Opposing forces. On one side of the big game board of life: COVID-19, ever spreading with new surges and variants. On the other side: countries, cities, hotels, airlines and cruise lines, hoping to fit themselves into postpandemic travel plans or trying to entice us to make reservations and book now. Open a newspaper and read that Florida has nearly 20,000 new cases. Turn the page, and there’s an ad offering “a warm winter welcome” at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach, asking us to “take comfort in knowing that the highest standards of comprehensive health and safety precautions are in place to protect our team, guests and community.” Which message is more enticing, or less scary?
A January 2021 New York Times article titled “Americans in Search of Normalcy Flee to Mexico City” painted a disturbing picture of unmasked tourists crowding the city’s historic center and taking off for revelries in Cancún and Los Cabos while overwhelmed local hospitals lacked oxygen and other essential supplies. Federico Hernández-Ruiz, principal of asimetagraf, a brand consultancy based in Querétaro, says that his workday is interrupted by phone calls from hotel chains and credit card companies offering special resort packages. “People in my cloud are renting beach houses to be in open spaces with distance,” he says. “If you travel by car, there are road-inspection stops where your temperature is taken, you are told about precautions and must show a reservation that indicates you have a safe place to stay.” Are Mexican beaches safe for international visitors too? To find out more, I contacted David Alvarado, a travel photographer based in Mexico City. “I would highly advise against any travel to Mexico from the USA,” he responded via email. “The medical system here is exhausted with a rising number of cases. Promoting travel to a third-world country during a global pandemic is irresponsible and quite tone-deaf.”
I’m not promoting. Only asking questions, and partly for personal reasons. I hope to soon be in Bali, Indonesia, where my son’s family lives, playing with the baby granddaughter I’ve met only on FaceTime. Like most people I know, I’ve been living in a bubble, staying distanced, scheduling my vaccinations and trying to find out when the country I want to visit will let me in.
“It could take two-and-a-half to four years for international tourism to return to 2019 levels,” reported the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in January 2021, just as vaccines were being rolled out. According to the UNWTO, “destinations worldwide welcomed 1 billion fewer international arrivals in 2020 than in the previous year, due to an unprecedented fall in demand and widespread travel restrictions.” If the trend continues, that statistic—a 74 percent drop in international arrivals from 2019’s high of nearly 1.5 billion—would mean massive bankruptcies and disaster for every region that depends on tourism for economic stability and growth.
Thus, countries and cities are forming committees, coalitions and consortiums to revive their economies, restore some kind of normalcy, and rethink their brands and offerings. In Catalonia, for example, the Barcelona City Council launched Barcelona Never Stops, a campaign that outlines the city’s plan to reactivate its economy via “shock measures” like giving immediate loans to small businesses, as well as its long-term plan to diversify its economy, in part by reopening the city to investment and visitors. A rebus-like, animated graphic on the campaign’s website relates to the concept of moving forward by reviving neighborhoods, supporting restaurants, giving grants to cultural institutions and increasing international promotional efforts. Are the efforts working? It’s not easy to find out. I decide to check on Spain’s current travel situation online and am confronted with pages of official closings and reopenings, regulations, and notices like “UK visitors returning from Spain will need to self-quarantine for fourteen days.” When? Last summer? How about now? What about US visitors? I check Tripadvisor and find no helpful answers.
In Singapore, businesses, the government and the hospitality industry are involved in what they’re calling SingapoReimagine. “We’re inviting global communities to join our collective efforts to shape the future of tourism,” says Gina Ng, senior brand and communications manager at the Singapore Tourism Board, which published a press release that describes SingapoReimagine as “a new initiative to reimagine travel for Singapore and the rest of the world,” including through a series of forums with global partners as well as engagements with members of the local community and tourism partners. Among the efforts underway: requiring all establishments to uphold stringent levels of hygiene and sanitation; transforming experiences like nightclub visits into virtual dance parties; and developing offerings like sustainability-themed online tours. Changi Airport, the release claims, has already succeeded in becoming contactless by eliminating touch-screens, and is testing the use of ultraviolet light technology to disinfect handrails.
The typical destination website, though, with its links to attractions and hotel reservations—except for the small print and content about safety precautions and COVID-related updates—seems to be pretending that 2020–2021 is like every other year. Other, perhaps more prescient destinations, hoping to be foremost in the minds of future travelers, are highlighting experiences that can be enjoyed once travel resumes through ambitious campaigns that say “We’re worth waiting for” and “We’ll be waiting.” One example is Australia in 8D, a series of immersive virtual experiences commissioned by Tourism Australia. Sydney-based creative communications agency Connecting Plots created six short videos “designed to transport viewers from around the world into the heart of some of Australia’s most breathtaking destinations and keep them dreaming of all of the experiences awaiting them when they are able to travel to Australia again,” according to the agency’s website. Connecting Plots and its sister production company, Infinity Squared, partnered with Sydney-based music and sound design company Song Zu to provide viewers with journeys of sights and sounds. Put on headphones, click play, and you’re inside a green jungle with twittering birds and monkeys, watching pink skies as water gushes into a limpid pool, or diving underwater with singing whales. “At a time where people are craving travel experiences, but physically can’t, we wanted to create the next best thing, a moment of escapism,” Connecting Plots’ cofounder and managing director Tom Phillips told AdNews and Campaign Brief, two publications that covered the campaign.
