Is COVID-19 a ‘black swan’ for global tourism industry?

Culture, recreation, and tourism have become critical and inseparable elements of our lives.

 A group of women pose at Ben-Gurion Airport after Israel opened its borders to individual tourists (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
A group of women pose at Ben-Gurion Airport after Israel opened its borders to individual tourists
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The global tourism industry has been in an unprecedented severe crisis for the past two years that fits “the Black Swan” theory, developed by the American economist Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His 2007 book, titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, focuses on the extreme impact of unpredictable events and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, which he calls the Black Swan theory.

Although there have been people warning for the past 20 years about lethal viruses that could result in a global pandemic, the corona crisis, which has affected the world since January 2020, was unforeseen and for which no one planned. The unpreparedness of humanity as a whole turned the current pandemic into an extraordinary extreme event that utterly changed society and severely damaged economic sectors worldwide.

The World Tourism Organization estimates the tourism industry’s losses during the pandemic at $4 trillion, and there is no end on the horizon.

A sophisticated examination of the tourism industry under the impact of corona indicates that the industry is facing far-reaching changes and that tourism businesses in Israel and worldwide need to find a new way to survive.

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism in 2020-2021 was about 80% less than in 2019, when 1.5 billion people participated in the global tourism economy.

 Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda Market is a popular destination for tourists  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda Market is a popular destination for tourists (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

We propose a historical interpretation for the special tourism situation that we are now in, to try and learn from history how to improve the future.

The economic interpretation proposes that a black swan event occurred here 1,700 years ago, a historic international event that changed the country’s economy and in fact affected the whole world.

In 325 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great convened the First Council of Nicaea, which decided the status of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine’s personal-political-religious decision was a black swan that changed the economy of the Middle East and the nature of the Roman Empire.

At that time, the frankincense, myrrh, and incense trade were at their height. Frankincense and myrrh are rare trees that only grow in the southern Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia. The ancient world produced precious resin, which was in high demand and critical for religious rituals. The rare and expensive incense was loaded onto camels and transported in caravans along routes known as the Silk Route, one of which crossed the Negev from Petra westward to the port at Gaza. For centuries, thousands of pagan temples in the ancient world consumed vast quantities of frankincense and myrrh. These precious incenses arrived every year in convoys to Mediterranean ports, where they were shipped to Mediterranean countries and Europe.

The Christianization of the Roman Empire in 324-325 CE completely changed the ancient rules of the game. Within a short time, the need for huge quantities of frankincense and myrrh plummeted. The large convoy economy, which generated huge sums for the Roman Empire treasury, collapsed and virtually disappeared, because the church demanded only small quantities of frankincense and myrrh for its rituals.

It is similar to what is happening to the modern tourism industry during the corona crisis: within a short time, many people lost their livelihoods. Judging by impressive archaeological remains in the Negev, thousands of people earned a good living from the frankincense and myrrh economy in the Roman era. The blow to this economy in the fourth century rendered thousands of people in the ancient East unemployed, including temple priests, guides, convoy directors, suppliers of food and goods, camel saddle-makers, roadside inn owners, guards, prostitutes, cooks, convoy crews, and services providers. They all lost their jobs and had no social support or state welfare services (the State of Israel has provided most pandemic victims financial support during the crisis).

Over the following century, the Roman economy underwent far-reaching changes, and people in the Nabataean and Byzantine cities in southern Israel – Shivta, Halutza, Uvda, Mamshit, Nitzana, and Rehovot – were forced to reinvent themselves and find new livelihoods in lieu of the convoys, which had ceased to operate.

This was the beginning of the advanced agriculture that spread through the northern and central Negev during the Byzantine era. Tens of thousands of hectares of olive groves and vineyards were planted in the Negev, and its residents began to produce substantial quantities of olive oil and wine, which they supplied to the masses of Christian pilgrims who began to throng the Holy Land. Residents of some of the cities switched to raising pedigreed Arabian horses, which over time became a luxury brand for the nobility.

So the personal decision of Emperor Constantine, which resulted in the Christianization of the Roman Empire, landed on the ancient Israeli economy like a kind of black swan that no one could have expected or foreseen – just like the corona crisis that hit our world in 2020.

But even after the landing of the black swan in our world, the human mind can create solutions and innovative thinking to adapt to the new situation.

Similar to the residents of the ancient Negev, who reinvented their economic world 1,700 years ago, we too have the task of developing a new and different tourism industry that will adapt to our new needs and meet the new restrictions and requirements imposed by the corona. The tourism industry adapted with surprising speed to manage entries to tourist sites, attractions, museums, and other activities through appointments and lists of entry times for each visitor. Tourism sites learned to work according to the health, hygiene, spacing, and social distancing protocols for managing crowds in different spaces.

It is possible that without thinking about it, we are witnessing the twilight of mass tourism, which characterized the world’s sought-after tourist destinations in recent decades. Maybe we are at the start of a new era of a different kind of tourism, one that aims to operate in a limited social structure by obeying the principles of environmental responsibility, sustainable access, and careful stewardship of the natural and human environment.

Tourism researchers believe that tourism has an important and critical place in the modern era in defining human identity, which is why the place of tourism in human society is ensured. Culture, recreation, and tourism have become critical and inseparable elements of our lives, and therefore we expect a recovery that will result in rapid growth in tourism as soon as the international health protocols permit. Until international tourism resumes, domestic tourism will flourish in most of the world, as in Israel. 

Dr. Shahar Shilo is head of the Department of Tourism Studies at the Ashkelon Academic College. He manages Negev Mountains Tourism, and co-owns the research and consultancy firm RAS Tourism.