Social disruption of the tourism and hospitality industries: implications for post-COVID-19 pandemic recovery

Connor M. Chapman (Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA)
DeMond Shondell Miller (Program in Disaster Science and Emergency Management, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA)
Geremy Salley (Program in Disaster Science and Emergency Management, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA)

Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes

ISSN: 1755-4217

Article publication date: 15 June 2021

Issue publication date: 21 July 2021




The purpose of this study is to examine how societal disruptions in the wake of disasters and crises also disrupt the tourism and hospitality industries.


This paper takes a case-study approach. First, the literature on disasters/crises is reviewed; then three cases in which disasters impacted local, regional and global tourism and hospitality industries are examined: Hurricane Katrina, Arab Spring and the COVID-19 pandemic.


Three principles are proposed to assist in mitigating the impacts of disaster on the tourist industry. These principles also serve as a means of potentially re-orienting and guiding the tourism and hospitality industries toward a sustainable and equitable future.


In addition to the three guiding principles offered in this paper; the examination of COVID-19 offers a novel case in which tourism is impacted globally by a singular disaster. Findings and implications from this case will guide recovery and, potentially, allow for a reconceptualization of the tourism and hospitality industries.



Chapman, C.M., Miller, D.S. and Salley, G. (2021), "Social disruption of the tourism and hospitality industries: implications for post-COVID-19 pandemic recovery", Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 312-323.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


In March 2020, the SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease, spread across the globe following the assumed initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. As the rate of transmission increased in areas across the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the “pandemic” distinction to the novel coronavirus. The initial effects of the pandemic were significant. Across the world, social, economic and political systems struggled to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances presented by the virus. In its wake, economic markets were unstable, schools closed and governments issued various public health directives to slow the spread of the virus to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Because the virus spreads mostly through person-to-person transmission (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020), public health measures to safeguard and restrict the movement of people included those by travel, tourism and hospitality industries, who were among the hardest hit by the global economic contraction that occurred (Casselman, 2020).

This paper examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism and hospitality industries in comparison with disasters different in typology (natural disasters and human-induced disasters) and scope (regional and global), yet they all share societal disruption as a common theme. The Hurricane Katrina example explores the societal impacts of a series of technological failures resulting in levee breaches. The Arab Spring example explores political, social and civil unrest and the ensuing social disruptions. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its global reach and societal impacts, explores systemic global disruptions. We recognize the differences between natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes, flooding or pandemics), technological disasters (e.g. Fukushima Diachii, Deep Water Horizon oil spill) and sociopolitical civil unrest, human-made disasters (e.g. wars, terrorist attacks, political or economic crises) (Zenker and Kock, 2020, p. 1). Hence, the paper limits its analysis to the societal disruption aspect of tourism and hospitality and offers implications for recovery and resilience building in travel and travel-related industries. Numerous studies have been written to explore the three disasters that comprise this study; hence, we will not detail the historical evolution of each, but rather focus on how the immediate and post-disaster shocks disrupt tourism and hospitality and how past disasters provide insight into the 2020–2021 COVID-19 impact on these industries.

The severity of a disaster is largely determined by how society interprets and responds to the disaster, not necessarily the disaster itself. Several of writers have challenged the notion that disasters themselves are “contained in space and time” and also whether disasters should be considered “events” (i.e. an outcome) at all (Quarantelli, 1987; Kroll-Smith et al., 2002). However, this classical definition has evolved and has proved foundational to many contemporary definitions (Perry, 2017). Recent definitions of disaster rely heavily on disasters as a social phenomenon, such as Pescaroli and Alexander’s (2015) definition: “situations that generate a sequence of events in human subsystems that result in physical, social, and economic disruption” (p. 65). This paper adopts this line of inquiry and conceptualizes disasters as social disrupters, especially in the social and economic spheres related to travel and hospitality.

Numerous contemporary studies focus on the tourism and hospitality industries heightened vulnerability to the effects of disasters and crises (Cro and Martins, 2017; Butler and Suntikul, 2013; Faulkner and Vikulov, 2001; Granville et al., 2016; Seraphin, 2018; Woosnam and Kim, 2014; Yang et al., 2020). The impacts of violence, terrorism, political instability and armed conflict remain a key challenge for tourism researchers as the vulnerability and resilience of destinations varies as a result of their spatial and functional connections with physical, cultural, socioeconomic, political and technological environments (Leiper, 2008; Scott and Laws, 2005). There is a distinct difference between crises and disasters (Faulkner and Vikulov, 2001; Santana, 2004; Scott and Laws, 2005). The term crisis (Hall, 2010) denotes events and situations that are internal and manageable while disasters tend to be, with some exceptions, rather sudden catastrophic events that cause a part of the human subsystem’s disruption. In either case, both, according to Reddy et al. (2020), involve the management of risk and the impact that can bring to bear on society.

