Travel, tourism and the impact on cities: evolution post COVID-19

Urban life 24 April 2020

This is the third article in a series of reflections on experiences during the Coronavirus crisis and how these might impact our cities in the future. Here, focus is on how rethinking tourism will help shape cities to become more sustainable (and vice versa).

Expert columns
8 min

It is hard to think of an industry that has been impacted more strongly during this crisis than tourism. 

Cities have always been inextricably linked with tourism and travel. With both now starting to grapple with how to plan for the future, this is an opportunity to rethink these relationships, help tourism recover and in turn, shape more sustainable urban environments.

Imagine the Grand Canal in Venice without the long queues for the Gondolas, London Soho without its bustling nightlife and rush to the theatres or New York without a stroll down the Highline. Currently, all major tourist attractions are on pause. Some of these attractions may never be the same again. At least not soon.

The relationships between cities and tourism are so strong that one cannot exist without the other - economically, socially and environmentally. 

In fact, for decades now, many cities have had to confront exactly the reverse effect of the COVID-19 standstill, struggling to deal with too much tourism, with residents’ liveability sometimes heavily impacted because of disruption, noise or over-crowded transport. The impacts of air travel (and also road traffic related to travel) on the environment are also significant, negatively impacting the health and wellbeing of communities in many cities globally.

The current catastrophic impact on tourism and travel is not only felt in major destinations. Tourism is intertwined with the economic and social patterns of everyday life which shapes neighbourhoods, cities, landscapes and regions almost anywhere around the world. This crisis has put up to 75 million jobs in this sector globally at risk and this will be felt strongly in cities. 

This article looks at four areas where a broader rethink of place and operation can shape more sustainable urban environments that are more attractive to visitors, too. 

1. Moving towards net zero and connecting neighbourhoods: rethinking airports and major transport hubs 

COVID-19 has all but stopped global aviation activity, putting many jobs at risk and causing significant reduction in revenues for most airports.

Many experts say that the aviation industry will take a long time to recover from this crisis. So, what lies ahead for airports?

When thinking of airports, we must look more broadly than their aviation-related activity and recognise their critical role in cities. In fact, many of the world’s busiest airports operate as cities in their own right. They are vital pieces of urban infrastructure and are major contributors to the economic success of cities, regions and nations.

One of the most pressing agendas for airports is achieving net zero carbon emissions. Whilst investing in better aircraft technology is important, we must recognise that a lot of the industry’s emissions are produced on the ground. This means that the decarbonisation efforts must look at the overall planning and design of airports and the integration of systems within them, including the terminal and air traffic activity but also how these connect with ground transportation systems linking the airport to cities and wider regions, their energy systems and how these link with other airside and landside uses including hotels, offices and even residential uses around them.

Many airports have already embarked on this journey towards net zero as well as operating as meaningful hubs for civic use. We see airports broadening the ‘airport city’ model into more vibrant, mixed use urban environments which support leisure and culture (with museums, cinemas, shopping for non-aviation users) as much as workplaces and other airport-related business activities. With optimum connectivity, physical and digital, and a push to reduce noise and improve air quality, residential areas close by also start to become a viable option.

The process of turning airports and other inner and outer-city transport interchanges into centres for meaningful urban living, working and play is already underway. Whilst the aviation industry starts to recover, the COVID-19 pause in airport, and other transport activity, presents an opportunity to accelerate the path to net zero carbon and take a step further into creating truly urban and highly connected sustainable neighbourhoods.

2. Building multi-purpose cities: ensuring more economically resilient cities and regions 

When thinking of cities associated with tourism, Las Vegas, Nevada US is one of the first that comes to mind. 

No other state in the US relies more heavily on tourism than Nevada. To put this into context, in Southern Nevada alone, over 40% of employment is linked directly or indirectly to tourism, with revenues generated through the industry utilised for paying for the state’s critical infrastructure including roads, parks and education facilities.

Las Vegas is used to hosting around 3.5 million visitors on average per month. That’s a lot!

To support these levels of visitations, the city has a fantastic infrastructure network that ensures the most efficient levels of service. Since the financial crisis of 2008 which hit Las Vegas significantly, there have been moves to capitalise on the support infrastructure to attract other industries and make the city less tourist dependent. With a ‘start up’ culture starting to evolve, a push to make Las Vegas a ‘real city’, not just for the passer-by, has led to attracting other new industries including professional sport and medical care.

Whilst the current closure of the Las Vegas Strip has a significant impact on businesses and families, lessons learned from the 2008 crash and the city’s strong positioning globally will probably mean that Las Vegas will remain a strong destination once the restrictions are lifted. However, sadly this isn’t the case for many cities and towns which are solely dependent on tourism.

This crisis highlights the importance of planning for a more robust economic diversity in cities and regions. There is an opportunity for cities to work collectively with operators in the tourism market - theme park operators, hotels and convention centres - to broaden their offering in a way that can withstand recurring periods of instability as well as making a meaningful, long lasting contributions to local communities.

