Four big challenges we face in 2021 to Build Back Better

written by Ben Lynam, The Travel Foundation

Last year we  partnered with the Travel Foundation on the “Roots to Recovery initiative”,  which supported four DMOs with their longer-term recovery planning. Here, the Travel Foundation shares some of the key lessons, in advance of a Connections Sustainability Working Group discussion on 31 March

2021 is the year that destinations will start rebuilding their international visitor economies following the pandemic. It will, most likely, be a slow and bumpy ride. And whilst we can expect an eventual return to 2019 visitors levels (by 2023 or 2024 at the earliest, according to UNWTO and PATA), in many other ways the tourism of 2019 will never return. Since then, businesses have collapsed, attitudes have shifted, and politics and technology have moved on, opening up new possibilities.

Whether this new visitor economy will be “better” – more resilient, more equitable and creating more value for communities - will depend on how we recover. For some destinations and their business partners, the pressure to recoup losses and regain liquidity will no doubt take over, with discounting and cost-cutting, and the potential for a “race to the bottom”. However, for many others, this will be taken as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and, crucially, to learn from each other. It is a chance to collaborate and be intentional about building a new visitor economy that will contribute to their place-making visions.

The Roots to Recovery initiative

Last year City Nation Place teamed up with the global tourism NGO, the Travel Foundation, to offer four DMOs pro bono support as they developed their COVID-19 recovery plans. The Travel Foundation’s expert team reviewed and strengthened these plans with a focus on increasing opportunities for community livelihoods, strong and resilient local supply chains, resource protection, and overall destination management capacities, drawing on its nearly two decades of experience globally.

The “Roots to Recovery” initiative brought together four very different DMOs: Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, Indigenous Tourism Ontario, Grenada Tourism Authority and Colorado Tourism Office. The Travel Foundation provided technical support and a “critical friend” role for these DMOs to put in place plans for longer term success. It also brought the destinations together to share ideas, issues and concerns and benefit from collective support. These structured peer-to-peer discussions were particularly beneficial given that destinations worldwide are currently grappling with a common set of new and fast-paced issues.

As part of the project, the Travel Foundation created and tested a Recovery Plan Assessment Framework which has since been developed into a handbook and a workshop programme to help even more destinations in their recovery planning, and has so far been delivered by the charity for DMOs in Mexico and the Caribbean, with the Pacific Islands and Greece soon to come. 

The core of this framework, and key findings from all the Travel Foundation’s recovery planning work, are reproduced here.

Common challenges

Although all destinations will have their unique contexts and issues, and the COVID-19 pandemic has affected places in markedly different ways (while many popular attractions were shuttered, elsewhere places suffered from domestic-driven overtourism), there are also many commonalities. The “invisible burden” of tourism has shifted, creating new frontiers: changes in market demand have brought different destination impacts (and new opportunities), and businesses that have struggled to survive are now required to adapt and innovate.


What are the common issues and opportunities?


A supply side crisis

The challenges: 

Many businesses, particularly SMEs which typically have less access to finance, are struggling to survive. There has also been a “talent drain” from leisure and hospitality to other sectors following job losses, which will have an impact on recovery.

There have been significant challenges in understanding which businesses and services are closed, whether these are permanently closed (or closed just for the season), or open, perhaps with reduced capacity or an adapted offer. This could mean a shortfall in services for visitors, and a source of tension between residents and visitors for restricted-capacity activities.


The opportunities: 

The immediate concern is, of course, to keep as many businesses afloat as possible and to halt the exodus of talent. Although DMOs will not usually have direct control of financial support packages, their role has been to support businesses with information and other support to help them access what is available.

Information exchange is critical during a crisis, and systems set up during lockdown to achieve a “real-time” understanding of business inventory (capacity, vulnerability and viability) will be an important management tool as tourism and hospitality restarts and grows. The crisis has hit some businesses (for instance those with a highly seasonal product, such as wildlife watching) much harder than others and it is important to establish the range of needs. The DMO can play a central role for residents, visitors and its business stakeholders to help them understand the latest situation, and to communicate the services and new offers out there.

