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Turning tourism upside down — a future where tourists have to qualify to visit other countries

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Sabine Lehmann is founder and CEO of Curiositas and founder and chair of the African Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions. A former managing director of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company, she holds an MBA from UCT Graduate School of Business.

It’s not too much of a stretch to think that in the future, as tourist numbers increase and environmental pressures mount, ‘permission-based travelling’ will also grow.

Covid-19 changed the face of the tourism sector forever. While visitor levels are starting to recover in most regions, the pandemic has shifted the way people think about travel and the world.   

While there were economic costs to the moratorium on travel, the lack of tourists also brought a reprieve for chronically over-touristed regions. Many destinations, such as Hawaii — where 60% of residents say that they are concerned about returning to pre-pandemic tourist numbers — have since begun looking seriously at the trade-offs of a booming tourism industry and are thinking hard about how better to manage its impacts going forward.  

Countries have long been discerning about who they let in. As South Africans, we are keenly aware that our little green travel documents are usually subjected to lengthy and expensive application processes, consular visits and months of white-knuckled waiting to secure right of passage. Visa restrictions are an efficient method for governments to restrict access in advance of travel, and we largely accept their criteria: verifications of health status like yellow fever and TB vaccine cards; proof of financial position; age; purpose and length of travel etc.   

Covid pushed all of this to new extremes with requirements for proof of negative viral tests, further vaccination requirements and wearing a mask, reinforcing the idea that travel is highly conditional and jumping through extra hoops is simply part and parcel of this experience.   

It’s not too much of a stretch to think that in the future, as tourist numbers increase and environmental pressures mount, this kind of “permission-based travelling” will also grow.

Discerning or discriminatory?  

Already, we are seeing slight but significant shifts that governments are making to draw a specific sort of traveller by focusing on the value of tourism rather than its volume. Destinations have begun to talk increasingly about attracting “quality tourists” as they focus on tourists that are deemed “the right fit” for their destination.

It’s pitched as a way to ensure that tourism traffic isn’t causing more harm than good — that it translates into significant wins for the local economy without compromising quality of life for locals.  

For example, the Kingdom of Bhutan has controlled visitor numbers by instituting a minimum daily spend resulting in “only” 550,000 tourists visiting annually thus “protecting” the kingdom against over-tourism, while in the Republic of Palau government modified its immigration policy and since 2017 requires tourists to sign a mandatory eco-pledge to visit the country. The environmental pledge is stamped into one’s passport and requires a signature before entry is permitted.

Iceland meantime aims to attract “high-earning professionals that can help stimulate the economy without overcrowding”, and will grant six-month visas to tourists earning more than a million Icelandic Krone a month (about $7,700). The hope is that this visa regime will entice high-earning tourists who stay longer, travel slower, visit less popular Icelandic attractions and consider travelling out of the peak tourism season.  

Where might all of this lead? As destinations become more choosey about the type of tourists they allow in, this could result in a significant shift away from a situation where the tourist chooses from a wide variety of potential holiday destinations that are marketed to them, to a situation where destinations will issue visas only to those tourists they wish to host.  

Take this a step further and we may even have a situation where tourists must market themselves to a destination to prove they are the kind of traveller the country will significantly benefit from. It may mean the passports we hold become less important than our individual track records as travellers.   

If this seems far-fetched, bear in mind that the tourism sector has never been static — like everything else in the world it is changing and at an ever-accelerating rate.   

In the late 19th century, states began switching from emigration control (controlling citizens that leave a country) to immigration control (controlling populations that wish to enter a country). In fact, the concept of a standardised global travel system only gained traction after the First World War when the League of Nations needed to administer the large numbers of post-war people displaced in Europe.  

Passports (and visas) are now normalised and entrenched as a form of managing global cross-border travel, but there’s nothing to say that it will stay this way forever.

Of course, it’s hard to say whether a shift to a system that requires us to demonstrate our individual value to destinations will democratise travel or entrench it further as the prerogative of the elite. The fact that ease of travel in the future may no longer be tied to our passports of origin could certainly unlock the world for South Africans and citizens of other nations hamstrung by geopolitical relations beyond our control.  

And — who knows? In a hyper-connected digital world where we’re already working hard to sell ourselves in our bids for jobs, dates, friends, likes, etc, travel might be just one more front on which we’re saying: “Ooh! Pick me! I’m eager, capable and ready to add value!” DM  

This article is based on a piece first published in the Journal of Tourism Futures.

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