TOURISM is one of the largest industries in the world, and its close relationship with public health is often overlooked. Confirmed COVID-19 cases totaled 765,222,932 as of May 3, 2023, including 6,921,614 reported deaths . Tourism mobility can fuel the spread of infectious diseases and thus exacerbate public health crises, in turn devastating the tourism industry .
From the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020, to its declassification on May 5, 2023 , travel restrictions have been in place for more than 3 years to reduce the risk of viral transmission. Many countries and regions gradually introduced policies to promote tourism recovery during the pandemic, such as “travel bubbles” and “health passes,” in addition to lifting border restrictions and incentivizing tourism consumption .
As shown in Fig. 1, tourism is recovering dramatically: international tourist arrivals were expected to reach between 80% and 95% of pre-pandemic levels by 2023 . The world now finds itself at a critical point in relation to tourism; it is essential to reconsider this industry’s future and its symbiosis with public health.
Health and safety concerns have risen in the wake of COVID-19. Public health plays a vital part in sustainable tourism development. It helps control disease transmission, protects destination environments, and safeguards the health and security of tourists and residents. Tourism operators can enhance visitor trust and promote industry sustainability by adopting public health measures.
Strategies include enacting stricter cleanliness standards, providing an assortment of personal hygiene products, and integrating digital technologies to reduce viral exposure and cross-contamination . Tourism’s potential value for public health is becoming increasingly evident. First, tourism can foster public health awareness by disseminating relevant information to tourists. Second, tourism may represent an innovative approach to public health promotion by encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Tourism could improve the well-being of people—especially those with suboptimal health (i.e., an intermediate state between health and diagnosable disease) or chronic diseases—through physical activity, social interaction, and positive emotions . Tourism may even be a promising and cost-effective non-pharmaceutical intervention to prevent and treat conditions such as dementia . This framing reinforces tourism as an asset with far-reaching social implications.
The industry stands to be appreciated in the post-pandemic era; it can enrich medical resources, address public health challenges (e.g., rapid aging, chronic disease epidemics), open niche markets, and contribute to tourism recovery and transformation.
A clear nexus exists between tourism and public health. As a leisure activity related to health and well-being, tourism involves a range of public health issues such as illness and physician-assisted suicide . COVID-19 underlines this connection and provides an opportunity to introduce tourism as a context for public health. This possibility offers significant implications for policy development. Research elucidating the role of tourism in public health is needed to formulate targeted policies. Tourism operators can also invest in tourism products and services tied to health outcomes to address specific concerns. Destination carrying capacity and sustainability should be considered as well to mitigate the challenges that over-tourism may pose to public health. Health-related policies should emphasize the value of the tourism–public health link by describing options such as social prescribing and respite holidays. Collaboration across disciplines and departments is complex but crucial to fully uncover tourism’s roles in public health promotion .
Jun Wen is a lecturer in tourism and hospitality management in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University. His current research interests lie in global health, tourism marketing, and travel medicine.
Wei Wang is a Professor in public health in the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University. His current research interests lie in genomics, glycomics, and suboptimal health.
Fangli Hu is a PhD candidate in the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University. Her interests include vulnerable tourists, travel medicine, travel therapy, tourism marketing, and suboptimal health.