New York City, too, is taking it slow, but seasoning the current predicament with a big dash of creativity. In July 2020, NYC & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization, published a 52-page document entitled All In NYC: The Roadmap for Tourism’s Reimagining and Recovery. From governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio to museum directors, Broadway theater stars and celebrity restaurateurs, it seems like every boldfaced name in town is involved, joined by 700 organizations in the tourism, entertainment, sports, lodging, dining, retail, and meetings and events sectors. The program is organized into three phases—Rise, Renew and Recover—with a plan to gradually expand its reach from local residents to regional, domestic and international travelers. An ambitious pro bono campaign by 60-person branding agency Aruliden—whose presentation won out over those of more than 60 other firms that competed for the gig—has brought bold black-white-and-red messages that celebrate New York City sights, sounds and flavors to buildings and Link screens all over town. “This was a passion project,” says creative director Spencer Bagley, who led a team of six who donated months of work as “a gift to the city we call home.” The assignment, Bagley explains, was to first create a strategy and rallying cry around the spirit of New York City. The solution: “ALL IN,” as in “It’s all here in New York City: all the cultural attractions, the neighborhoods, the music, the people, the smartness.” Aruliden’s work culminated in a tool kit with assets designed to be easily used by NYC & Company’s internal design team and by the many business partnerships involved in the effort. The current phase is a video campaign featuring images of New Yorkers, well-known and ordinary, living, working and succeeding through the pandemic—and, it is hoped, inspiring others to do the same—with footage donated by photographers that Bagley calls “friends, family and great photographers we follow, who showcased the grit and the goodness.”
To increase their chances of survival, New York cultural institutions have also been developing their own virtual programming. The Dance Theatre of Harlem launched DTH On Demand, an online streaming series that presents highlights of past seasons, and also put on a special virtual performance of masked dancers in iconic uptown locations like the 145th Street subway station. On Site Opera, a company that usually performs in venues that fit the settings of the stories, like parks and museums, chose to present some of its 2020–2021 offerings via traditional graphic design. For a special three-part series of performances based on diary texts by Anne Frank, Ozef Kalda and Virginia Woolf, a “ticket” bought a “keepsake diary”—a folder containing an imaginatively designed libretto based on the performance lyrics, portraits and bios of the singers and subjects of the opera, and a scholarly essay, all printed on papers of various weights and textures and delivered by the US Postal Service. A QR code linked to prerecorded music. “The goal was to meet the audience where they were—in their homes—and create an experience that sets the stage for listening,” the designer, Stephanie Reyer, a Philadelphia-based museum and exhibition design expert, told me in the interview I originally conducted about the project for Print. “It’s a museum in a box, with intrigue, relevance, media, curatorial context ... all in significantly smaller square footage.”
Across the country, Colorado is taking a different approach: emphasizing safety and “responsible tourism.” Yes, colorado.com has tabs like “Hotels & Lodging” and “Festivals & Events” under the words “Come to Life Colorado,” but the site is topped by a banner leading to a “What’s Open” page with detailed health and safety guidance that even includes a link to a social distancing space calculator for businesses and communities. “Call 1-800-COLORADO to speak with a live counselor,” the page instructs. I did, and reached “Claudia,” who said she couldn’t provide her last name but told me that Colorado is open “at 25 percent capacity.” She emphasized that face masks are required everywhere and that “overnight visitors to Aspen must complete an affidavit with proof of a negative COVID-19 test.” Colorado isn’t telling us to keep away, though. “When you’re ready, we’ll be here,” proclaims aspenchamber.org, a site that, in addition to presenting awe-inspiring images of mountain vistas, provides links to everything from “Business Recovery Toolbox” to “Community Food Distribution” to “Mental Health Support.” When I spoke to ski aficionado Jeff Spillane of Gorman Spillane & Friends, a Denver consultancy that provides creative direction to ad agencies, he told me that Colorado towns and resorts are serious about safety and that local entrepreneurs are being super creative. He forwarded an article about how Steamboat Springs restaurateurs are reusing old ski-lift gondolas as outdoor dining pods.
Despite how hard they’re trying, and despite the creativity and marketing muscle and public relations that countries and cities and travel-related companies are exerting, it still looks like the best advice is to stay home. Stay home and put on those headphones, watch the videos and dream about future in-person visits. Just like how this mostly successful year of working from home—for those fortunate enough to have that option—may change how offices are designed and how jobs are structured, it’s likely that travel will also emerge from the pandemic changed: more efficient, cleaner and safer for everyone. Imagine wheeling your baggage, sanitized by ultraviolet technology, into a van waiting to transport you to that green jungle with twittering birds or into the open arms of family members you haven’t seen since before their two-year-old was born. ca