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The collapse of the travel industry during the Covid-19 epidemic

simon gray - 2020-08-22, 11:33:12

Looking at STA travel now being a CovidCasualty, alongside other travel industry casualties just before The Event and the ones which are inevitably to come, it does occur to me that travel industry casualties are of somewhat more reaching and significant social consequences than the retail sector’s and the hospitality sector’s casualties.

Arguably over the last few years the hospitality sector had been expanding far in excess of the capacity of the market to sustain that growth anyway — it was a bubble that was inevitably going to burst, and the casualties are arguably more of a market correction than an existential crisis. When All This Is All Over there will still be plenty of pubs and bars, cafés and restaurants, for people to go to, and the ones who survive The Event will do so as businesses which are more sustainable.

Little needs to be said that hasn’t been said at length about the state of the retail sector — people aren’t buying things from shops because shops aren’t selling things people want to buy when people want to buy them. Shops aren’t closing left, right, and centre, it’s just certain shops which are closing left, right, and centre — you can still buy clothes, perfume, food, and tech in shops, you just can’t buy them in many department stores anymore. You can still buy purses and shoulder bags in shops, you just can’t buy purses and shoulder bags in shops where the only distinguishing feature is they’ve got the name ‘Cath Kidston’ printed prominently on the side (if only the same could be said about cups with spots and notebooks with words on and the name Emma Bridgewater at least discretely underneath…). The social consequences of most of the shops which are shutting will be negligible, because people will still be able to buy the things they need and want.

Travel industry closures are perhaps a different matter.

For sophisticated folks booking all the individual components of a holiday ourselves is simple and are the default method of sorting out a holiday anyway, not least because the kinds of holidays we want to have (or indeed can afford to have) aren’t available through travel agents anyway. But I think most people use travel agents to book holidays as some form of package simply because it’s easier to, and for those sorts of holidays the economies of scale and corporate purchasing power make them cheaper than they would be for an individual doing DIY booking. And whilst folks like you and I are good with Duck Duck Go to find things, my observation even many educated people have poor research skillz. So the collapse of the travel industry leaves a whole in the ability to book holidays not as easily filled as the scaling back of the retail and hospitality industries.

And even if people learn how to do their own research and book places to travel to themselves, if the hotel industry, the ferry industry, and the plane industry are also collapsing, how are people going to get to them? The UK rail industry has been temporarily all but nationalised, but that’s because the government finally recognised rail as Essential National Infrastructure. Could the same be said of the rest of the mass transport sector? Are hotels essential?

The ability for people of most means to go on holiday has been described as one of the significant levelling developments of the 20th century, as working and middle class people were given the leisure time only the upper classes previously had, and the cost of doing fun things with that leisure time dropped to bring the ability to do fun things with that leisure time to the working classes. Take that away, and it’s another step to returning us to pre-Edwardian times.

[Note 1: *You* might not be able to afford to go in holiday, or rather, you might choose to prioritise your spending in directions other than holidays, I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about society]

[Note 2: *You* might consider people going on holiday to be responsible for the destruction of the planet and your leisure time might be spent cycling to volunteer on sustainable tofu farms and you might think that’s what everybody should do, but I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about society]

[Note 3: In talking about the negligible social consequences of the shrinking of the retail and hospitality sectors I’m of course aware of the many real people for which there are real consequences which will obviously contribute to an overall negative social impact, but that’s not what I’m talking about here]

#society #economy

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