DMOs have also supported businesses towards digitalisation – for instance to update their changing-status details, continue to have a presence with their customers, and potentially access new markets or diversify outside of the visitor economy. Particularly with businesses that have experienced job losses, those remaining employees have found they need to acquire new skills, and DMOs have been their main source of guidance and support.

Longer-term, following a contraction of the visitor economy, recovery is an opportunity for DMOs to reshape it to address prior weaknesses, so that local, authentic, and positive-impact businesses and products are prioritised. Step one might be to determine which businesses are essential for creating a sense of place, and which provide services valued by both residents and visitors. Supply chains also need to be well understood so that opportunities can be identified for localising these and creating linkages with SMEs. The focus now must be on providing existing operators and service providers (especially SMEs) with a targeted programme of practical support to diversify their products and sell to new markets, and to create a nurturing environment for start-ups and entrepreneurs. Consider initiatives that encourage a radical level of collaboration (such as “hackathon” events that focus collaboration on a practical response to a specific project or issue) involving sectors and stakeholders that are strongly associated with authentic sense of place – for example arts, culinary and agriculture, retail, culture and sport, national parks.

Roots to Recovery examples: 

Edinburgh Tourism Action Group focused initially on creating an inventory of businesses and pulling together the right information, guidance, and a programme of events. Moving forwards, they have an ambitious vision for tourism in 2030 with a strong resident-first focus and net-zero targets. Recovery is an opportunity to build this new visitor economy.

Indigenous Tourism Ontario kept in close communications with its operators to understand their situations and challenges. Many micro-businesses “died on impact” and many others downsized, or mothballed, their operations for at least a season and entire communities were closed to visitors. Indigenous Tourism Ontario provided business support brokers to understand the needs of its community enterprises and develop a targeted package of information, training and support. It also developed new virtual reality and augmented reality tours to help access new markets not just in times of COVID, but for the long term.

Colorado Tourism Office provided a technical assistance programme for its small associations, and grants to support product development innovation, accelerating an existing focus on building the capacity of businesses.

During a phased reopening, Grenada Tourism Authority launched the “Pure Grenada, Just for you” campaign focused on niche offerings and encouraging connections to other sectors such as agriculture, gastronomy and nature.


Your practical next steps could be:
Producing a situation analysis report based on available data – what has been the impact on capacity? Where are the weak links across the customer journey? What/who has been impacted the most? What has been the impact on other related sectors and interdependent services?
Gathering and disseminating an evidence base of consumer trends and new market intelligence to support SME adaptation.
Capturing the creativity of your community with cross-sector collaboration events that will stimulate start-ups, digitalisation, innovation and adaptation.


Finding the value of domestic tourism

The challenges:

Domestic tourists and local residents have different needs and provide a different “value” when compared to international visitors. Overall spend is generally lower and domestic visitors have a shorter stay on average. However, the flow of spend to local businesses is often greater.

The opportunities: 

Domestic tourists (and residents) are often neglected markets and, even if they spend less overall, they bring qualities that should be highly valued. Incorporating a domestic element to your longer-term strategies will ensure greater resilience to future shocks, and different spend patterns will help spread economic benefits more widely and reduce seasonality. For instance, domestic visitors are more likely to explore away from the “honeypot” attractions, allowing you to market new places and experiences.

A hyper-domestic “resident first” approach can build further resilience into the visitor economy and ensure that visitors are supporting businesses that are also valued by the community. The opportunity is therefore to develop marketing plans and niche products that “build out” from the local focus, using local people and insights to reinforce a sense of place that will appeal to a wider and international audience.

Internationally oriented businesses pivoting to domestic customers have found there are some marked differences in needs, with domestic visitors having very different requirements. DMOs can help businesses to adapt and innovate to meet the needs of the domestic market, which will allow businesses to achieve an optimum blend of resident, domestic and international customers.

Roots to Recovery examples:

Grenada Tourism Authority commissioned a domestic tourism survey to better understand the benefits, impact and potential for growth of domestic tourism, an area that hadn’t been a focus previously. They launched the “Paradise at Home” campaign to encourage exploration between the islands of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique.

