The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is going to throw up all sorts of books and films in the future. You can be sure of that.
Top of my list for a guaranteed interpretation of recent events is a docu-drama-cum-satire on Channel 4 which will focus on what the UK government has been doing to deal with the crisis. Expect exaggerated performances mimicking Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and chief science boffin Chris Whitty, and quite possibly an over-the-top comic turn from a Nicola Sturgeon soundalike who provides ridicule from a (non-social) distance.
More pressingly, the global economy is in a bit of a mess and doesn’t seem likely to get better any time soon. Unlike the Great Recession of 2008, which few people seemed to see coming at the time (even though some revisionism has it that it really all began in 2006), the general view at the moment is that we’re taking our cue from Back To The Future Part III. We’re hurtling along on Doc Brown’s train and we just know that we’re all heading into that ravine. Hopefully, though, things are not going to turn out as bad as it might seem right now.
On the subject of Covid-19 related finances, something caught my eye in the news today. One of the big Covid-19 impacts has come from travel – or, more pertinently, the lack of travel. For many people in 2020, a fancy holiday is not going to be a ‘thing’ this year. Bunkering down and saving the pennies seems like the only option available as the whole world tries to control the spread of this virus.
Clearly, the knock-on effect for business from reduced travel is large. Not being able to do deals face-to-face across international borders, apart from via Zoom or such like, will benefit only the most creative and resourceful of companies. But even more obvious is the impact we have been seeing on tourism.
You would think that tourist hotspots would be bursting at the seams to get visitors back into their shops, cafes and bars. I include the place I have made home, Gibraltar, in that category. But this is not the case in Amsterdam, it would appear. The mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, has said the city should be “extremely cautious” about welcoming back the 9 million or so people who visit and stay in this wonderfully eclectic city each year (some of the more outlandish – and possibly barely credible – estimates have annual Amsterdam visitor numbers at more like 19 million). The reason given is the fear of a second wave of Covid-19.
However, that might not be the whole story. On the face of it, 9 million is a hell of a lot of people for a city that already squeezes around 900,000 people into the city centre proper. And let’s face it, the vast majority of those 9 million won’t be visiting the suburbs. They want to be taking a stroll along the Leidseplein or Prinsengracht, taking photos of the narrow houses and thinking about where they should try their next pint of white beer.
There has been a lot of noise in recent years from Amsterdam politicians – and members of the public – that they would like their city back. There has been a campaign underway to actively reduce tourist numbers and “return the city to its people”.
For a place I love so much, what does this mean for those of who enjoy visiting this city built on sticks? Well, if Halsema and the other like-minded politicians get their way, there could be all sorts of negative consequences for people like me.
Could some novel form of taxation be introduced to discourage visitors? It isn’t difficult to imagine a world where you have to pay a surcharge to visit Amsterdam, one even greater than the current existing city tax which is set at 5%. Would a 20% tax put people off?
Or, perhaps, a minimum number of nights might need to be booked at a hotel? Pitching the number of nights you can stay in the city at seven nights minimum would certainly deter plenty of people from booking a visit, but might not be enough to put the rich people off. In such a scenario, maybe Amsterdam could become a kind of Northern European St Tropez, an exclusive destination attractive only to the hoi polloi?
Of course, these are simplistic scenarios and unlikely to happen in the way described. Especially when tourism is reported to be worth around €87.5 billion a year to the wider Dutch economy. You might expect that, in this instance, these numbers will do all the talking. But in a world where a virus can bring the world to a standstill, anything is possible.
It is worth pointing out that, in terms of population density, Amsterdam is a village compared to Paris, with inhabitants per square kilometre coming in at around 4,500 and 21,500 respectively. Imagine if tourism was curtailed by the French authorities? There would be a riot.
I won’t be surprised if some other quirky political outcomes are pursued over the next year or so should we enter into a deep global recession, and this includes on the travel and tourism front, but it is difficult to see offbeat schemes working. Not when there is so much money at stake. Look what happened after the 9 / 11 attacks in New York in 2001 as an example.
If anything was going to discourage flying it was that shocking terrorist attack, but the absolute opposite happened, despite airport security being tightened up so much in the time since that, all too often, going through the airport feels as straightforward as making water run uphill.
In the years since 9 / 11, air travel has increased by a much greater rate than it did in the previous comparable time period: there were 4.2 billion air passengers in 2018, 1.66 billion in 2001, and a relatively puny 654 million in 1982. If we characterise the post-9 / 11 aviation industry as a battle for hearts and minds over fear versus money, money definitely won. It might give us some reassurance that the crisis facing the aviation industry at the moment is a relative blip.
Since the 2008 recession, we seem to have entered a period which future historians might characterise as one exhibiting increased nationalist sentiment. There has in recent times been some well-documented comparisons of the last ten years or so with the Great Depression of the 1930’s that preceded World War II, for example. To an outsider like me, it might seem like those Amsterdam politicians are displaying a bit of that same kind of inward thinking. For the sake of me and those like me, I just hope those same politicians don’t make it too difficult, or too expensive, for me to revisit one of my favourite cities.