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Rejuvenating tourism in the post-Covid city

The big question on everybody’s lips at the moment is ‘what will happen in the post-Pandemic era?’ Answering this question is far from easy, because we are at a unique moment in history.

One way to gather a picture of potential ways forward is to ask the experts. A recent session at the TIAC conference brought together experts from different sectors of the tourism industry to give their thoughts on this issue. The session moderated by Greg Richards featured input from Cindy Ady (CEO, Tourism Calgary), Krista Cameron (Director, Industry Relations, Encore Canada), Don Cleary (President, Marriott Hotels of Canada) and Bianca Kennedy (President of the Board of Directors, Canadian Association of Exposition Management).

In the Canadian context being examined by the panellists, it was evident that Vaccination Passports were seen as crucial to the re-opening of business and re-starting tourism. As research by Destination Canada in March 2021 revealed, city centres had been hardest hit by the Pandemic. Montreal, Toronto & Vancouver downtown hotels were particularly hard hit, with revenues falling an estimated 79% in the first year of the Pandemic, generating a combined loss of $2.3 billion across the three cities. However, the report also underlined considerable pent-up demand, with 80% of Canadians eager to get out and explore once it was safe to do so. Recovery to 2019 levels was only predicted for 2025, although the report argued that this could be brought forward to 2024 if increased domestic travel could replace lost international tourism revenues. The report also indicated that women and young people were likely to be hardest hit by the downturn, as they make up a large proportion of all tourism employment.

The TIAC panellists indicated that green shoots of recovery were already being seen as Covid-19 restrictions were rolled back. TIAC has been doing good work in lobbying for the tourism sector, and joint action had proved successful in securing support from government. For this session we also prepared a review of what cities around the world are doing to respond to the crisis and bring back life to city centres.

City centre tourism

Tourism is coming back in Europe, and city centres are getting busy again. Queues outside designer stores in Barcelona, conferences and exhibitions being staged again and hotel occupancy rates climbing. Research by Expedia for Quarter 3 2021 shows city tourism increasing in North America, with New York among the leading destinations. 58% of Americans have travel plans for the autumn, with Millennials most enthusiastic (67%), followed by Gen Z (61%), Gen X (53%) and Baby Boomers (53%) (Expedia, 2021). Business travel demand in Q3 was up more than 40% on the previous quarter and more than 110% compared to Q3 2020. In the UK, city centre footfall in October 2021 was just over 15% down on 2019 levels, in spite of high infections.

However, it is not all good news. The Netherlands is currently back in a ‘lockdown light’ due to a rise in cases, and other countries are also considering new lockdowns and other measures. The basic message is that the recovery is well underway, but it will not all be plain sailing.

Many cities have been developing programmes to lure people back to city centres, get business moving again and animate public space. For example, the city of Barcelona (Spain) has established an economic recovery project, "Barcelona Never Stops", with the implementation of a series of measures aimed at the regeneration of the economic and social tissue, as well as the economic stimulation of the city. The plan, lasting until the summer of 2021, aims to promote new business models to make Barcelona a more resilient city, encourage local consumption, protect and boost employment and relaunch the city's international reputation. In order to achieve these objectives, the city will carry out a series of measures in the following areas: grants and funding, capacity building, promotion and communication, economic instruments and adapting the existing legislation. Barcelona is also revitalising the city by creating Superblocks, 400 x 400 m units that are bigger than a city block, but smaller than a neighbourhood. Within these, public space is being redesigned to cut traffic and promote walking and socialising in public space. This is linked to an expansion of green spaces and a remodelling of streets. Barcelona also organised the Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW), designed to kickstart the ‘new economy’ in the city. Events were staged at the iconic La Boqueria Market, including show cooking events from star chefs and debates on the future of the post pandemic city centre. There was optimism from participants that the post-pandemic future for cities would be bright.