For Indigenous Tourism Ontario, campaigns have become hyper-local, encouraging residents to explore their neighbourhoods in new ways.  The Moccasin  Identifier project uses stencilled images of traditional footwear to promote public awareness of significant Indigenous cultural sites such as trails and burial grounds. What began as an educational project for schools was extended to the tourism sector, and although this has been developed initially as a domestic campaign, it has great potential for international appeal when markets return.

Your practical next steps could be:
Commission research to better understand the needs and wants of the resident and domestic markets and develop marketing and communication strategies that target these needs.
Communicate these needs (as well as the value of these markets) to local business to support them in adapting their ‘offers’ accordingly.


Managing destinations

The challenges:

Destinations have experienced extra pressure from residents and domestic visitors on public spaces such as beaches and national parks and on outdoor infrastructure such as public toilets, waste management, car parks and hiking trails.

Changes in visitor flows, for instance, to enable social distancing in town centres, mean that normal transport and mobility has been disrupted, and temporary measures (such as barriers and signs) may impact on aesthetics and experiences.

There has been a major pivot to online booking systems and a requirement to book ahead, affecting the spontaneity and ease of visitor experiences.

The opportunities: 

This is a “no regrets” time to invest in upgrading outdoor infrastructure. The increased demand for outdoor space, self-drive and outdoor activities is a trend that is set to continue, and investment to protect natural and cultural assets and improve user experiences will have benefits for both residents and visitors alike. For instance, improved parking might not only alleviate resident concerns and make a day out more enjoyable, but provide a revenue streams for other initiatives, such as improving public transport links to remote places. To support a desire – and imperative – to “avoid the crowds”, there is an opportunity to identify and promote less-visited areas, providing they also have sufficient infrastructure capacity to support this. Information such as Google’s “Popular times” and real-time business data, or live webcams, coupled with promotion of alternative places may be effective at reducing congestion and wear and tear of high-use sites while establishing new places for the visitor itinerary. There is also a need to ensure visitors are equipped with the right information on how to be safe and responsible in the great outdoors, and an opportunity to engage with residents, and reassure them that the necessary measures are in place.

Temporary COVID-19 measures have opened up new possibilities to redesign public spaces for the longer term, to make them more pedestrian friendly, more accessible, and cleaner and greener. Perhaps it is time to trial electric scooter hire, create new cycle paths, or permanently reclaim streets which were previously congested with traffic, and repurpose them for people and outdoor entertainment. It is no accident that the concept of the 15-minute city gained traction in 2020.

Visitors will be looking to plan their trips in greater detail, and DMOs can help to coordinate this with an integrated digital platform. Indeed, this could be the start of a more holistic approach to managing visitor flow, to improve visitor experiences and even-out the peaks and troughs in demand. Destinations like Venice are already introducing sophisticated systems to monitor visitor flows. Will queues become a thing of the past? If so, they won’t be missed. Integrated platforms also present an opportunity to serve up personalised suggestions for visitors to help them plan, and to bring back some of that spontaneity that makes exploring a place so much fun. If that restaurant is fully booked, you might like to know this one has spaces… and on your way, why not stop off at this tavern for an aperitif?

The “pause” in visitors has also opened up opportunities to manage tourism impacts which may have had negative impacts – for instance many landlords have switched back from short-term (visitor) to long-term (residential) letting and in some places this may be a welcome trend that could now be reinforced – the Mayor of Lisbon proposed to incentivise the conversion of short-term rental apartments to become affordable housing for key workers. And Amsterdam’s “reset” as a visitor city includes plans to move its Red Light District out of the city centre. So DMO plans, interventions, grants and investments can be guided by a return on investment for the community – perhaps using a sustainability or wellbeing index – as well as the RoI for the local economy.

Roots to Recovery examples: 

Colorado has responded to overtourism, which affected some of its national parks, urban trails and other outdoor attractions, with communication to manage this from a health and safety perspective, and to engage residents. The campaign builds on their “Care  for Colorado” campaign.

