Responsible tourists in the time of COVID-19?

By Bente Heimtun & Arvid Viken

COVID-19 shocked people all over the world. Industries closed down and international travel terminated. The pandemic boosted research in medicine and supporting natural sciences. In Northern Norway, tourism is a viable economic sector. The lockdown was deeply felt, and impact analyses were requested. The Department of Tourism and Northern Studies at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway, was asked to take on analyses.

Late summer 2021, we approached Norwegian tourists visiting the North Cape to learn about their practices of holidaymaking before and during COVID-19. Our work was guided by a theoretical focus on responsible travel[1]. In our encounters, tourists shared how they had accepted the strict restrictions imposed by the government on March 12th, 2020, including the rhetoric of ‘war’ and ‘dugnad’ applied by the authorities. During the pandemic, the Norwegian prime minister appealed to a core moral value in the Norwegian welfare mentality through the rhetoric of ‘dugnad’ – a collective temporary effort with which special needs can be tackled[2]. The public was told that to conquer the pandemic, we had to ‘share the responsibility’[3]. 

The moment the interviews with the tourists in the North Cape took place, we lived a time when domestic travel in Norway was allowed, and restrictions were minimal. The tourists talked about this common responsibility, ‘dugnad’, through sharing how COVID-19 had temporarily changed their travel patterns[4] and how they ‘followed the rules’. However, many of them were less mindful of the processes that lead to the pandemic, not relating the increase and spread of the virus to the increase of global travel[5]. Consequently, not acknowledging the problem, most of the tourists seemed unwilling to change their travel habits in post-pandemic times. They longed for the ‘sunny south’ – an important holiday destination for many Norwegians[6]. Furthermore, they insisted on getting ‘back to normal’.   

 The ‘normal’ is a neoliberal ideology with scale and growth as dominant parameters[7]. ‘Normal’ means unlimited freedom of consumption, including more travel. To deal with the environmental problems behind the pandemic was not seen as the tourists’ responsibility. From a geopolitical point of view, this is a depressing conclusion. Our conclusion therefore is about fatalism, or a series of fatalisms. Fatalism refers to people thinking that they are not able to intervene with what is going on, either now, or in the future[8]. In the beginning of the pandemic, the authorities did not know what to do[9], projecting uncertainty and responsibility to the public. Then, the authorities and the public realised that the pandemic is something we must and can ‘live with’. 

 But how did this realization relate to questions of responsibility of travel? Most of the tourists we met did realize the relations between the COVID-19 pandemic, global travel and consumption, and environmental and climate changes. However, they considered this as outside their room of manoeuvre, thus not their ‘personal responsibility’. As we know that the danger with fatalism is lower awareness and willingness to changed behaviour, our findings are not overly promising. This speaks for the need for continuous research regarding the links between responsibility and travel behaviour, during and after the pandemic. 



[1] Saarinen, 2021; White, 1990 

[2] Nilsen & Skarpenes, 2020 

[3] See also Gjerde, 2021; Moss & Sandbakken, 2021 

[4] See also Eichelberger et al., 2021 

[5] see also Hall et al., 2020 

[6] see also Löfgren, 1999 

[7] Higgins-Desbiolles, 2020 

[8] Bachem et al., 2020 

[9] see also Askim & Bergström, 2021 



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