The Primark queue is back in Barcelona

In Helsinki, it seems that empty spaces in the city centre are mainly explained by businesses using the opportunity of lower business levels to renovate, rather than closures due to the pandemic itself. Renovations accounted for 55 empty business spaces in the core area of the city centre, whereas 25 business spaces were temporarily closed because of the pandemic. Many of the renovations are related to tourism, with the New Student House and old Hotel Seurahuone being upgraded to five-star level, and an expansion of Sokos Hotel Vaakuna. "One of the biggest lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis is that sustainable, resilient cities were able to handle the pandemic better," said Jan Vapaavuori, the Mayor of Helsinki.

In Milan, bottom-up initiatives to restart the city included street cinema events, which provided people tied of closures to socialise. As the organiser Lorenzo Alliata Nobili explained: "I wanted to meet everybody here in the streets, with no curfews or limitations. It’s a way to break barriers.” The organisation is simple: everybody helps out by bringing food, drinks, and technical equipment. The nearby bar provides electricity and chairs. The point is just to meet and enjoy watching a film together.

City promotional activities

Cape Town launched the Pocket-Friendly Challenge aimed at domestic tourists. The aim is to “diversify tourism products, boost cultural experiences and community involvement and therefore, drive demand which will lead to jobs and social upliftment.” Tourists are being targeted with social media campaigns, including a series of short films where various travellers explore the city’s neighbourhoods with a set budget of R150 per person.

Promotion is shifting from pretty location pictures and the standard tourist attractions to entertaining storytelling based on deeper observations told in a light-hearted way. To resonate with a domestic audience, the campaign takes a comic approach, tackling negative perceptions of Cape Town in a way that enables South Africans to laugh at the city together. Cape Town Tourism Marketing Executive Leigh Dawber commented: “We cannot market Cape Town as we have always done. We need to connect with our fellow South Africans and welcome them to Cape Town in an unexpected way that gets their attention and makes them reconsider Cape Town for their winter break.” The campaign is being actively supported by tourism businesses, such as budget airline Mango.

In Spain, Luis Alfonso Escudero Gómez lists a series of campaigns by regions and cities to promote themselves based on ideas such as proximity, re-opening and safety. City campaigns include Córdoba (“The place to meet again”), Málaga (“Better than ever”), Oviedo (“Sure to delight you”), San Sebastián (“Breathe San Sebastián this summer”), Toledo (“Toledo opens up”) or Zamora (“A place with life”). Individual heritage sites have also launched campaigns such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (“Welcome home”) or the Picasso Museum in Málaga (“The genius returns”).

It seems that such marketing campaigns are having an effect, particularly where restrictions are less severe. Figures from York in the UK show a recovery for the hospitality sector, with an increase in the daily rate and a near total recovery for occupancy levels. Figures from Hospitality Association York show that the Average Daily Rate (ADR) - the average revenue earned per hotel room per day - for these visitors was £124.60, with a hotel occupancy of 87 per cent for August 2021, compared to 93.6 per cent occupancy and an ADR of £93 for August 2019.

Leeds City Council cited impressive footfall stats as marking a return to bustling streets, following a package of measures put in place through partnership activities of the council’s City Centre Management Team, DMO Visit Leeds and Leeds BID, all aimed at supporting businesses and encouraging shoppers and visitors to enjoy the city centre safely. They included work to improve the cleanliness of the city centre, new on-street teams to welcome people back, and a series of summer events and pop-up activities to encourage families to visit.

Transport is a key issue in getting people back into city centres. Most cities saw a dramatic drop in public transport use during the pandemic, which raises the spectre of a vicious cycle of public transport decline. So many cities have been developing programmes to encourage transit and bike use, moving towards the idea of the ’15 minute city’ (or 20 minutes in Dubai). Boston is offering discounted fares on public transport, and bike usage has increased in Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland by as much as 150%. Cities have been supporting this bike boom by turning what was vehicular space over to safe, designated cycle space.

There is optimism that rejuvenated city centres can benefit from an influx of new businesses. In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder argued that new walkable town centers would provide Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters with an exciting place to hang out. This should promote the movement of retail and offices back to town centres, encouraging new urban communities. The growth of ‘destination retail’, tourism and leisure is likely to re-emerge strongly in the post-pandemic period, and new uses, such as small-scale co-working spaces could help to support new vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods.

