What’s coming next?

Where will tourism be in 10 to 50 years? Futurist Ian Yeoman says it’s all about understanding changes in society and external events. 

By Niki Bezzant, freelance writer
6 Jul 2022
read time
7 min to read
Child running through an airport

Ian Yeoman could be forgiven if he were feeling a little smug right now. The ‘professional crystal ball-gazer’ wrote a paper in 2006 about a future flu pandemic, in which he predicted a disruptive scenario lasting three or four years. Though he and his fellow futurists did not quite know how or exactly when it would eventuate, they knew something like Covid-19 was coming.

For the Associate Professor of Tourism Futures at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, and co-editor of the Journal of Tourism Futures (who is not at all smug, by the way), this is all part of a day at the office.

Yeoman’s work involves looking at big picture, long-term change and creating scenarios of the multiple futures that could be in store for this important sector.

“Most of the work I do is all about asking the question: where will tourism be in 10 to 50 years’ time?” he says. “It’s basically understanding changes in society and what they mean for tourism; understanding external events and how they change tourism.”

Yeoman is prolific. Among other work, he has recently completed two future focused projects for MBIE: a report on human values and the ecosystem in 2040 – “it’s about how human values align with the ecosystem and how we behave” – and the other about our relationship with technology and where AI will be in 30 years’ time as a form of labour. Very big picture.

“What is happening in science fiction film is usually a representation of what’s happening in the laboratory, because a film director’s probably done all the research. They’ve talked to technologists and authors and writers to see where society’s going . . .”

Predicting the future

Yeoman draws from likely and unlikely sources for his tourism predictions, ranging from demographic, health and climate data to science fiction films. One of his recently published papers framed the possible future scenarios for global tourism using popular movie titles as metaphors.

Last year, he authored Science Fiction, Disruption and Tourism, a book proposing science fiction as ‘a new theoretical paradigm to the study of tourism in a post Covid-19 world’.

It is not as out there as it sounds. Science fiction has predicted many of the technologies we now take for granted, like mobile phones, videoconferencing, ear buds and even the internet.

“What is happening in science fiction film is usually a representation of what’s happening in the laboratory, because a film director’s probably done all the research. So when they did I, Robot or any of these big science fiction films, they’ve talked to technologists and authors and writers to see where society’s going, what they’re doing and how technology is unfolding.”

Yeoman is also always keeping an eye on new patents.

“This is technology that companies are trying to protect, which they think will be important in 10 to 20 years’ time.”

He likes to tell the story of Kodak, who invented the digital camera, but didn’t see its potential.

“They had the world’s first patent for that in 1977. But they just didn’t believe in it. They thought the future was film. And other people then developed it.”

“Regenerative tourism is about re-emergence. It’s about something new and low impact. It’s a new form of tourism, which is about small communities making decisions. It’s not about mass tourism.”

What’s next for tourism?

Right now, of course, the pandemic is top of mind and shaping everything for tourism businesses, as with every other sector, at least in the short term.

Covid-19 is not going to disappear, Yeoman asserts, but business needs to think now about what’s coming next.

“The one thing I’ve learned is: we’ll never go back to normal. It’s just not going to happen, because capitalism’s changed.”

Part of that change is an acceleration of something that was happening pre-pandemic: a growing awareness of the need for sustainability in travel, something that’s now, he asserts, “right at the forefront of the agenda; it’s been accelerated into the consumer psyche”.

The philosophy known as regenerative tourism, modelled after the concept of regenerative agriculture, is top of mind for many tourism experts. It is, Yeoman says, about a new beginning.

“Regenerative tourism is about re-emergence. It’s about something new and low impact. It’s a new form of tourism, which is about small communities making decisions. It’s not about mass tourism.

“Regenerative tourism tends to focus on the life of the community; the life of people. And it’s focused on the idea that tourism should be better than what it was for the communities and people that are involved in it.”

In New Zealand, tourism was doing extremely well, pre-pandemic, as our top export industry. The concept of over-tourism had emerged in other parts of the world, though not here to a large extent. But we did have a growing understanding of the impact of climate change on tourism.

Prior to Covid-19, Yeoman recalls “we saw a significant shift in the discourse and what was happening in policies and decisions, where climate change and sustainability came more to the forefront”.

“What was happening was a really big concern across the world about climate change, about where it’s going, and right at the heart of that is air transport and CO2 emissions and understanding that. So [in New Zealand] we’re part of the system.”

Building back better

With borders closed and tourism’s wings clipped, Covid-19 threw New Zealand for a time into what Yeoman called a “gated community” in the movie-metaphor paper he co-authored in 2021. This scenario was likened to the 2011 film The Colony: Gated Communities.

