Today we’re looking at travel and tourism, using foresight to explore where things might be headed and asking What does the post-recovery future look like? Are we headed for a return to the way things used to be? Or does the future of travel and tourism look fundamentally different?
The Past: Before we consider where we are and where we might be headed, let’s reflect on how we got here.
2019 feels like a lifetime away from today’s reality, but pre-pandemic behaviour still tells us a lot about people, and how they think about travel. Here are three trends that were shaping travel back then, but still have relevance in 2023.
Micro Trips | Just because something is brief, doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful.
In 2019, many were trying to make the most of long weekends by prioritizing multiple short getaways over fewer longer vacations. This bite-sized travel option was usually always about a well-budgeted, well-planned, and well-executed two to four-day holiday.
Conscious Travel | When we know better, we travel better.
Young people in particular were trying to travel ethically in 2019, focusing more on tourism that benefitted local communities/economies, respected local cultures/traditions, and minimized their impact on the environment.
Bleisure | Mixing business and pleasure.
Coined in 2009 to describe people who tack personal time onto business trips, this type of travel really took off in 2017 when only 40% of trips were all business, all the time. Not surprisingly, this was more likely to be the case on longer trips, farther away from home where people could really take advantage of saving on the plane ticket.
In 2019, global leisure travel and tourism had reached nearly $5 trillion before the entire world as we knew it changed forever. Travel changed. Tourism changed. We changed. Only a year later, that impressive $5 trillion had fallen to just half that – and we wondered if we’d ever look at the industry the same way again.
The Present: Travel is back with a vengeance, but does it look the same? And, are we the same?
The travel industry saw a major recovery in 2022, with the UNWTO reporting 60% pre-pandemic numbers. Not bad. But it’s how travel is rebounding that is worth thinking about. After lockdowns and restrictions forced us to become intimately familiar with the entire Netflix catalog, the contours of our own couches, and – for better or worse – ourselves… How are our travel choices evolving?
Revenge Travel | Whatever it takes. IDGAF.
The demand for travel was off the charts this past summer. Data from the TSA tells us that over 9 million people traveled from US airports during the 4th of July, 2022 weekend, pointing to the demand for travel matching, and even overtaking pre-COVID travel.
Even more interesting is that this high demand is overlaid by serious inflation, rising living costs, and sky-high airfare. Revenge travelers are willing to throw caution to the wind, spending more than regular travelers to do whatever it takes to satisfy their travel desire.
Set-Jetting | Legitimate main character energy.
For many of us, television became our only means of escape during lockdown. The characters and settings were often our few means of connection and experiences outside of the day-to-day grind with family, pets, and co-workers on Zoom.
It only makes sense that TV would reign supreme as a source of travel inspiration as we book our next trip – with 61% of travelers today saying they’ve booked a trip inspired by a recent tv series binge. See you in Sicily this summer, White Lotus fans.
Work from Anywhere | Goodbye, Bleisure. Hello, Lisness.
We spend roughly a third of our lives at work as it is, and now the line between work and life has been very blurred. The necessity of remote work during lockdown opened the door for working from home to transform into working from literally anywhere with good wifi. Views, optional.
No longer is ‘bleisure’ – business with a little leisure – attractive enough. These days, it’s all about ‘lisness’ (yes, that’s a thing) – where leisure takes priority and business plays a supporting role.
Transformation Trips | New ways of creating meaning
Whether we like it or not, we have come face to face with ourselves and what matters in the grand scheme of our lives as an outcome of the pandemic. This means people are now seeking out experiences that offer wider perspectives, deeper meaning, and a chance to connect with something bigger.
“What’s trending for 2023 is not your same old yoga retreats, what we’re seeing is resorts offering all kinds of interesting, offbeat wellness retreats. I’m seeing beekeeping, mushroom foraging, native plant foraging and botany drawing.”
Melanie Fish, Travel Expert & Head of Global PR for Expedia Brands
The Future: So, what now? Where are we headed?
Booking.com predicts the coming 12 months will be a time of “creatively reimagining” travel, amid all of the chaos the world is facing. And, there are a handful of critical uncertainties that have the potential to shape the future. For today, we’ll focus on just one dimension: Demand. And, how the industry chooses to respond to it.
The travel and tourism industry has traditionally relied on forecasting to accurately predict demand, but that’s becoming difficult. Instead, the industry is moving toward “demand sensing” which is focused on weaker, short-term trends to read a volatile market. This focus makes perfect sense since travel and tourism companies offer a perishable product – if companies don’t sell a hotel bed or a plane seat on a particular day, they don’t get the chance to sell it again. But the danger of focusing too much on the short-term is that you lose sight of the bigger picture and longer-term trends. What happens if the industry focuses too much on capturing and continuing to stimulate the current surge in travel and ignores the longer view?
