Will Global Mobility Recover After the Pandemic?

The vital need to bring tourists back is colliding with apprehensions because tourists could trigger a new wave of the epidemic. This fear could become critical for small insular countries. Thus, these countries’ plans on relaunching tourism are accompanied by serious sanitary restrictions, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

Now that more countries are starting to relax their quarantine restrictions, various scenarios and plans for restoring economic and social activity in the world are moving to the fore. International mobility is an important aspect of returning to normal. This is only natural since the abrupt shutdown of borders and the discontinuation of international travel are one of the most striking signs of the pandemic. However, there are several pitfalls in reopening international travel. The main problem is that global mobility spread the coronavirus all over the world in the first place, and clearly, nobody wants a repetition of this.

Resumption of international tourism is a key aspect in restoring global mobility. Summer is ahead, and pandemic-produced stress must be relieved; these psychological aspects are being taken into account in the various plans for restoring tourism. There are several strategies in this regard. A number of countries, where significant purchasing power has been maintained (at least partially), have focused primarily on restoring domestic tourism. The benefits of this approach are obvious for economic considerations: tourism money will remain in the country and will support a domestic tourism industry that has almost ground to a halt. China’s example is indicative. It was the first to start a national campaign to restore domestic tourism in late March-early April. Moreover, images of these tourists have become a major symbol of China’s return to normal life. The social and psychological importance of symbols like this should not be underestimated.

The focus on domestic tourism is also important for economic considerations. The entire tourism chain is under the sanitary control of a given state making it easier to predict any consequences. Moreover, there is no risk that a new wave of the virus will come from outside. Nor will these countries be faced with the extremely urgent logistics problems of bringing stranded tourists home if a new outbreak occurs. All these arguments are justified, but they do limit international tourism and global mobility.

A different strategy for restoring tourism is typical for countries that are more dependent on foreign tourism, especially where tourism makes up a big part of the GDP. In part, these are small insular countries where foreign tourism has become a key economic industry that creates jobs and generates government revenue. The economies of these countries will almost collapse without the rapid recovery of tourism.

This is exactly why, since the latter half of May, these countries have started talking about tourism recovery plans. At the same time, the vital need to bring tourists back is colliding with apprehensions because tourists could trigger a new wave of the epidemic. This fear could become critical for small insular countries. Thus, these countries’ plans on relaunching tourism are accompanied by serious sanitary restrictions. Although burdensome, some (mandatory testing, wearing masks, etc.) have already become common and many tourists are likely to accept them.

However, stricter restrictions could become too much for the majority of tourists. These would include mandatory 14-day quarantines, or as this is relaxed, staying in a country for at least 14 days. Furthermore, bans on leaving a hotel’s grounds, special deposits on testing and sanitary expenses, and tougher medical insurance requirements (in some countries, infected tourists have been presented with bills for treatment for tens of thousands of dollars, which were not covered by insurance and which they couldn’t pay themselves). Combined with a widespread post-epidemic psychological travel phobia, these requirements may not help restore tourism into these countries and, on the contrary, could stop it for a long time. So, it is difficult to expect a rapid recovery in global tourist mobility.

Conventions and meetings (scientific, business, etc.) is another important segment of international mobility. This segment has largely moved to long-distance platforms like Zoom. Moreover, since the global quarantine, the frequency of meetings has even increased as compared to pre-pandemic levels. The logic is obvious: every research center and every university is trying not to lose touch with the global agenda, and expenses for international online conferences are a good deal less than face-to-face meetings.

As a result, many experts are part of webinars or virtual roundtable discussions more often, so international expert online mobility and increased horizontal ties between experts have increased. Hopefully, the efficiency of “knowledge sharing” at these meetings has also improved. So, paradoxically, for many professionals, this quarantine time has become one of their most productive periods, at least for analytical work, if not for greatness.

Many organisations may wish to maintain this format after the pandemic. Every trip to a conference has three components. First, is the conference itself, reports and exchange of views in sessions. As the quarantine has shown, all of this can be done online. Second, this is off-the-record conversations between participants. Sometimes confidential and politically meaningful information exchanges in a lobby can be more important than the conference itself. Of course, people will be less likely to have such a conversation online. But it is also true that important conversations are not always held at every offline conference.

Many more or less ambitious think tanks are positioning themselves now as venues for “second track diplomacy” or even “one-and-a-half track diplomacy,” but not all of them match this image in reality. Thus, the selection of conferences that are important for a user, where off-the-record conversations prevail over public discussions, and which must be carried out offline, could become more difficult. Moreover, in many disciplines that are not directly linked with political or corporate decision making, off-the-record conversations could still be held in a Zoom format. So, maybe not a big deal.

In addition, during the redistribution of expenses before and after the epidemic, budget shortfalls, which will be faced by many customers for expert activities (and research centers as such), will result in less money for international conferences. This will clearly show who really represents “second track diplomacy” and for whom Zoom is adequate.

Finally, the third component of an international conference is the hard to define work related tourism. To visit a different city or a foreign country, to change the atmosphere and break out of the daily routine were important psychological spin-offs of international conferences. These opportunities were important for their participants. But this is not likely to continue. More selectivity in live conferences plus regulatory restrictions and post-quarantine travel phobias will reduce global research (work related) tourism.

Similar restrictions exist in other segments of international mobility as well. All these variables are making optimistic forecasts on rapid recovery unlikely. So, the post-epidemic “new normal” will make global society less mobile, at least, internationally.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.