Edinburgh’s “Spaces for People” initiative is aimed at making the city and its surrounds safer and easier to get around, and the changes introduced for COVID-19 are an opportunity to accelerate that programme. Edinburgh has also been exploring potential digital platform solutions. For instance, “The Locale Edinburgh” was introduced to businesses in 2020. This new app allows users to see what’s open near them, what features and services are on offer and how busy their favourite businesses are – helping them make safe and informed decisions about when and how to visit.


Your practical next steps could be:
Investing in digital solutions that allow visitors and other stakeholders access to real-time data and booking channels.
Investing in infrastructure upgrades for outdoor and public spaces and communications such as mobile trail apps that encourage visits to less congested places or during ‘off-peak’ times.

A new paradigm

The challenges:

The COVID-19 lockdown has put tourism into sharp relief, highlighting both the positive and negative impacts it has on a place in “normal” times. Residents in some places may feel that they “reclaimed” their village, town or city and there are public health fears about visitors returning. There have been indications that resident attitudes are hardening to tourism in some places such as Hawaii where one survey showed only 54% of residents agreed that “tourism has brought more benefits than problems”, and Key West, where voters chose to ban ‘big and dirty’ cruise ships to the port.

DMOs have had to adapt quickly to new roles and responsibilities. With no international visitors, marketing has in some cases taken a back seat, and instead DMOs have been engaging more than ever with local businesses and a broader set of stakeholders.

The opportunities:

As well as highlighting the impacts of tourism, the pandemic has also raised the importance of the sector to the destination economy. Public-private tourism taskforces have been set up in many countries, and there is a new willingness to collaborate across sectors which can be continued through to the recovery phase.

This is an excellent time to engage with residents and facilitate the conversation on “why do we want tourism”. This will enable DMOs to start a process of realigning towards resident needs, and towards destination management, with tourism as a means to an end, not “for tourism’s sake”. This requires DMOs to acquire a new mandate and a seat at the placemaking table, to ensure that the visitor economy is contributing to the broader vision for the future, and to unlock new levers and pooled resources to support destination stewardship.

DMOs can now look to identify new measures of success that go beyond visitor numbers and overall spend, recognising the true value of tourism - both its costs and benefits – with an understanding of how it will contribute to a destination’s health and community wellbeing.

Roots to Recovery examples:

Colorado has been focusing on identifying their “high value” visitors, but they are interpreting this not just in terms of higher spend. They are looking at the full tourism “ecosystem” and identifying the ideal visitor profiles to bring back the health of the visitor economy and provide positive impacts on communities. They are looking to develop a travel “barometer” that will highlight unhealthy aspects of the tourism ecosystem before they become a significant problem.

Edinburgh has an opportunity to accelerate its 2030 strategy which places residents at the centre. They are now thinking about tourism in terms of how it can help the city as a whole to recover, not just how the sector itself can recover.

Your practical next steps could be:
Better understanding the different impacts of visitor and tourism market segments on your destination.
Reinforcing your collaborative governance structures and beginning a citizen and stakeholder engagement process for a new shared vision.
Signing up to the Future of    Tourism Coalition’s 13 guiding principles for recovery.


Here at City Nation Place, we believe that it’s a  critical time for destinations to re-imagine their tourism product and to implement more sustainable systems. 

On March 31st, we’ll be joined  by leading experts from The Travel Foundation and members of the Roots to Recovery initiative to dive deeper into the learnings of the project, and to  create an ongoing discussion that will allow destinations to collaborate on  mutual challenges they’re facing in tourism recovery. Find out more about the  Sustainability Working Group here, or email to find  out how you can get involved.


We’d like to thank the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, Indigenous Tourism Ontario, Grenada Tourism Authority and Colorado Tourism Office for their continued active interest in the Roots to Recovery initiative (which came to a close in 2020) and sharing the lessons learned for the benefit of others.

We’d also like to thank the five Roots to Recovery external advisors who donated their time and considerable expertise to support the project:

Anna Barrera, Sustainable Tourism & Hospitality Consultant, A2B Consulting

Julie Klein, Principal, Confluence Sustainability

Natasha Martin, Founder, Good Tourism

Milena Nikolova, Behavioral Expert and Founder, BehaviourSMART

Talia Salem, Principal, The Urban Nomad

Missed the event in person? Don't worry...

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.