Culinary “Tourism” in Uncertain Times (Part 2)
Part 2 in a five-part series.
This week we continue with Part Two of Culinary “Tourism” in Uncertain Times. Last week we looked at the rise of the importance of local agriculture and preserving our culinary culture. This week, we will look at how tourism is evolving before our eyes.
Traveling during the pandemic was a surreal experience. Nevertheless, people found a way, and despite the difficulties and the risks, quite a few people still traveled. Yet while the total volume of travel was decimated, demand came back with a vengeance in 2022. Travelers were on a mission to make up for lost time. Called “revenge travel” by some, the industry simply was not prepared for the surge of travelers, which has caused its own set of issues.
Pent-Up Demand Demands Satisfaction
After being locked down for two years, the pent-up demand for travel was understandable. However, a new factor, namely the Russia-Ukraine war, threw a major wrench into global stability and summer holiday plans. Soaring fuel costs, soaring inflation, issues with food and other product supply chains and now new health threats like monkeypox and the Marburg virus are making us wonder, what if travel’s return is short-lived? You may have heard of the chaos with baggage handlers at London’s Heathrow airport but this situation was seen all around the globe.
Indeed, “airmageddon” has caused tens of thousands of flights to be canceled in recent weeks. We understand that all companies need to cut costs to recoup losses incurred during the pandemic. However, there is something to be said for not selling more products than you are able to deliver. This caused London’s Heathrow airport to force airlines to cancel thousands of flights in the coming months, for the main reason that it is unclear whether the airlines have the staff to operate the planes and handle the baggage for so many travelers.
At the same time, companies are not hiring back, or are not even able to hire back, the volume of workers they had before. This means that the very services we depend on for a pleasant holiday — waitstaff in restaurants, baggage handlers in airports, pilots for airplanes, air traffic controllers, cleaners in hotels, drivers for taxis, etc. are all woefully understaffed. If anyone is looking for a full- or part-time job, there are plenty available. I think about the long list of college graduates who enter the workforce every year. Prospects for what are regarded as “good jobs” have never been more scarce. Yet even fast food restaurant workers have benefitted from higher wages.
Work is available. Yet if working in fast food is not your idea of the career you want, there has never been a better time to create your own business, whether it is content creation or another service that the world needs. Perhaps the shortage of workers for so many jobs will not truly be fixed until robots and other automated services improve to the point where hiring human workers for these jobs is simply no longer necessary.
Global Forces at Work
No one could have planned that Russia would invade Ukraine, but the repercussions were dramatic and reverberated around the world. Flight paths over Ukraine and Russia have had to be rerouted, making the Europe to Asia routes difficult to offer. With the invasion, the price soared for fuels of all kinds. Around the world, we witnessed the highest ever recorded prices per liter or gallon of gasoline (petrol). Fuel even ran out in many places, including Sri Lanka which has had to ration the little fuel they have left. How can any country offer tourism when there is no fuel for cars, taxis, planes or boats? Not to mention the ongoing riots, not just about the cost of fuel, but soaring inflation as well. Last quarter the inflation rates in the US and UK were around 9% and 7% respectively, the highest since the 1970s. Many people do not believe these official figures and think the rates are much higher.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I had no idea that Ukraine supplied so much food to the world, primarily grains, sunflower oil and lentils. When I saw the price of wheat skyrocketing, I immediately understood the implications. This is a demand-supply reaction; when there is not enough product the price goes up, contributing to the overall inflation experienced by consumers. Tour operators and hotels who had pre-sold packages at a certain price were suddenly being required to pay 20–30% more for the cost of supplies once the travelers arrived. This effectively erased their profit margins for the year.
The Path of Least Resistance?
Are we scared to return to work, for fear of catching the next virus? Or are people simply reducing their costs and living off savings? Many people already transitioned from traditionally underpaid hospitality jobs into new careers, many of which can be conducted from the safety and comfort of your own home. Host a cooking channel on YouTube. Answer customer support calls for a software company. Record online training videos. Perform translations. Write a book. None of these activities requires anyone to drive to an office. Why suffer with surly guests or rude passengers? Technology has given hundreds of thousands of workers viable alternatives to their previous jobs.
Will travel continue to rebound as quickly as it did in the first half of 2022? We certainly believe there will continue to be demand for travel, but with the next great recession already underway, we think travelers’ priorities will change. For example, long-haul flights have gotten so expensive, many families are rethinking their big annual trips to exotic destinations like Southeast Asia or Oceania. Again refocusing on local, we think regional travel will fare much better. You may see more travel, for example, within North America and the Caribbean, but much less between North America and Europe. And with more businesses needing to cut costs, we think business travel will suffer, if only perhaps in the short-term. There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting and handshake, but when the cost of that trip might be €10,000 versus a one-hour Zoom meeting that costs nothing, the cheaper solution wins. Creativity is much better in face-to-face meetings, but many analysts estimate that after the short burst in business travel bookings, the industry will remain down by 20% for the short- to medium-term.
This does not mean that people will not travel, but it does mean that who your customer is will likely change. Many people lament not having spent more time discovering their own “backyard”. We are advising tourism offices to redouble their marketing efforts on target markets that are within a 5-hour travel time (by car, train, boat or air). People want to be able to get back home quickly if they need to. And heading into a major recession, travelers will continue to be price-sensitive, which will be even harder with the cost of fuel and food skyrocketing everywhere in the world.
With more local and regional customers, a new opportunity arises, namely, a renewed focus on the local history and culture, including culinary cultures, which we looked at last week.
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Erik Wolf is the founder of the culinary 🍕 travel 🛩 trade industry, and Executive Director of the World Food Travel Association, the world’s leading authority on food and beverage tourism. He is the publisher 📗 of Have Fork Will Travel (a practical handbook for our industry), author of Culinary Tourism: The Hidden Harvest, and is also a highly sought strategist 🔀 and speaker 📣 around the world on gastronomy tourism. He has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, and Forbes, and on CNN, Sky TV, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, PeterGreenberg.com, and other leading media outlets.