What the past and modern behavioural science reveal about tourism's recovery

People wearing masks board a plane.

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Recent predictions on how quickly the international tourism industry will bounce back from the latest Coronavirus pandemic vary from years to decades. But what does studying history and current human behavioural science reveal about the situation we face today? 

“Once a pandemic is out of the headlines, it’s only a matter of time before people return to their normal behaviour,” believes Tim Stroh, who looks after Business Intelligence and Strategy at Art Processors, is a Ph.D. candidate at RMIT University, and co-author of an upcoming chapter in a book on the undeniable links between uncertainty and falling tourism. 

In his research, he discovered that after news coverage of the Spanish flu declined, tourism grew rapidly despite the disease proving more deadly in later waves. Similarly, following the SARS outbreak, there was a 90% return to normal levels of tourism in the affected areas within 12 months. After two years, the number of visitors was actually higher than before the outbreak.

Evidence points to history repeating itself. News searches on Google for “Covid-19”, have dropped to nearly nothing, while web searches for “city breaks” rise. Tim explains, “We have evolved psychological mechanisms for disease avoidance but as interest in the pandemic wanes and it disappears from the headlines, our ancient motivations to explore and socialise reemerge.”

A graph showing search interest in "covid 19" between July 2022 and June 2021.

A Google Search graph showing a drop in search interest in "covid 19" over time.

A graph showing search interest in "city break" between July 2022 and June 2021.

A Google Search graph showing an increase in search interest in "city break" over time.

Window of opportunity

Tim has mapped out the cycle of downturn, bounce-back and recovery in the tourism industry following past uncertainty caused by terrorism, civil unrest, economic decline and pandemic. There is usually a steep drop-off in the initial year while the uncertainty is top of mind. That is followed by a two- to three-year recovery curve. Once the topic of public conversation changes, that is when behaviour changes. 

For this pandemic, that would mean that after the declines of 2020, 2021 was a bounce-back year, with 2022 ushering in strong recovery. Given the continued dominant discussion about the pandemic, we’re not back to 100% but we’re on our way. “The same motivations of behaviour that produced nearly a century of tourism growth will motivate a full recovery,” believes Tim, “once the news cycle moves on and the pandemic ceases to be all that people are talking about…barring some other traumatic form of uncertainty rearing its ugly head.” 

There are signs that the shift is happening. We’re even seeing recovery in the cruise industry, which was so viscerally affected by the disease at the start of the outbreak. Passengers plummeted from 27 million in 2019 to 7 million in 2020, rebounding to over 13 million last year. By the end of 2022, there are expected to be more cruise ships than before the pandemic. 

Tim’s research goes on to show that as soon as 2023, guest expectations will rise. They will look for new attractions, excitement, and opportunities to socialise. “This is the time for planning and investment,” he says. “After the past couple of years, there is pent up demand. As humans, we’ve been dreaming about this moment and it’s finally here.”

The new drivers of decision-making   

These will be years of high audience engagement, believes Tim. “People are people,” he says. “The drivers of behaviour that led us to explore new places before the pandemic—to socialise, to bond, build status, experience novelty—are inherent. They’re evolutionary. As humans, we’re going to manifest those motivations, just as we did before.” 

There are new drivers too. The recent pandemic will certainly impact decision-making. More than ever, we’ve come to savour time with friends and family, creating moments and memories. Plus crowdedness perception will sit alongside usual human drivers.

Of course, we’re also living in a more socially conscious time than pre-pandemic. Black Lives Matter, increasing climate change pressures and the struggle for First Nations land rights, are just the start of the issues that have heightened people’s understanding and empathy. 

Innovate and thrive 

During the pandemic, we’ve not stopped pushing forward at Art Processors. We’ve built our team so it rivals any in the world for insight and experience in the world of culture. We supported the likes of The Getty, WA Museum Boola Bardip, Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Alcatraz, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales to pivot to the new drivers of visitor behaviour. Our internal R&D team, AP Lab, launched to keep us right at the forefront of creating affecting, innovative experiences. 

All this means we are uniquely immersed in today’s world of visitors and technology. So how does Tim, as our product and strategy lead, think attractions, museums, amusement parks, gardens and other cultural organisations can react to the expected uptick in visitor numbers?

He believes there are two starting points to creating experiences that resonate with these expectant, possibly hesitant, audiences: “How will you offer an unexpected perspective that provides people with a whole new frame of reference, that makes diverse things relevant? And how will you apply an understanding that visitors nearly always make their decisions as part of a social group, not as individuals?”

“Even if you are a museum working within very strict constraints, you can change how you present an artwork or room. It can be immersive sound, a choice of stories that reveal and engage, even haptics. But,” he concludes, “the key is making it new, relevant and meaningful to visiting groups who are hoping for a real-life, life-changing moment together.”


Photo by Andrew Valdivia on Unsplash.

About Tim Stroh and his research 

As well as being Art Processors Head of Business Intelligence and Strategy, Tim is studying for his PhD at RMIT in evolutionary psychology, decision making, innovation, and new product adoption. As part of his doctorate, he is working alongside lead chapter author Astrid Warncke Norfelt, to write a chapter on “Covid-19 and the Evolutionary Tourism Model”. It will feature in the upcoming research book Research Handbook on Tourism, Complexity, and Uncertainty.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.