This is possibly the first of many addendums for my “Coronavirus tourism survival and recovery” post from back in April. I encourage you to read or re-familiarize yourself with the original piece as well, since few if any other people appear to be writing or talking frankly about the incipient U.S. tourism crisis. The sooner we drop the forced-upbeat, casual tones and stop optimistically framing the situation as just a blip of a setback, the sooner we can start designing appropriate, unified solutions.
Unbelievably, that harsh, pessimistic outlook on the future of tourism in the U.S. wasn’t nearly harsh and pessimistic enough. With the U.S. re-opening before the COVID infection rate plateaus – in fact, new daily COVID cases are still on the rise in many regions – a jaw-dropping spike of illness and death is not only guaranteed, but it’ll happen sooner than the wintertime surge most experts already agreed was inevitable. The new projection for overall COVID deaths in the U.S. is now 500,000, more than four times the previous estimate of 120,000 from just last month. If things continue to go downhill, I cringe at the thought of what the COVID death estimate will be by the end of the summer. (Let’s just set aside for a moment the popular theory that “reported” virus cases are probably only a tenth of the actual number.)
Horrifying as that thought may be, this boredom-fueled forced return to normalcy during an uncontained pandemic is setting the U.S. up to be a “plague state.” This term, as best as I can tell, hasn’t been used in at least a century and even way back when it was only associated with places of extreme poverty and ineffective/absent governments.
So, what happens to plague states? Best case scenario, Americans will be shunned abroad or even refused entry to other countries. Meanwhile, citizens of nations that have COVID under control will either be strongly discouraged or outright banned from traveling to America. This turtling of recovered nations from the idiots that can’t or won’t contain their outbreaks could even go so far as to include bans on imports from the U.S. So, cross your fingers for that merely debilitating outcome.
The worst case scenario is the rest of the world unites in a comprehensive quarantine of America for their own safety. We’re on course for a devastating economic collapse the likes if which hasn’t been seen in modern history, but if the country is cut off from the rest of the planet, things are going to get truly bleak. Like, “Hunger Games,” District 12 bleak.
What does a plague state quarantine mean for U.S. tourism? Well, the situation is unprecedented and seemingly deteriorating by the week, so I honestly have no idea yet. Suffice to say it’ll be incomprehensibly bad. Inbound international tourism will completely cease (no surprise there), and as the economy tanks even domestic travel will become a vanishing indulgence.
People aren’t even going to be ordering take-out meals, never mind going on vacations, if they’re unemployed, semi-employed, or constantly in jeopardy of losing their jobs, making rent/mortgage payments a monthly nail-biter. My previous advice to focus on regional travel demographics won’t do any good if disposable income disappears and/or the idea of straying from one’s virus safety bubble means inviting infection.
The former two-year timeline for something approximating U.S. tourism recovery now seems hilariously naive. COVID will rage on for exactly as long as it takes to orchestrate mass testing – we’re talking millions or tens of millions of tests per day – and eventually to distribute 330 million vaccines to every single person in the country. Some people/areas may need vaccinating more than once for various reasons, so let’s call it an even 400 million successfully administered vaccines.
With the staggering growth of the anti-vaxxer community and the sizable subset of Americans who believe the rules don’t apply to them, or worse, view any government-run initiative as tyranny, we’ve got serious hurdles to clear before we can even guess at a new tourism recovery time frame. None of that will matter, though, until we establish a manufacturing and distribution infrastructure for testing and vaccines at the aforementioned scale, which to the best of my knowledge hasn’t even begun.
With all this taken into consideration, this is only a wild guess, but I’d say we’re looking at four years before even a glimmer of tourism recovery begins to take shape. That is, of course, if everyone suddenly starts acting sanely and everything goes perfectly with the vaccine. Since we all know that scenario is a fantasy, I’m going to guess more than six years, maybe 10 years, before tourism settles into a consistent upward trend.
Ultimately, an open-ended, national economic collapse, while simultaneously being figuratively or literally branded a global pariah, will likely set U.S. tourism back an entire generation. The only vaguely comparable example of tourism recovery after many years of complete ruin I can think of is post-war Bosnia (and Herzegovina), which, need I remind you, was doing so well they hosted the damn Winter Olympics only eight years before fighting broke out. Their tourism industry is still only showing nominal recovery 25 years later.
I’m well aware this kind of talk comes off as fatalistic, far-fetched and extreme, but so did my previous coronavirus tourism recovery post, so clearly we haven’t yet found the ceiling for fatalistic, far-fetched and extreme.
In only two months time, what seemed like dire warnings now seem almost adorably optimistic. I think the tourism industry’s reluctance to contemplate the worst case scenario is going put us on the same path as the coronavirus itself. By the time we realize that desperate action is necessary, it’ll be like trying to close a chainsaw injury with a band-aid.
If someone at Brand USA is reading this, I would strongly encourage pooling resources and opening a nationwide discussion about how U.S. tourism can survive this, if that’s even possible. We’re going to need more than just ourselves to figure this out. We’re going to need direct intervention from top-tier economists, cooperation at the highest levels of government (LOL!) and, if there’s any money left, yet another economic stimulus to keep even a shadow of the tourism industry intact.
Granted, this gargantuan effort during a snowballing omni-crisis is asking a lot. Funds and resources are already shrinking, the country is experiencing once-a-generation civil unrest and the daily flirtation with a potentially deadly illness is still ever-present – even if alarming numbers of us are pretending it isn’t. Adding an emergency, nationwide, industry-saving task force on top of all that seems like an impossible ask. And maybe it is. But the alternative is to stand by while large-scale failure ensues and then try to rebuild U.S. tourism from scratch in 10 years.