The future of tourism

Will rising fuel costs mean the end of long-haul holidays? Will shopping become the new sightseeing? And will tourists turn into ‘cyborgs’? Discover the six key trends shaping tourism in the 21st century.

This article is based on a paper originally published in Tourism Recreation Research and co-authored by Professor Ulrike Gretzel of UQ Business School (technology section), Professor Daniel Scott from the University of Waterloo, Canada (climate change), and Griffith University Professors Susanne Becken (fuel costs), Ralf Buckley (the new global tourists, and conservation) and David Weaver (political pressures).

The invention of the motor car, the aeroplane and the telephone revolutionised travel in the 20th century and laid the foundations for the modern tourist industry. But what will the 21st century hold?

Just as a 19th century traveller could not have foreseen the changes ahead, it is likely that there will be some surprises – but at the same time some key trends have become apparent, says Professor Ulrike Gretzel, a tourism expert with UQ Business School.

“Wars, epidemics, a global financial crisis, large-scale failure of food supplies or a severe pollution incident are all unpredictable factors that would certainly have an impact on tourism,” she says. “However there are six megatrends which we can identify and we can work out their implications with some degree of certainty. Businesses and tourism authorities should take note.”

Climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing tourism. Rising temperatures and an increase in extreme weather over the past three decades indicate that the effects are already being felt, and are likely to increase in the years to come.

While one-off events such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires can have a huge economic impact, many areas will also have to adapt to longer-term changes such as less snow cover, declining fresh water supplies and changes in seasonal weather patterns. Rising sea levels could mean some resorts may have to be abandoned altogether.

While few operators or tourism authorities have comprehensive plans in place at present, growing pressure from investors could force them to face up to the risks.

Rising fuel costs
With tourism literally fuelled by oil, the industry is highly sensitive to fluctuations in prices. Oil remained at under US$20 per barrel for much of the 20th century, but prices have increased significantly. While new drilling techniques such as fracking are helping to maintain production, declining oil reserves, as well as taxes designed to reduce carbon emissions, are likely to make travel more expensive in the longer term.

Destinations reliant on cheap flights, and remote or island locations will be particularly vulnerable. While the rising number of visitors from developing countries may help sustain demand for long-haul air travel, more people will be holidaying close to home and local tourism or ‘slow tourism’ via rail or boat will become more popular.

Advances in technology

“Social media has put the power into the hands of consumers who can now plan their holiday online, informed by reviews from fellow travellers,” says Professor Gretzel. “It has also provided a low-cost marketing platform for smaller operators and allowed new entrants to the market with sites such as Airbnb allowing households to rent out the spare room. As mobile technology opens up internet access to even more remote populations, so the audience continues to grow.

“Given the vast number of online transactions, there is increasing scope for tourist businesses to use big data to gain insights into the market and create new products attuned to customer needs – such as Google’s new flight service.”

With developments in artificial intelligence, robots could take over some service roles. Meanwhile the popularity of devices such as smart watches and Google Glass could turn some tourists into ‘cyborgs’ – humans who extend their capabilities by mechanical means – while others may prefer to switch off altogether in a mobile-free, internet-free resort.

The new global tourists

US, European and Japanese visitors who have dominated the tourist industry in many countries will be an increasingly elderly bunch. Their ranks will be replaced by a new and more youthful audience from India, China, and by the 2040s, sub-Saharan Africa, often with very different tastes and demands.

Some may prefer shopping to traditional sightseeing and many have little experience of outbound activities - a Chinese tourist who goes whitewater rafting may be shocked to find he is expected to put himself in danger for what in China is a spectator sport.

They may also have different attitudes towards nature and wildlife, and less experience of creating ‘minimal impact’. Destinations may need to rethink their approach to safety and consider how best to manage their expectations and behaviour.

Political pressures

By allowing people to forge connections with a different country or culture, tourism can improve international relations and be a force for world peace. At the same time, visits to sites such as Gallipoli or the nation’s capital Canberra help foster a stronger sense of national identity.

It is not surprising then there is increasingly a political aspect to tourism initiatives. China, for example, gives ‘approved destination status’ to selected countries to build relationships, and also offers discount tours to Chinese nationals overseas to encourage them to reconnect with the motherland.

Political changes could also open up new tourism destinations, for example in West Africa and war-torn parts of central Asia.

Funding for conservation

As urban dwellers escape the cities to reconnect with nature, tourism is now a significant revenue stream for national parks and conservation bodies. Some of the world’s most exclusive destinations are now in conservation areas – such as the Mombo lodge in Botswana and the North Island Hotel in the Seychelles. Tourism is helping to protect vulnerable ecosystems but in the longer term it is likely to be replaced by other funding sources.

According to Professor Gretzel, these six trends are linked to rising population so a decline in birthrate or the development of new environmental technologies – green energy, waste and water treatment – could change the outlook.

“Not only do we need to take account of these megatrends, but also the complex interplay between them,” she adds. “To be successful, destinations must be able to offer a suitable climate, the right attractions, accessible transport links, access to fresh water, safety and political stability.

“Operators and authorities need to understand how these trends, and the interactions between them, will affect these fundamental factors and what measures they can take to adapt and thrive in the century ahead.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019