Let’s explore two scenarios centered around the question of short-term and long-term thinking. One that could emerge if the focus is placed singularly on optimizing for and sustaining current demand. And then, a second ground in longer-term thinking.
Travel and tourism have come back with a vengeance. But at what cost? And to whom?
Marisol is a 45-year-old mother to two young boys who were born and raised in Tulum, Mexico. She’s had a number of different jobs over the course of her life but for the past few years she’s been working as an Operations Manager (OM) at one of the major resorts in the area. She’s had a front-row seat to the quickening cadence of travel and tourism in her homeland, experiencing both a professional and a personal impact.
Every morning before work, she spends time going on a walk to clear her head and mentally prepare for the day. But her walks haven’t felt the same lately. Things no longer look familiar. The air smells different. The ground beneath her feet even feels strange. She hadn’t realized it while it was happening but during one of her daily walks, there was the unsettling realization that she’s come to feel like an outsider in the place that she has always belonged to.
She can barely even afford to live there and, unfortunately, for indigenous locals to find themselves in that position is not uncommon. Tulum so quickly became dedicated to transients, and that dedication directly impacted the cost of living which is so high that Marisol has had to watch members of her community be forced away from their homes. They didn’t go quietly, though. They put up a fight as best as they could but money power overrode people power.
While the cost of living went up, wages remained low and stagnant. As an OM with hiring power, she’s feeling the pressure to fill the open positions at work but there’s been a worsening labor shortage as local workers have had to find new jobs closer to the new homes they were forced to find. So she, and others she works with, are stuck doing the job of 2-3 people on their own without the pay to reflect that. Neither the indigenous locals nor the corporate transplants were prepared for the effects of the fast-paced construction and development (read: destruction and deterioration).
New construction moved quickly and without much regard for the systems already in place. So, for years now, the environment has been victim to a serious waste problem. These shiny new resorts are dealing with severely inadequate sewage which means everyone else is as well. This new version of Tulum has been marketed as a place that offers an “eco-chic” experience when, in reality, most things eco-related are looking eco-bleak.
The Price of Paradise
It’s 2030. The people and culture of Tulum are forgotten and the health of the environment continues to decline.
Tulum’s dedication to tourism quickly turned to dependence on it, eventually falling victim to gentrification from the inside out. The place was drained of the charm and authenticity that originally appealed to attracted visitors. So when local residents, like Marisol and her sons, had no choice but to move because of increasing tourism activity and affordability issues, the quality of tourism drastically declined. Tulum became the Mexican equivalent of New Orleans – with even fewer discernible cultural roots.
Tulum’s focus on catering to short-term interest in tourism was massively successful at first. The surge was sustained for a few years, but eventually, there was no longer anything unique or special about Tulum that made it experientially different from other popular coastal destinations. Tourists were quick to catch on. And as “conscious travel” gradually returned to focus as the pandemic faded into the distance, travelers expressed great guilt for their contribution to the processes at play – choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere. More and more, travelers’ top priorities included the ability to pair empathy with exploration but Tulum was no longer a place that offered that for them.
Slowly but surely, Tulum tourism took a big hit while the local economy suffered almost as much as the local environment did. The state of the place and its people were left in the wake of tourism-focused decay.
The Power of a Pause
In the name of environmental protection, economic prosperity, and cultural conservation, tourism in Tulum as we knew it was put on pause in 2025, with a focus on developing a sustainable tourism strategy for 2027 and beyond.
Interest in Tulum was surging, and many were hungry to capitalize on the wave of opportunity. However, recognizing the risks that could be associated with over-tourism, Tulum’s local government chose to pause further tourism-related developments. This allowed for time and space for the present damage to be rectified and for future damage to be mitigated.
While it was not totally possible to halt all travel, local environmental and labor organizers gained enough support and visibility to pressure the local government to slow tourism for the time being by doing things like:
- Increasing the price of visitation
- Rewarding travelers who opt for local accommodations, meals, and shopping
- Requiring training/ education on culturally significant places and their meanings + Environmental ‘How to Be’s’
During the pause, the Mexican government, with support from the UNWTO, wrote and legislated environmentally sound and ethically-focused criteria for further development in Tulum. At the same time, workers like Marisol joined a newly established network of labor unions working to outline their needs and organize around how to have them met.
The pause, while inconvenient and less profitable in the short term, saved the ‘soul’ of the place and exponentially increased the opportunity for tourism-based profit in the long term. The pause ultimately went on to serve as a lesson for key players in other popular tourist destinations to redefine and prioritize the well-being of a place and its people.
Strategic foresight at The Sound
Horizon scanning and the development of scenarios like these are just two of the many tools we use to help our clients better imagine emerging and future contexts that represent opportunities or risks for their businesses. Our approach is grounded in real, human-centric understanding gathered through primary research. And, a focus on actionable present-day action based on a strategic assessment of potential futures.