How will we plan for the future of the tourism industry?

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The last couple of weeks have been ones of reminiscence for me, following the death of a close relative. One of the subjects of those memories was about how we took holidays and where we visited when I was a child.


As a child growing up in the 1960s, I still have vivid memories of lines of London Transport buses arriving at Littlehampton every day during the summer holidays, bringing Londoners on their brief annual visit to the seaside. Overseas package holidays had not really taken off – it was considered quite exotic to go as far as Belgium. I can equally well remember a family holiday taken with Martin Rooks (and how many people remember them??) to Lloret in 1966. Gerona Airport hadn’t been built at that stage – and in fact we even had an excursion during our holiday which included a visit to the construction site that would become Gerona airport. Our journey out from Southend Airport was on a DC-4 of Channel Airways which took something like 4 hours to get to Barcelona – and I think that some of the passengers were not convinced that it would ever get there.


Trying to find accurate data on international tourism for that period is challenging. I am a great user of the Office of National Statistics data on tourism, and their records are only easily available back to 1980. However, just looking at the changes in that 35 year period is quite enlightening. In 1980, there were a total of 17.5 million overseas trips by UK residents, of which some 11.7 million were on holidays, and 10.75 million were by air – so more than a third of overseas trips involved ferries!


Compare that to 2014, when UK residents made 60 million overseas visits, of which 38.5 million were for holidays, and 48.3 million were by air. In fact, with the opening of the Channel Tunnel, the number travelling abroad by sea is only 200,000 different now to the 1980 figure! I suspect that the route profile will look very different now to how it looked 35 years ago though.


Looking at destinations is also interesting. In 1980, 84% of trips were to destinations in Europe, whereas in 2014 that had changed to 78% – 13 million travellers went to destinations outside Europe. If you had said to those running the travel industry in 1980 that this would be the shape of the market 35 years later, one or two of the more visionary leaders might have dreamt of that outcome, but few would really have foreseen.


Fast forward to the end of the 1990s, and I remember sitting in a Board meeting discussing future holiday distribution. When one of our Board said that mobile technology would be the future, that customers would book holidays on line, and may even do so through mobile devices, his advice and views were dismissed as being unrealistic – our product was seen as too complex to be booked online, and what on earth would these mobile devices look like?


Many of these major structural changes to how we book holidays, the destinations to which we travel, and even the numbers of us who choose to travel have come about in a very short space of time.


As an industry, I have long believed that the travel and tourism sector is very poor at considering long term strategy – even though airlines are busy buying aircraft which may still be flying in 15 or 20 years time, we haven’t really given much thought about where those aircraft will be flying and what people will be doing when they get to their destination.


What is clear is that carriers like Emirates and the other middle eastern carriers perceive that they will have a big market for many years to come, and are consciously investing for a long term successful future, where people travel globally in large volumes.


At the same time, we read tales in the press of the impacts of climate change, which may lead to desertification in some currently popular tourist regions, flooding in others, and radical changes in the places that we would want to visit.


Periodically, think tanks have attempted to predict the future – I remember the Tourism 2023 project led by Forum for the Future back in 2008/9, and supported by a number of large travel businesses as well as ABTA. That project came out with recommendations in 2009, and I suspect that other than the occasional student, very few people will have looked at the website since that time. Certainly, I don’t recall anyone in the industry mentioning the outputs at any time since then.


Even that work simply came out with a series of potential scenarios, rather than giving any definitive thoughts on what the market might look like. I think that the conclusion was “It depends” – not an entirely helpful conclusion!


It is a difficult world to predict. 5 years ago, there was much talk about the concept of “Peak oil” – fuel prices were increasing rapidly, and predictions were that within the foreseeable future, the aviation sector might be the last surviving user of fossil fuels. The discovery of fracking, coupled with other energy sources, as well as the global recession seems to have pushed those stories into the background – at least for the time being.


The challenge we all face is that the world is changing, partly as a result of our actions, and how we take holidays in the future will also need to change at some point.


The experience of the last 30 to 40 years suggests that it might be difficult today to predict what holidays will look like in 2050, but at the least, the industry is going to have to start considering its long term tourism strategy – and by long term, that needs to be a bit further out than the next season to go on sale!


The challenge will be to find someone willing to undertake that visionary thinking for the tourism industry as a whole, as well as convincing those in the industry to take any notice of the findings. I am really not holding my breath!