In the 48 hours following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I obsessively scrolled social media, trying to make sense of a senseless disaster.
Millions of people were uprooted from their lives by air raid sirens and explosions. Families were split as women and children fled for the border and men stayed behind to defend their country. Protests erupted around the world as people everywhere demanded justice for this aggressive and unprovoked war.
And yet, just more than 24 hours after the first air raid siren sounded, I spotted a LinkedIn post that said: “So the big question. What will be the impact of (sic) #russian #invasion of #Ukraine be on the #futureoftourism?”
My jaw hit the floor. That was the big question? We were witnessing what had the potential to be the start of World War III, and that was the big question?
The comments had already piled up — more than a dozen of them — speculating on the logistical and financial quagmire caused by the war: Source markets falling away, increased fuel costs (and therefore increased travel costs), safety concerns, changes in travel demands, impacts of restricted air space. Only one person commented (three days after the original post) on the appropriateness of asking such a question at such an inappropriate time.
Ruminating on these kinds of questions in such a highly isolated manner separates the tourism industry from the wider world in which we all live — a world where millions of people don’t feel safe, aren’t seen or heard, and don’t have access to basic rights.
Let me pause for a moment to state upfront that I have a personal connection to the war in Ukraine. I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, for five years up until last summer. I have friends who have evacuated, friends who are sheltering in place, and friends who have taken up arms to actively defend Ukraine. So, yes, this particular tragedy hits close to home because Ukraine was my home, and this brazen comment felt particularly insensitive.
But, the bigger concern I have is that this kind of attitude is endemic in the tourism industry. A disaster of some sort occurs, and within hours people are speculating about the immediate, short-, and long-term consequences on travel.
On the one hand, I get it. Travel companies absolutely need to make adjustments to itineraries, economic allocations, and messaging that aligns with the immediate moment.
But on the other hand, this kind of commentary is in blatant disregard to the intention of creating and supporting a more regenerative future for tourism. Ruminating on these kinds of questions in such a highly isolated manner separates the tourism industry from the wider world in which we all live — a world where millions of people don’t feel safe, aren’t seen or heard, and don’t have access to basic rights.
If the “old” version of tourism centered travelers at the expense of local people and communities, then a “better” version of tourism prioritizes lifting people up and supporting the places they live over the conveniences and concerns of travelers and the tourism industry itself.
If the #FutureofTourism (and I use that hashtag in jest to the LinkedIn post) is truly any different than former models of tourism, it wouldn’t be focused on this war’s impact on the tourism industry specifically but on the wellbeing and care of people and places in general — especially within the immediate chaotic aftermath of such a tragedy.
Unfortunately, tourism-centric commentary on the heels of a disaster demonstrate how far the industry has not moved from its colonial, egocentric roots.
We live in a highly volatile world. This war is just the latest in a string of major world events that have clearly shown the fragility of our holistic ecosystem as well as tourism’s place within it. And, unfortunately, tourism-centric commentary on the heels of a disaster demonstrate how far the industry has not moved from its colonial, egocentric roots.
For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent statements from travel brands that Black Lives Matter, very few pulled through with actual data and actions supporting their performative gestures. “Ghost flights” remain a pervasive and highly capitalistic piece of the aviation sector even though the planet is on the brink of biodiversity collapse. And, in a rush to “get back to normal,” the tourism industry has failed to play a meaningful role in vaccine equity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are, of course, exceptions to these examples. In fact, some destinations and travel companies have made enormous strides over the last few years, in particular, to address their shortcomings and reorient their operations so that travel has become one tool among many being used to combat racism, address the climate emergency, and support sustainable development in a real and meaningful way.
This comment on LinkedIn (and others like it across various social channels) clearly hone in on granular concerns that — let’s be honest — prioritize profit above all else.
Instead, the tourism industry — all sectors, all businesses, all individuals — should collectively use its rich experience, global reach, and creative capacity to support efforts that make the world a healthier, safer, and better place to live in overall. Because when people feel healthy, safe, and connected to the places where they live, these places have the capacity to flourish into communities that are also attractive to potential visitors. But none of that can happen if we’re more concerned about flight paths than we are about nurturing a holistic environment in which all people thrive — within and beyond the tourism industry.
So, yes, those working in the tourism industry absolutely should care about the war in Ukraine, but not because it will interrupt itineraries, supply chains, and marketing strategies.
They should care because it impacts every single one of us as human beings living on Planet Earth. If we’re truly concerned about the future of tourism, it’s time to turn our collective attention toward supporting a thriving ecosystem — one in which tourism plays a supporting role on the global stage. Because without that thriving ecosystem, there is no future for tourism.