Going the distance or being grounded at home? Mobilities after COVID-19


Photo Credit : Dominic Lapointe 2020

Professor Lapointe is looking at tourism from the mobility angle to raise questions about the post-COVID-19 era.

Tourism has been a rapidly growing industry for years, with staggering statistics for jobs, travel, etc. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) claimed that tourism was the largest industry in the world with 10% of the planet’s GDP. There is one job in ten on the planet which is linked to tourism. The well-oiled mechanisms of this growth-addicted industry came to a brutal stop. A virus named COVID-19 in the role of the hoof in the steam engine created a tremor composed of cruise ships in the role of pandemic incubators. Airports were swamped by travellers anxious to return home and European tourist destinations turned from buzzing areas to empty ground. This cessation of tourism comes with a panoply of impacts and sufferings. Let us not hesitate to say that its has been particularly bad for the millions of workers, especially the female workers strongly represented in precarious jobs across the sector, who in just a few weeks, lost their jobs. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, 50 million jobs might be gone by the time the crisis is over.

Predicting the future of tourism in a world after COVID-19 is quite a challenge. Nonetheless, scientific and media discourse on the impact of the current crisis on tourism hardly touched upon the social and political construction of mobility, which is at the very heart of tourism. Paradoxically, on the one hand, people are limited and constrained in their daily mobility by measures of social distancing and confinement, which makes them realize the importance and the value of mobility when it is suddenly removed. It is ironic that everyday micro-mobilities have been constrained because of hedonistic macro-mobilities: international tourism, which spread the virus around the world.

On the other hand, mobility is now reframed by the media: it takes the form of a political discourse centering on ‘risk’ and ‘crisis’, rather than a source of leisure and social status. International mobility is in sharp decline, with the reappearance of the borders inside the Schengen area, and the closing by Canada and the United States of their common borders. As a reminder, on September 11, 2001, border controls in North-America tightened, but the borders remained open. This is a new reality in terms of international mobility and the subjective perception of risk by lay citizens.

I would like to stress the risk dimension in this new reality. Indeed, in a previous research we stated that part of what tourism sells is safety and comfort (i), even in adventure tourism safety is closely managed to keep a balance between the level of perceived risk and level of effective safety. The actual crisis is at the junction of dynamic individuation and globalization, as Ulrich Beck previously stated in his risk society (ii). It is the very body of the individual that hosts and carries the risk which was spread through global tourism mobility. We see a strong symbolic transformation of the two dynamics in tourism, the encounter and the movement, as high risk activities. Indeed, the risk is not only to the safety of the individual but to whole communities who can be contaminated by the individual. This transformation can lead to think that we might see the end of tourism, at least until a vaccine is found, but we should not make that diagnosis just yet. It is too early to speculate on how tourism will recover from this crisis, but we should not under-evaluate the capacity of the market to feed on risk as a growth factor, and especially on technologies and services that build a perception of mitigation of risk, therefore reinstating status consumption for those who can access leisure mobility.

The question now is how these new subjectivities will be integrated and institutionalized in the political sphere. Voluntary mobility for leisure is at the very heart of the values of contemporary Western societies. As many scholars have stressed, mobility in the pre-COVID-19 world is an integral part of status and a class marker. Its redistribution and its accessibility are very unequal across social groups, but everyone aspires to access it, one way or another. What place does international mobility have in the system of meaning that will become institutionalized after the COVID-19 crisis? Will mobility be a primary value of our societies after months of restrictions? Will certain forms of mobility remain constrained and limited to a few, highly privileged individuals? How long will mobility be reserved only for necessary travel? Who, how and for whom will be defined what is necessary travel? How the market will capture fear and risk mitigation as new products? Who will be left out of these risk-mitigated leisure mobilities? It is such questions that we will have to address in the coming months, because they will play a crucial role in the ways we will rethink tourism after the COVID-19 crisis. While these questions may feel bleak, they also allow for reflection on the role of tourism in questions of justice and social equity, especially for the most precarious workers. They also suggest a more respectful relationship with the populations, the environment and the host communities in tourism, with an emphasis on meeting otherness rather than just the consuming it.

Dominic Lapointe, Ph.D is full professor in the Department of Urban and Tourism Studies at Université du Québec in Montréal, Canada. He holds the UQAM research chair in Dynamiques touristiques et relationns socioterritoriales. He leads the Tourism, Territories and Societies research group and is also Research Fellow at Tourism Reset

This text is a revised and expanded English version of : “Repenser le tourisme à l’ère du confinement” published in Le Devoir on March 27 2020.

i. Sadais Jeannite and Dominic Lapointe, « La production de l’espace touristique de l’Île-à-Vache (Haïti) : illustration du processus de développement géographique inégal », Études caribéennes [Online], 33-34 | Avril-Août 2016, Online since 25 July 2016, connection on 01 April 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudescaribeennes/8810 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudescaribeennes.8810

ii. Beck, U. (1986). Risikogesellschaft (Risk Society). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.