With society opening up fast, tourism will also return and not everyone is happy about that. We did not miss the negative side effects of recreation and the nuisance around transportation hubs during the pandemic. Many people hope that something will remain of the temporary fall in travel consumption, but it will turn out to be a vain hope. We might even see a major tourism boom as a result of the need to compensate for two years with hardly any journeys. After all, traveling makes most people very happy.
Tourism has a number of social benefits besides travel happiness. First, a better understanding of other cultures arguably makes for a better and less judgmental way of relating to one another. It is the reason that after World War II, the Chicago Convention exempted jet fuel from taxation “because aviation can help create friendship and understanding among the countries and peoples of the world”. A valid argument, even though flying has now become efficient enough to function even without a tax break.
During the pandemic, another social benefit of tourism emerged. Travel is a typical form of the experience economy, just like eating out and going out, or visiting the theater. An important feature of that experience economy is that a relatively large amount of economic value is created with relatively few resources.
We noticed the opposite during the corona years. The experience economy almost came to a standstill and the money that people saved as a result mainly went to stuff: electronic equipment, new garden furniture, a new bathroom, a kitchen, a new car, or a new bicycle. And stuff typically requires a relatively large amount of raw materials. This shift from experiences to physical commodities is therefore an important factor in the current widespread shortage of raw materials. And it also works the other way around. If we start spending money again on travel and other parts of the experience economy, this will help to reduce the pressure on the use of raw materials.
As a third social benefit, tourism also appears to have an equalizing effect on international wealth distribution. When people travel less, countries that rely heavily on tourism are clearly more affected than countries with relatively little inbound tourism. When people travel less, they tend to spend more money in their home countries. As a result, affluent countries benefit the most from less travel. This is one of the reasons that during the corona years, the most prosperous countries in northern Europe, with normally a lot of outbound tourists, performed much better economically than countries in southern Europe, which usually receive mostly tourists.
Tourism is coming back and we will have to rethink how to deal with all the undesirable side effects. But in return, there are benefits that extend far beyond our regained travel happiness.
Maarten Steinbuch and Carlo van de Weijer are alternately writing this weekly column, originally published (in Dutch) in FD. Did you like it? There’s more to enjoy: a book with a selection of these columns has just been published by 24U and distributed by Lecturis.
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