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The COVID-19 pandemic and the tourism industry: the future of a new industry or its end?

4th May 2021

Author: Maximiliano Korstanje, Senior Researcher in the Department of Economics, University of Palermo, Argentina

In human history, disasters – like COVID-19 – radically shift travel behaviour as well as society and its daily habits. A disaster connotes the lack of coherent answers of society before the biological world. Equally importantly, culture is shaped and formed by the disaster.

Disaster management studies have focused on the following philosophical axiom, so to speak; in post-disaster or emergency contexts all protocols and manuals are inevitably overlooked. The idea of a disaster exhibits the presence of chaos, decontrol, and fear. The history of pandemics and viruses not only exposes human vulnerability but the dilemma of over-crowded cities and high-mobilities.  

COVID-19, a new virus that originated in Wuhan, China, has not only ground the tourism industry but also global commerce to an unparalleled halt. To stop the mass contagion, many governments disposed of severe and strict measures which include border and airspace closures accompanied by lockdowns and countless travel restrictions. At the time of writing, the global pandemic has infected more than 150 million people and caused the death of more than 3 million victims (COVID19 update). The tourism industry, as well as the modern transport hubs, disseminated the virus in weeks. The service sectors paradoxically became both the main carrier of COVID-19 and its main victim. The most affected country is the US (588,000 victims) seconded by Brazil (398.343), India (208.313), Mexico (215.918), the UK (127.502), and Italy (120.144) only to name a few (COVID-19 update on 29 of April 2021). Needless to say, these ciphers are in constant change. In the midst of this mayhem, some scholars question to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic is a new opportunity for the tourism industry to rebirth, or at least to adopt more sustainable forms of consumption. Others, instead, incline to call attention to the limitations of tourism research in a world without tourists. For them, new interdisciplinary methods and epistemologies are necessary. 

Over recent years, British sociology (headed by John Urry and Lancaster school) coined the term tourist-gazewhich acts as a sociological dispositive that helps capital replication. The tourist gaze exhibits a much deeper cultural matrix that marks what can be gazed at or not. Global tourists certainly engage with a complex consuming machine that draws the world in two: secure and insecure places. Tourists are preferably over-valorised as ambassadors of a first world where economic prosperity and democracy prevailed (Urry 2002). Having said this, the COVID-19 pandemic pushes us to a feudalized world where the tourist-gaze sets the pace to a wicked-gaze. This means tourists are not only demonized as potential carriers of a lethal disease but also as undesired guests. The global geography, which Urry eloquently described, has been fractured into pieces. Each government unilaterally adopts its restrictive measures to ban international flights (Korstanje 2021). The “Other”, probably a neighbour or a friend, is now considered a potential enemy which threatens the societal order.

It is noteworthy that the pandemic activates long-dormant racist discourses against Asian tourists. In the Western imagination, Chinese tourists are unjustly labelled as carriers of COVID-19 and monitored accordingly (Mostafanezhad, Cheer & Sin 2020). To this, we mention the rise of new geopolitical tensions (disputes) among nations. This happens because we live in a climate of feudalization where tourists are undesired guests, characterizing what has been dubbed as the end of hospitality. Whether the colonial voyages were inspired by the discovery of the “Non-Western Other” as an object of curiosity, in the post-Covid-19 context the “Non-Western Other” is systematically neglected. Echoing Derrida, hospitality can be offered or not, but identity occupies a central position in accepting or rejecting “the Other” (Derrida 2000). The host always asks the guest: who are you and what do you want? Hospitality reduces host guests’ tensions. Although some voices pointed out to the COVID-19 pandemic as a foundational event, we hold the thesis that it reaffirms a logic inaugurated by 9/11 and the War on Terror which marked the “end of hospitality”, at least as we knew it. In the post 9/11 days, anyone can be suspected to be a potential terrorist, even a friend or a neighbour. After the COVID-19 pandemic we are all terrorists (carriers) who disseminate the virus. “The Other” is now suspected to be a potential danger for society.

The discovery of the COVID-19 vaccine opens a new debate revolving around the ethics of medicine. Whilst rich countries bought millions of doses for their citizens, poor countries were left adrift – between the wall and the blue sea (Korstanje & George, 2021a). With serious economic troubles and far from herd immunity, under-developing economies will face big challenges in the years to come. Furthermore, some voices have recently ignited a hot debate that revolves around the figure of the health or vaccine passport. In this respect, the vaccine passport is a document issued exclusively to those inoculated citizens or those who have enough antibodies so that they can freely travel. The mobilities of the twenty-first century are accessed to those whose immunity can be certified. The point, anyway, wakes up some controversies. The history of the passport speaks to us of the problem of the outsider and homeland security. At a closer look, the passport was a medieval document endorsed to travellers who needed to move from one to another city. Travellers – the outsiders – should certify their identities to be temporarily accepted in the kingdom. This permission allowed travellers to transit through the territory under the auspices of the King for business, leisure or other purposes. The system finally was efficiently organized by King Henry V of England who thought of a pioneering coding system to identify and faster classify outlanders (Marrus 1985). As stated, the rite of hospitality needs to corroborate the guest’s identity. In the world before the pandemic, travellers held strong or weak passports. Whilst the former gave further access to countless destinations, the latter was limited to severe travel bans and requirements. Nowadays, passports are not designed to identify the outsider, but to mark who is sane or sick (which means infected guests). Of course, if a person declines to be vaccinated, he or she is doomed to remain immobile. The health passports are not based on the question of identity, but the biology of the guest. In a nutshell, the health passport interrogates further on human biology. Whereas identity is culturally created or negotiated – if not falsified – immunity cannot be emulated. Forced migrants, asylum seekers or refugees often lie about their identities to be accepted in the rich economies (Korstanje & George, 2021b). Classic passports allow the rejection of outsiders because of their intentions, but the health passport closes the doors to those travellers because of their biology. Is this a new sign that marks the end of hospitality or the beginning of safer travels for only the privileged elite?


COVID-19 update. World Odometers. Available at Retrieved 04-29-2021

Derrida, J., & Dufourmantelle, A. (2000). Of hospitality. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Korstanje, M. E. (2020). Passage from the Tourist Gaze to the Wicked Gaze: A Case Study on COVID-19 with Special Reference to Argentina. In International Case Studies in the Management of Disasters. George B & Mahar Q (eds). (197-212). Bingley, Emerald Publishing Limited.

Korstanje M & George B. (2021a) The Nature and Future of Tourism. Palm Beach, Apple Academic Press.

Korstanje, M. E., & George, B. P. (2021b). COVID-19 and the End of Hospitality: At Least as We Know It in the West. In Socio-Economic Effects and Recovery Efforts for the Rental Industry: Post-COVID-19 Strategies (pp. 148-164). Hershey, IGI Global.

Marrus, M. R. (1985). The unwanted: European refugees in the twentieth century. New York, Oxford University Press.

Mostafanezhad, M., Cheer, J. M., & Sin, H. L. (2020). Geopolitical anxieties of tourism:(Im) mobilities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dialogues in Human Geography10(2), 182-186.

Urry, J. (2002). The tourist gaze. London, Sage.