busy in the summer and also benefited, or at least did not lose as much as expected. However, many of them were far from being able to exploit their potential. Volume restrictions and distance requirements have played their part. It is therefore extremely important to draw the right conclusions now and to bring the national tourism strategy to a conclusion, also with conclusions from the pandemic.

So you also see an opportunity for the regions?

I think, in perspective, the Corona crisis can help many regions because many people are now discovering the local area. This will strengthen some regions, because people are now traveling to regions that were not considered typical vacation destinations in the past. And that’s where new offers have been developed, often with a lot of creativity. One problem caused by the long lockdown phase is that staff are leaving in many places. Many who work normally in the catering industry are considering changing the industry because they need planning security. We have to do something about that quickly.

But even before the crisis, the restaurant and hotel industry had problems recruiting new staff?

That’s true, but they are now threatening to intensify, and without sufficient skilled personnel, there can be no qualitative further development of tourism. Those responsible on the ground now have the chance to reposition the regions if necessary. But to do this, you first have to save structures and skilled personnel, which is why it is important that funds flow now and prospects are created. Because when the crisis subsides and people want to travel again, structures are needed for this. We must now focus on qualification and further development and improvement. Sustainability, networking and good working conditions must play an important role here.

Europe-wide, where the great mass of travelers has been missing for almost a year?

In many regions that have lived mainly from tourism and where the social network is weaker, the development will certainly cause social upheaval. These regions must not be left hanging. In my view, we need a European strategy to deal with these issues. I think we need to make tourism policy much stronger at the European level. Today, many are muddling along on their own. But here, too, we need to look at the big picture, also from an economic point of view.

What would be a European strategy?

A European strategy that takes the new conditions into account: social distancing and good hygiene standards, a higher demand for earthbound travel, a Europe-wide train network. The latter has already been initiated. After all, 2021 is to be the European Year of Rail. The accessibility of destinations by rail must be significantly improved. There also needs to be a greater focus on developing regions that have not previously been considered tourist destinations, in order to distribute guests more wisely and organize more value creation locally, but without overburdening individual regions. This also includes a European strategy on how to support regions financially in these efforts, for example with the EU’s cohesion funds.

Is there a political will for transformation?

Some regions will reinvent themselves after this crisis. I see activities of tourism organizations in many regions, but also grassroots movements are joining forces and looking at how to take advantage of the crisis. We now have a window where people are discussing how to travel in a climate-friendly way, how to also travel in a way that benefits the regions. Overtourism is no longer an issue at the moment. All over the world, the tourism industry has put on the brakes. This is a problem for the economy and for many regions, but it is also an opportunity to consider how we want to shape tourism in the future. I hope that this impulse will be accepted.

What does a trans-European train network look like in concrete terms?

What makes me a little optimistic is that it’s not just a topic in Germany, but also among our European neighbors. We would now have the chance to turn this change in awareness into policy. And there is also more pressure on politics because more people are also asking. When the Austrian Federal Railways took over night train services, no one believed they would be successful. Now we see that the Austrian Federal Railway is obviously making money with it and has established a good service. The crisis has shown consumers that you can have a great vacation with earthbound travel. And that getting there may already be part of the vacation. It won’t affect 90 percent of travel tomorrow, but it shows that it pays to develop a good overnight train network.

And meanwhile, after government aid to airlines, many consumers are waiting to be reimbursed for their air travel that didn’t happen….

We have urged the German government to make state aid conditional and to ensure that consumers, in particular, have their rights. But many airlines have taken a long time to respond to the complaints, no doubt also because they wanted to preserve their liquidity. The crisis was a consumer policy fiasco, especially at the beginning, and has shown that we need to take a closer look at consumer rights and eliminate ambiguities in case of doubt.

And the big players like TUI?

They may have a harder time in the future, depending on how long this crisis will affect their core business. TUI has received nearly 5 billion euros in government aid in various forms since the crisis began. But the crisis won’t be over tomorrow, and that of course affects the ability of large corporations, which have to bring many costly structures over the crisis, to pay down debt as well. Your business model is mass tourism.

Does it have a future?

I think we will travel more individually in the future, and in the medium term this will certainly be a consequence of the pandemic, but also of the climate crisis. There will continue to be package tours because they are a convenient and safe option, and it is possible that other offers will have to be developed. But digitization is also helping individualization. So: Package travel will certainly remain an important segment, but the classic business model from the 70s and 80s will have to change.

The new players like Airbnb have a decisive advantage, they don’t have their own hotels, hardly any employees, no airline, no giant apparatus.

Yes, that’s why I believe that these platform-based models will continue to gain strength even after the crisis because, among other things, they can adapt more quickly to new locations. However, the market power of these platforms will have to be looked at critically in the future. But I also believe that family businesses – despite all the difficulties – will be able to adapt more easily to the consequences of the crisis. They are more flexible if we get them through the crisis well now.

What will happen to cruises, which were the booming sector in tourism?

We now have large capacities in the market and fewer people who want to use them in the foreseeable future. We are now seeing isolated flotations of old ships and also insolvencies among providers. Whether cruising will return in the next few years as strongly as it once was before the crisis, I put three question marks on that. Consumer behavior and demand could also change here as a result of the crisis. In addition, there is still the negative ecological footprint of this form of travel. The climate debate has made some cruisers think twice. But perhaps this crisis is also an opportunity for cruises to become more ecologically and economically sustainable – within their means.