3. Outdoor exercise trends and a socially distant future: leading to more sustainably connected cities and helping resurrect tourism     

For most people, the main considerations before booking their next holiday are: 1. How they will move around (public transport? renting a car?) 2. Where they will stay. 3. Cost. 

When looking at the rapid response of communities to social distancing measures and lockdown restrictions, it is quite clear that there are positive trends (such as better air quality, less noise, work productivity from home, people doing more exercise) that cities will look to maintain, once the restrictions are lifted. 

Critical parameters that will help deliver those positive outcomes will be the future of urban mobility and health standards in the public realm and buildings. These will drive many of the decisions in the short to medium term and have significant impact on tourism and travel choices in cities in the future.

On the mobility front, adjustment to change has been rapid. Concerns over social distancing (in streets or public transport) and compliance with restrictive exercise rules sent people rushing to get their bikes repaired or even, despite financial uncertainty, get new ones. With roads empty of car traffic, the experience of riding a bike or jogging in many cities has become very pleasant, attracting many to increase their exercise time.

Many cities around the world have been quick in responding to this phenomenon as an opportunity. German cities including Berlin have quickly responded to the reduction in traffic to create ‘pop up’ cycling lanes which help residents move around easily and safely. In Philadelphia, streets were closed to traffic to give people meaningful space to exercise with similar actions taking place in cities such as Vancouver, Budapest, Bogotá. In cities across New Zealand the government, who already trialled similar transformation for cycling and widened pedestrian space, have used this emergency period to move forward with implementation.

As restrictions are lifted, it is likely that health and safety will deter some people from using public transport in the short term, with more healthy mobility choices likely to grow. Those cities that can offer larger areas of public realm (on streets and spaces) where social distancing can be safely maintained, will be considered safer and are likely to prove more attractive for tourists as well. More space in the urban realm will also create opportunities for safe, street-based retail offering and those cities which will adopt innovative strategies to resurrect vibrant urban-life will prove more attractive.

In addition to being able to move around in a healthy manner, accommodation whilst on holidays will also be probably determined by health and sanitation priorities. Whilst some distancing measures are in place it is likely that ‘healthy stay’ offers will quickly pop up. No doubt that hotels, guesthouses and even Airbnb will need to demonstrate their actions to address health if they are to go back to business.

Whilst cities are still focusing on supporting the vulnerable and keeping systems running, recovery strategies also start to be drawn up. Earlier this week, Milan announced an ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown. Other cities are likely to quickly follow. 

Clearly, there will be other challenges with regards to post-COVID mobility. One of the primary ones will be the intra-city connectivity that could lead to greater congestion between cities, particularly in the short term when people may look to avoid public transport. However, solutions that will consider how cities sit in the wider region and deliver better outcomes for communities, the environment and for the economy as a whole, will be the ones that will see a quicker recovery.

4. Local vibrancy: we could see a regeneration of town centres stimulating a different kind of tourism 

Imagine a tourist visiting London and not going to a museum like the Tate Modern or to Borough Market. Paris without visiting the Louvre, or Rome without entering the Pantheon. Museums, street markets and cultural destinations are the first on many people’s list when exploring a city. However, with social distancing measures likely to last for some time, it is also likely that some closures, restricted access and long queues or pre-arranged booking times will send many tourists (and residents) looking for other things to do.

One of the great things about cities is the mixture of people and communities, and the more ‘authentic’ experience they can offer locally. 

COVID-19 will no doubt transform our local neighbourhoods, most of which currently offer very little or nothing at all for those visiting.

Since the crisis started we have seen unprecedented levels of community support and connectedness (despite the social distancing) and the challenges that come with being located further away from the city such as lack of employment opportunities, limited connectivity, poor air quality or lack of urban vitality and cultural offerings have clearly surfaced. 

With working from home likely to continue in some way and people investing more in their local environments, it is likely that cities will follow and work to bring a level of urbanity and vitality into communities that need it.

These local actions will help resurrect our high streets, bring more entrepreneurial activity to neighbourhoods and more culture, improve the quality of amenity spaces and recreational offerings and attract new residents from more diverse backgrounds. This will bring a unique, and much needed vitality to places outside the city centre and make them more attractive to locals, workers and visitors alike.

Acceptance from the community at large, is also one of the universal strategic goals identified in a recent Ramboll report, talking about the balancing of Sustainable Urban development with Micro Mobility. The Achieving Sustainable Micro-Mobility report highlights that the adoption and acceptance of policies and infrastructure can be significantly improved by tackling areas of greatest concerns and at the same time offer emission-free and affordable way of moving around.


With cities slowly starting to open up again, it is likely that travel will follow at some stage too.

However, health concerns, cost considerations and probably even the recent memory of ‘trapped tourists’ that couldn’t get back home when the outbreak started, will be on people’s minds before booking their next holiday.

Whilst the travel industry responds to these challenges and begins to recover, cities will be working to rebuild the economy whilst continuing to invest in critical infrastructure and supporting local communities. An integrated approach that focuses on shaping sustainable, liveable and healthy cities for people, will create a solid platform to a sustained global recovery. This will help to resurrect city life and spark that ‘travel bug’ in us once again.


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