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, points from every day consumer behavior and sharing economy solutions like Airbnb, making “the only thing that makes you richer” – that’s travel by the way – 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. It’s not airlines, hotels, or car rental companies that will end up driving travel back to the days of the more classically elite and privileged hobby – no they’ll need all the customers they can get and offer deals accordingly – it’s travel destinations themselves.
Tourism boards are eager to jump start the “new normal”, and countries are eager to promote their safety measures for imposed on outsiders, including vaccinations, tests and health screenings before you’re allowed to fly. It’s creating not only a shift in what it takes to enter a country, but who the country wants to attract, and how feasible it will be for most people.
Even at the most competitive rates, a covid-19 PCR test runs about $99 per person, and for travelers where their destination, and point of origin require a test, that’s $200 per person, before buying a plane ticket, or sleeping in a hotel. For many travelers who made the most of budget fares in Europe, the USA, Asia, South America and Africa, that figure could be more than the entire ‘moving parts’ budget of past trips.
For many destinations with limited space or natural resources, they also want out of the mass market, favoring wealthier, long stay guests who contribute more to the local community. Like it or not, it makes sense, and also making the sell of ‘people are still traveling here’ easier for locals to swallow.
Looking forward, many destinations simply no longer want travelers who don’t positively contribute to the local economy in any substantial way, and in some places, locals are in strong support. For the most part, that means no more cruises, which true or not, have long been billed as affordable ways to travel.
Of all places, Key West, the once cruise heavy destination banned large cruise ships in 2020, proving that this is more than just words.
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, who are often put off by mass market tourism.
Santorini and the Bahamas are also perfect starting points. In the old world of tourism, countries paid substantial subsidies to mega cruise liners in 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.
People would come, they’d go, spend next to nothing, and leave behind a wave of waste, excess and uncertainty.
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. Key West purports the numbers are actually worse.
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. Add in concerns of virus spread not only risking travelers lives, but local hospital resources – and worst of all, local lives, and it’s red flags everywhere.
New Zealand, seeking to protect natural resources and deter backpackers, added a new $30USD tourism surcharge, which goes directly to preserving natural habitats.
As Greece looks to usher in visitors once again, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN his country is looking to re attract “more high end tourists” and overnight guests. The great downturn in travel gave the islands time to pause and rethink about what travel means for business. Greece wants overnight hotel occupants and small yachts, which dock and bring wealthy guests who want to sample local fare.
The great hope for budget travel is the truly dire financial positions airlines, hotels, tours and car rental companies find themselves in. Even if destinations jack up the prices or guest taxes, the cost to get there may remain low, due to sheer necessity to fill planes and put heads in beds.
Previous data from Santorini, where day trips off cruise ships were the norm, showed the average cruise traveler contributed less than $5 to the local economy, typically just buying an (overpriced) 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.
It all makes sense from the perspective of destinations and sustainability, but there’s no question it ushers in a new era of classism, as opportunities for truly ‘budget’ travel dwindle.
For budget travelers, taking advantage of discount packages was 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 also 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 battle with covid-19. Islands with limited health facilities, such as Kauai, have been vocal about deterring mass market tourism.
There’s been a huge crackdown on Airbnb’s and other sharing economy and budget options in Hawaii in recent years. By having fewer people, but netting out via increased per visitor spend – Mark Zuckerberg just bought loads of property – the Pacific paradise could ensure greater longevity for its precious resources. Does that make it fair for budget travelers who dream of seeing these volcanic shores for themselves? No. .
This has already been a trend from the Caribbean to areas of 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, while also keeping many out.
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. Bali is said to be plotting a similar trajectory, with the recent absence of Australian backpackers.
So, how does higher end tourism happen?
A variety of factors contribute to making more money and detracting less from local resources from fewer guests. Limiting the number of daily cruise ships, or incoming flights is a key first step in controlling the flow of visitors.
With global aviation at a virtual standstill, and no expectation of a truly triumphant return for years, it’s easier to turn down easy cash for allowing those extra-extra flights, because they ain’t coming anyway.
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 of available rooms Airbnb creates lower prices, so putting limits on the number of listings, or setting minimum standards for those places tightens things up ever so slightly. In Los Angeles, a law was passed limiting the number of Airbnb’s a person can operate. Of course, there’s always new taxes and fees to levy too, which raise overall visitor costs, and don’t always “help”.
Destinations that have successfully attracted higher end clientele have also worked hard to curate the day to day guest experience, deterring mass market restaurants with signs like “world’s best coffee”, a la Will Ferre;l classic ‘Elf’, in favor of authentic and locally owned establishments, even going so far as to limit what sort of things vendors can sell in markets.
Singapore’s Hawker Stalls let this happen naturally, and were recently rewarded with UNESCO World Heritage status.
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, particularly in a digital age with access to key information in a tap, seeks unique and local experiences you can’t find from the comforts of home.
Is This Fair?
Is anything in the world fair? Differences in budget, style and comfort will always exist, and the gulf may indeed get wider.
Destinations less dependent on the integrity of natural resources will have more flexibility to play the mass market game. Las Vegas will always have buffets, even during covid-19. Disney too. Many countries will still prefer the “easy money” style.
Regardless of desire, destinations seeking a change out of buffet lines 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. A country can cater to both. Is Disney going to change? No, not even for a pandemic. In a typical year, 59 million visitors flood into Orlando, Florida for leisure travel. The entire city is built on mass market tourism.
In fairness, 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, and some doors may soon have locks, or new passcodes. 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, and maybe even good.
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 real life Leonardo DiCaprio’s paying top dollar coming through the doors, but that doesn’t happen quickly. There will still be time and opportunity.
A new of classism in travel is coming, but it won’t be everywhere, and it won’t be overnight.