Images of life below decks as we followed the saga of Kate and Leo aboard the Titanic will forever be ingrained in memory. James Cameron just really knows how to do it. Rat infested bunks with the unwashed singing en masse below, while mother of pearl caviar spoons with footmen to help you dress were just upstairs.
In the years since, travel has been democratized by record low fares and sharing economy solutions making “the only thing that makes you richer” more accessible than ever, to more people than ever. It’s been wonderful, and long may it last.
As a new era of travel is ushered in over the next year though, that may not be the case, at least not everywhere and it’s not airlines, hotels, or car rental companies want that to change, but destinations themselves. Airlines already offer “fast track” immigration passes to help breeze premium customers through immigration, and we don’t need to spend any time analyzing the differences across cabins.
Tourism boards are eager to jump start the “new normal”, complete with health screenings before you’re allowed to fly, creating a shift not only in what it takes to enter a country, but who the country wants to attract. For many destinations with limited space or natural resources, they want out of the mass market.
Putting it as bluntly as possible, they want fewer people coming to help with social distancing and environmental sustainability concerns, and to make up for it they want heavier spenders.
Santorini and the Bahamas are perfect starting points. In the old world of tourism, countries paid subsidies to cruise liners on the belief that guests from cruises would contribute to local economies. Then it all went sideways. The Bahamas realized it was paying $12,000,000 a year for nothing.
Cruises began to offer all you can eat buffets, haircuts, celebrity chefs and clothing stores on board, meaning destinations were just a place to stretch the legs for a few hours before the ship left port. No hotels booked, no meals consumed, just people and lots of them. The average expenditure of a cruise guest is typically below 50% of what any other form of traveler spends in a country.
A conversation began to center around what mass market tourism was costing a destination, not what it was bringing in. There’s a balance to anything involving natural resources or beauty, and the more is not always the merrier.
As Greece looks to usher in visitors this July, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN his country is looking to re attract “more high end tourists”, including yachting groups which come onto islands for food, provisions and meals.
Data from Santorini, where day trips are the norm, showed the average cruise traveler contributed less than $5 to the local economy, which typically just meant buying a bottle of water on a hot day. They’d eat to their hearts content at a buffet on board to avoid buying meals on the island, spend the day snapping pictures and then hop back on the gigantic boat to sleep.
For budget travelers that’s absolutely the smart play and nothing to frown at. People want to see the world; and for many that meant making sacrifices or shrewd budgetary decisions to make that semi possible. Countries just might not want to go along with it anymore, or at least not subsidize it.
Hawaii is said to be looking at how to attract a more premium version of tourist to better maintain natural resources and maintain its strong position in the virus battle. By having fewer people, but netting out via increased per visitor spend, the Pacific paradise could ensure greater longevity for its precious resources.
This has already been a trend from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, as countries most dependent on the beauty of natural resources as a main draw for visitors look more toward protecting them.
Even before the pandemic, overrun Venice took a crack at tackling the issue by charging a tax on any non overnight guests wishing to come into the center of the city. Those simply in for the day, coming off ships or tour buses were made to pay a modest entry free, and it’s created millions in revenue to better protect city infrastructure long term.
Overnight guests in any city pay local lodging fees, which include city and country taxes, and are always more likely to spend money on meals, tours, shopping and other vital areas of tourist spend. For countries where natural resources are the main draw, the “one day” on taxing guests is now-now.
Boracay, the stunning island in the Philippines was literally overrun with sewage spilling onto beaches due to mass market expansion in recent years, forcing a closure of the entire island to tourism. In the years since the temporary closure, a shift towards attracting fewer guests who spend more has succeeded.
So how does that happen?
A variety of factors such as limiting the number of daily cruise ships, or incoming flights is a key first step. With global aviation at a virtual standstill, and no expectation of a triumphant return for years, it’s easier to turn down easy cash for allowing those extra flights.
Next, accommodation options. Destinations without laws placing fair restrictions or standards on Airbnb tend to have more properties than those that do.
That extra capacity creates lower prices, so putting limits on the number of places or setting minimum standards for those places tightens things up ever so slightly. Of course, there’s always new taxes and fees to levy too, which raise overall visitor costs.
Destinations that have successfully attracted higher end clientele have also worked hard to curate the day to day guest experience, deterring mass market restaurants in favor of authentic and locally owned establishments, even going as far as to limit what sort of things vendors can sell in markets.
When the luxury market sees “I Love New York” t-shirts and plastic key rings, they tend to turn the other way. The discerning traveler seeking unique and local experiences is nowhere near as readily found as those who want the comforts of home and a souvenir to say they’ve been somewhere, but they do exist.
Is This Fair?
Is anything in the world “fair”?
Destinations less dependent on the integrity of natural resources will have more flexibility to play the mass market game, and many countries will still prefer it. Regardless of desire, this sort of change doesn’t happen overnight, but budget travelers may begin to feel the squeeze in various corners of the globe.
It’s hard to imagine Mexico turning up its nose at budget and leisure travelers any time soon, since they’ve always played an integral part in their key demographics. The same could be said for Orlando, Florida, where leisure travels flood to Disney Theme Parks to the tune of 59 million visitors per year.
There’s nothing “budget” about a Disney trip, but it’s a prime example of mass market tourism where a destination works on volume – aka sheer number of guests – rather than curating smaller and more bespoke experiences.
Travel isn’t closing to those who would’ve been below decks on the Titanic, it’s just shifting. Tourism boards aren’t going to subsidize the mass market as much as they once chose to, and budget options may be limited, with new taxes or fees added in certain countries.
In the end, countries which attempt to attract higher spending guests will raise the costs of budget travel, creating greater divide between the have’s and the have not’s. A new classism is headed to travel, whether we like it or not. For the local environment, some of it may be necessary.
There will always be countries that thrive on volume and there will always be travel companies that cater best to that group. At the end of the day, a country can want a million Leonardo DiCaprio’s paying top dollar coming through the doors, but that doesn’t happen quickly.
A new classism is coming to travel, but it won’t be everywhere, and it won’t be overnight.