“It was a dystopian scenario,” he says. “And when you have a dystopian scenario [what happens is] you can go from dystopia to utopia. Psychologically, it’s all about how do you build back better? Hence the focus across the world globally on regenerative tourism; on having tourism strategy and policy that are about a better world and environment.”

The shift in the psyche of both consumer and policymaker led both groups to question the meaning and value of tourism, Yeoman says. The focus here has necessarily been on the domestic tourist for the past two years.

But as countries have opened back up, there is a large amount of pent-up demand, driven partly by the desire to reconnect with family, and partly by the fact that people haven’t been able to travel in recent years.

“It’s like the 1920s; the roaring twenties,” Yeoman reckons. It is a scenario he termed ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ – after the film of the same name – in his movie themed paper. Tourism consumers are ready to spend.

In terms of the future, though, he reminds us that it will take time for New Zealand to get back to tourist volumes anything like what we saw pre-pandemic.

“It’s going to be 2024 or 2025 before there’s any degree of getting back to normal in terms of level,” he says.

There’s a number of reasons for this.

“New Zealand is a long haul destination, at the bottom of the world . . . and a holiday is usually planned 12 months in advance. It’s a big expense, getting here. But it’s also a huge time commitment. The average tourist in New Zealand prior to Covid-19 was spending 19 to 20 days.”

There is also the ongoing issue of no Chinese market, as long as that country remains in various states of lockdown. Travellers in Europe are tending to favour ‘interregional’ travel where they can stay closer to home. And we still have reduced capacity, exacerbated by labour supply issues with no seasonal labour force of travellers and overseas students.

Though Australians holidaying and visiting friends and relatives will drive demand over the next 12 months, Yeoman says “my expectations will be this summer, international tourists will be around 15% to 20% of all tourist holidays. Whereas it’s usually around 50% or 55%”.

Future proofing

What advice does Yeoman offer those in governance in tourism businesses when thinking about future planning?

The keyword for Yeoman is plurality. That means considering the multiple futures.

“I think in terms of five-year plans in governance when you’re forecasting the future, it’s about plurality. It’s about a number of options and working with laws for different futures. Your pathway going forward has to be about how you can switch resources and move, understanding the impact of shocks.

“And it’s about ensuring you don’t have over-reliance on one customer or one market. So [make sure] you’ve got the ability to adapt quickly and be flexible. And all of that together is about resilience.

“If I’m a director, I’m saying to myself: how is this company resilient? If this is our preferred future, what are our alternative futures in terms of markets and products and experiences in case we have risk? We as a company need to test out and play with alternative futures in terms of role play, in terms of gaming, in terms of simulation, to address that.”

There is some deep theoretical thinking to do as part of that process, Yeoman suggests.

“It’s addressing: how do we move? The products or experiences that we are in – how would they shift? So in scenario one, or scenario two, or scenario three, if this is what we do now, and this is our new world . . . what would we leave behind? What would stop, what would slow down, but also what would accelerate?

“If I’m selling X, Y and Z, or these are my markets, how would those markets change or adapt under different scenarios?”

Future tech

If we want to do our own crystal ball-gazing, Yeoman has some tech inspiration to watch. Much of it is focused in the labour-saving and workforce solution space. He is very interested in robotics, including wearable exoskeleton technology, AI ‘virtual assistants’, and what’s known as BCI or brain-computer interface: technology allowing direct communication pathways between the brain’s electrical activity and an external device. In other words: computers that can interpret our thoughts.

In this vein is a robotic company Yeoman loves, Moley Robotics, which has developed a robotic chef/kitchen, taking us a step closer to the Star Trek-style food kiosks so intriguingly portrayed in the 1960s on that show.

He also cites Boston Dynamics as creators of the world’s “most advanced” robots. We can expect to see at least some of their cutting-edge military and safety technology making its way into the tourism of the future.

Despite all the high-tech, sci-fi-seeming scenarios, though, Yeoman says it’s still all about many possibilities. He can never predict an exact future.

“If somebody says, what does the world look like in 2075? I can’t turn around and do that. But what I can talk about is that it could go down different pathways.” 

We are holding a panel discussion to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing directors of export businesses now that New Zealand has reopened its borders. Wednesday, August 3

The panel includes global business leader and advocate Phil O’Reilly, Peter Chrisp (NZTE Chief Executive), Gráinne Troute (Chair of Tourism Industry Association), and Steven Maharey (Chair Education New Zealand).

Register now for the in-person event in Wellington or livestreamed events across New Zealand. Find out more

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