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2001-2020: The Gilded Age of Tourism

The term “Belle Epoque” was born in France in the late nineteenth century but soon other countries adopted specific expressions to describe the years that separate the end of the century with the beginning of the First World War. For Italy it was the età Giolittiana, named after the most relevant figure in Italian politics of those years, while for the Americans those years will remain in history as the “Gilded Age“.

Historical and cultural context

The conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) and above all the end of the great depression (1873-1895) which had shocked the economies of the industrialized countries of the time, following the collapse of the Vienna stock exchange, mark the beginning of a period of particular economic prosperity, technological development and cultural fervor. Furthermore, the fact that this period coincides with the beginning of the new century gives rise to a generalized sense of optimism in a large part of the world population. And it is these three factors, these three distinctive features that allow us to compare those years to the first twenty years of the twenty-first century. Technological development, growth of collective well-being and diffusion of culture have certainly characterized the period between the so-called internet bubble, the collapse of the Twin Towers (2001) and the great crisis due to the spread of the coronavirus in China, in Europe and in the world .

The dot-com bubble and the recession of the early 2000s

The nineties are certainly characterized by the massive use of the internet. The world wide web becomes increasingly widespread. In those years, all companies begin the digitalization process that still characterizes the development and growth strategy of each individual organization. At the same time, individuals also begin to understand the potential of IT tools and the network. Owning a computer is no longer a luxury but becomes a necessity. The diffusion therefore of the new information technologies and of the internet actually creates a new market to which various companies approach. Thus were born the so-called dot-com companies, organization whose business was mainly online through the use of a site and its domain. Investors understand the enormous growth potential of these companies which based their development strategy on two mottos that will remain famous: “get big fast” and “get large or get lost“. The important thing for these companies was to create a market, make themselves known. The profits would come following the success on the market. Having escaped the danger of the millenium bug, the results hoped for by many of these companies, however, are slow to arrive and following some alarms regarding the lack of reliability of these organizations, occurred what remained in history as the internet bubble. The collapse of the securities of a significant number of companies that caused the dissolution of about 1.5 trillion dollars. All this happened a few months before 9/11. The terrorist attack perpetuated on the 11th of September 2001 effectively erodes the risk attitude of investors, already tried by the bubble and by accounting scandals such as those of Enron and Worldcom.

Consequences on tourism

If the economic constraints due to the recession certainly also affect the spending budget that individuals dedicate to travel, what most changes spending habits in this specific sector is certainly the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. In fact, the buying attitude changes due to the new perception that individuals have regarding the issue of safety. The attackers had in fact boarded the planes that crashed on the towers, on the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania with objects that today are strictly prohibited such as knives. The security measures adopted by both airlines and airports were decidedly changed: from the use of body scanners to the ban on carrying liquids on board if not in small quantities. However, the technological evolution that started in the 90s, despite the failure of several companies during the internet bubble, had not stopped. Indeed some companies such as Google and Amazon not only survived but begin to establish themselves as leaders in their reference sectors. This pushes the growth and the birth of new organizational realities that, especially in tourism, will change forever the methods of purchase and use of goods and services.

The Gilded Age of Tourism

Certainly digital innovation bursts onto the market, upsetting its dynamics and cornering the sector’s protagonists. Online Travel Agencies (OTA) replace traditional travel agencies that the consumer no longer needs. The removal of this “filter” however is to the direct benefit of the consumer himself and therefore of his actors. Above all hotels and airlines. Thus began the Gilded Age of tourism. Planning a trip is simple and substantially immediate. Costs are much lower than in the past. Everyone can travel anywhere. This obviously has an effect on the territories most subject to the consumer’s choice. The economic impact is enormous and generates the development of different sectors, such as the artistic and cultural one. Those who travel visit museums and archaeological sites, those who travel make purchases in the shopping streets. The phenomenon seems to be unstoppable. Thanks also to the smart use of tools such as social networks and sophisticated digital advertising techniques such as retargeting and programmatic buying, it is possible to solicit the demand in those subjects most strongly willing to travel. The traveler also becomes an ambassador of his or hers experience thanks to the sharing, for example through Instagram, of his own travel experience. A journey therefore generates another. Demand increases and supply diversifies. Thus, once again thanks to the use of new technologies, new tools and new organizations such as Airbnb (2007) and Uber (2009) are born. Growth between 2001 and 2019 knows no obstacles. In 2001, according to the World Travel Organization (UNTWO) there were 674 million tourists in the world; in 2005, 809 million people travel for pleasure or business; in 2008 there were 929 million. In 2009, a setback mainly due to the serious economic crisis resulting from the subprime mortgages fraud and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers: travelers are “only” 892 million. The growth trend however recovered in 2010 when it touches the billion travelers with over 950 million people who dedicated part of their spending budget to travel. Until the 10s of the twenty-first century: in 2012 there are 1 billion and 44 million international tourists. The latest available data for 2018 marks the absolute record: one billion and 400 million people traveled abroad during the year.

2020: Coronavirus and the collapse of tourism

Today it is impossible to estimate the damage that the global pandemic is causing in the tourism sector. What is certain is that nobody is travelling. MICE tourism (Meetings, Incentives, Congresses and Exhibition), is stuck by law, putting all related industries in serious difficulty. Large and small events cannot take place in any country in Europe and the United States due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Airlines have substantially suspended all flights. The only way to travel internationally seems to be private flights, because even trains and cars cannot cross borders, given the closure of the same and the consequent abandonment of the Schengen treaties. The hotels are empty, many have closed temporarily, others, the family-run ones, will probably never open again. If no one travels this means that also all the related industries also suffer. The world is basically stationary. Just as it was during the Great War, an event that marks the end of the Belle Epoque in Europe and worldwide. Some companies, as happened during the First World War, are converting part of the production to meet the demand for medical materials and equipment. The hotels could be used as a shelter for the sick. The world has changed suddenly and what awaits us when the crisis is over will be a new world. We will not return to normal, we are moving towards a new normal. The fear of contagion, even when the crisis seems to have subsided, will greatly influence consumer choices. Domestic tourism will be favored, attention to hygiene and health of people must necessarily be part of the strategic promotion plan for hotels, as it was safety for airlines after the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York .

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