In many places, however, the reality is that many existing businesses will continue to need support. Even before the Pandemic, many traditional retailers had been feeling the pinch as online and out-of-town shopping centres took their business. Some cities, such as Lisbon, had already moved to protect emblematic businesses that have a string influence on the look and feel of main shopping streets. The Lojas com Historia (Shops with History) programme in Lisbon had already conserved over 80 city centre businesses by 2017, for example through rent protection (Richards and Marques, 2018). After the Pandemic, enthusiasm for such schemes is growing, and in Portugal the national programme of Comércio com História (Businesses with History) now supports 162 traditional businesses. In France moves were announced to protect bookshops against competition from online suppliers. Legislation is being drafted for a minimum delivery price to reduce ‘unfair competition’.

Tilburg in the Netherlands has shifted its city centre policy from the 'place to buy' to the 'place to be'. Traditional shops are being supported through promotion and branding, and increasing animation in the city centre. Tilburg let artistic collective Tilburg Cowboys take over the city centre for a few days in August 2021 for the Kaapstad event. This allowed artists to ‘hack the city’: “Surprise and wonder is our goal. Charm, humour, and the inversion of everyday life are our weapons.”

In the USA, Memphis is using the development of a new art museum designed by Herzog & de Meuron and an inner city park as spurs for downtown rejuvenation. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art by Herzog & de Meuron, Tom Lee Park, a green space overlooking the Mississippi, is being renewed by Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang, with inviting pavilions, plantings and better access for families and older people. The architects claim that “It’s much more than an art museum,” and “It will also be a place for people to meet and engage with others and come together. The entire design is developed around the idea of a very inviting, open, permeable building.”

Total cost: $120 million for the museum building, plus an additional $30 million for the endowment, and $61 million for the park redesign. “If we’re going to be a world-class city, we have to invest in world-class amenities,” said Paul Young, chief executive of the Downtown Memphis Commission. “But we need to make sure as we design downtown that the amenities are open to everyone.”

The future

Predicting what will happen in the longer term is much more difficult. But work by Louis-Etienne Dubois and Frederic Dimanche has drawn up some useful scenarios for post-Covid development. They used the Manoa School of Future Studies framework, which projects four generic futures – grow, collapse, discipline, transform – each representing plausible, possible images of things to come.

Grow: The show must go on

Collapse: Lights out

Discipline: Less is more

Transform: Bigger is better

Discussions of these potential futures with representatives from New Orleans, Toronto, Nashville, Austin and Las Vegas produced some interesting suggestions. These included the possibility that strict controls under a Lights out scenario might drive some forms of entertainment underground, which would undermine the legitimate entertainment sector. A shift in the kinds of entertainment offered was also foreseen under the Less is more scenario, because demand for major artists in large venues is often more dependent on tourists than local residents.


This brief review shows that cities around the world are responding to the challenges of the Pandemic and making strenuous efforts to keep city centres alive and vibrant. Culture-based programmes have helped to attract people back to city centres and add animation, and seem to be particularly effective when linked to retail development. In the short term the ability of cities to meet the challenges of the Pandemic will be highly variable, dependent on the severity of outbreaks and the willingness of local populations to follow restrictions. In the longer term there is hope that investment in cultural facilities and the social fabric will bring life back into city centres. However, these developments will need to be based on an understanding of the broader dynamics of urban systems, and in particular the city centre ecosystem with its close interdependence of housing, mobility, economic and leisure policies.


Dubois, Louis-Etienne and Dimanche, Frederic (2020) The futures of entertainment dependent cities in a post-COVID world. JOURNAL OF TOURISM FUTURES, DOI 10.1108/JTF-11-2020-0208.

Expedia (2021) Expedia Group Fall Travel Outlook.

Richards, G. and Marques, L. (2018) Creating synergies between cultural policy and tourism for permanent and temporary citizens. Barcelona: UCLG/ICUB.

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