U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's ambitious goals include empowering the country's middle class, improving the environment across the government, and rebuilding the economy after so many livelihoods were destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic.
A revitalized national tourism policy could be an important part of solving all three problems. To get an idea of how this might work, take a look at Key West, an island off the southern tip of Florida.
On November 3rd, with the world's eyes on the US presidential election, Key West voters passed three landmark measures to drastically reduce cruise ship docking in their small historic town. A citizen-led movement successfully argued that years of unregulated tourism with large cruises had placed too much strain on the environment, public health, local businesses and the city's way of life. With a margin of up to 81 percent, the island city voted to reduce the number of ships allowed to dock, completely ban the largest cruise lines, and require clean environmental records from the smaller ships still allowed to visit the island. The voters opted for an end to the maddening crowds and polluted water, and for something closer to sustainable or ecotourism. Both the locals and their visitors will be better off this way.
However, this vote was about much more than a city's fight against cruise ships. It is part of a backlash after many years of government neglect in a period of unstoppable tourism growth. It has become a truism that modern overtourism has not only overrun, disfigured, and polluted places like Key West, Barcelona, and Venice, but has spoiled travel destinations and ruined vacations for many travelers.
In the pre-pandemic era, the global tourism industry was celebrated with $ 8 trillion to prop up economies around the world, including the United States, where foreign visitor money makes up 11 percent of export earnings. (Since the money is technically from overseas, visitors' expenses are booked as exports.) These numbers hide the excitement over the unconfirmed damage tourism has done to local life, the environment, and the ability of visitors to visit the locations appreciate who visited them.
It took the pandemic to turn the problem on its head. The tsunami-like spread of the coronavirus brought the global travel industry to an abrupt stand. The world went from too much tourism to no tourism at all. Lockdowns meant that nobody moved, either across international borders or across the city. Overnight, we all discovered the contradicting forces of the travel and tourism industries.
In real time, Americans saw travel and tourism make up the $ 1.6 trillion glue that holds much of the US economy together. But they have also seen that it is a tremendous environmental threat that pollutes their air and water and contributes to the climate crisis.
Without tourism, seemingly solid industries like airlines, hotels, restaurants, and department stores are fueled – the list is almost endless. Every US state suffered, especially states like Hawaii and Nevada, where tourism accounts for more than 20 percent of the economy. Many livelihoods have been lost, and that loss could be forever.
At the same time that planes were on the ground and many factories were closed, the sky was suddenly blue for weeks and months. People could see horizons; The Himalayas were visible again in the far north of India. Without tourists crowding the coasts, the turtles hatched on sandy beaches from Florida to Brazil to hatch. In Malaysia, otters were back in lakes. With cruise ships and pleasure boats moored, the Mediterranean was no longer so cloudy. In Venice, swans paddled in the suddenly calm, clear-watered canals. In Thailand, where all beaches and islands were closed to tourists and tourist ships, fish and marine mammals multiplied. The California coasts saw more whales than usual. Without tourism, the environment recovered, at least temporarily. This also raises a big red flag about the impact of travel and tourism development on climate change.
Government neglect began in 1996 when Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, with the consent of then President Bill Clinton's administration, made successful efforts to eradicate the US Travel and Tourism Administration. Gingrich argued that the federal government had no business to coordinate or regulate tourism, which was in line with the long-standing Republican philosophy that government was the problem, not the solution.
That couldn't have been crazier. The government is almost by definition the heart of tourism. The U.S. federal government issues tourist visas, monitors borders, regulates environmental impacts, funds national parks and cultural institutions that attract tourists, and promotes tourism and cultural exchange as one of the country's soft-powered assets. Individual federal states are dependent on the federal government in all areas of tourism.
Gingrich's timing came at the worst possible time for US tourism. The 1990s marked the beginning of globalization, which made travel and tourism the global juggernaut that is today capable of creating or breaking countries and cultures. With open borders, rising incomes, and technological advances, the number of international trips exploded from around 500 million annual trips in 1996 to over 1 billion 20 years later.
At that moment, however, the US government no longer recognized tourism as a major issue. Clinton withdrew the United States from the United Nations World Tourism Organization back in 1995. In the years that followed, tourism was balkanised without a national policy, without a general direction and only gradual regulation. Local watch dogs and civic groups pushed for green, smart, or sustainable tourism, but with little success. Things were so disorganized that representatives of the US tourism industry had to beg the George W. Bush administration just to create a simple website promoting US tourism.
The future Biden government now has the rare opportunity to reverse this anti-government stance, to include tourism in the political mix again, and to make it a soft power, environmental and economic asset of the 21st century.