It is theorized that the primary mediating factor between a disaster and/or crisis and the diminished economic returns for tourism and hospitality is risk. Using the definition presented by Dietz et al. (2002, p. 329), risk is: “a compound measure of the probability and magnitude of some event or adverse effect.” Risk factors are a part of our daily lives, and it is traditionally conceptualized as existing in objective space; however, social scientists theorize that risk, like many other social phenomena, is socially constructed (Freudenburg, 1988; Tierney, 1999). In other words, people perceive risk differently; the difference in perception factors into a tourists’ decision to travel and their choice of destination (Reichel et al., 2007). The type of disaster, as demonstrated by Ma et al. (2020), has differing effects on both the number of tourists at a given location and their experience. Although both natural and anthropogenic harm can impact on tourist numbers, they think that natural disasters and specifically earthquakes have a greater impact than human-induced disasters such as terrorism. They speculate latent or secondary disasters often occur after the initial earthquake (i.e. aftershocks, landslides, tsunamis, etc.) which prolongs the effect of the disaster on tourism. Further, natural disasters do not impact tourists’ experiences as much as terrorist attacks. This may be related to how different disasters are perceived and how they affect public’s response, blame attribution and institutional trust (Freudenburg, 1993; Miller et al., 2000; Miller, 2015).

This paper offers insight into how to build resilient tourism and hospitality operations through a sociological examination of the impacts of three disasters of different typologies – natural disasters, technological and civil unrest. These disasters are embodied by Hurricane Katrina and the Arab Spring uprisings (particularly in Egypt), respectively. The outcomes of these disasters, when viewed as a disruption, are compared and contrasted with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and insights from these cases are offered to build more resilient tourism practices in a post-COVID world.

Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans, like many American post-industrial cities, saw a decline in manufacturing in the post-war era. Previously a center for shipbuilding and petrochemical manufacturing, New Orleans, sought to reorient itself toward the growing tourism and hospitality economic sectors in the 1970s and 1980s (Lewis, 2005). In line with the growth machine thesis (Molotch, 1976; Logan and Molotch, 2007), elites within city politics began establishing growth coalitions in the 1990s. Organizations such as the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network played a critical role to this end (Gotham, 2007a). For decades, New Orleans has been one of the world’s most popular tourist and convention destinations, drawing approximately nine million visitors per year in the years before Hurricane Katrina (Gotham, 2007a, 2007b, 2017). According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, in the year before Hurricane Katrina, a record 10.1 million people visited New Orleans, spending more than US$4.9bn on hotels, restaurants and local attractions (Whitten, 2015). Before Hurricane Katrina, tourism was a $5.5 billion dollar industry that accounted for 40% of the city's tax revenues and employed 85,000 people. The post-Katrina tourism sector lost approximately 22,900 jobs as visitor numbers dropped to 3.7 million in 2006, with US$2.9bn in visitor spending (Gotham, 2007a, 2007c, 2017).

As the first category 5 hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, along the Louisiana coast with a storm surge that breached the New Orleans levee system sending water that would eventually cover a large portion of the city (Miller, 2008). With extensive damage to the region, Hurricane Katrina quickly became the most destructive and costly hurricane in the western hemisphere since the beginning of recorded history. The disaster area covered over 90,000 square miles along the Gulf of Mexico within the USA, drowning the physical landscape and leaving a monumental infrastructural and cultural rebuilding effort in its wake (Miller, 2008, p. 116). Hurricane Katrina was devastating in many ways and exposed vulnerable aspects of the social, economic and civic infrastructure that underlines the tourism and hospitality industries. The hurricane changed the city and region’s tourist attractions, cultural experiences and festivals such as Mardi Gras even though the city’s authentic feel, coupled with multiple entertainment venues, historical and heritage sites and other attractions positions New Orleans as a tourist destination. However, “in the wake of [Hurricane] Katrina, the number of tourists shrank to 3.7 million, down a startling 63%. Spending also declined, with visitors shelling out 42% less in 2006 than in 2004” (Whitten, 2015). Efforts to rebuild the industry and city went hand-in-hand. These efforts centered on grounding New Orleans’ at the intersection of music, food and history while overcoming images of devastation and lawlessness portrayed in the media during the immediate aftermath of the disaster. A major rebranding effort, coupled with travel incentives, was immediately launched. It is oftentimes difficult to promote a positive destination image after political upheaval in the wake of a human-induced crisis such as Arab Spring in Egypt, a global pandemic such as COVID-19 in Italy and New York City, or New Orleans in the following of Hurricane Katrina where cable and print news carried coverage of unsafe conditions and negative images from media coverage that referred to New Orleans as a “toxic gumbo,” and the residents as “Katrina Refugees” or “the Katrina Diaspora.” These labels served to reinforce negative images. However, Gotham notes that the city was able to redirect the narrative by counter media and advertising strategies and using culture to brand “[…] New Orleans as a site of delicious food, quality music, and rich history fulfills several strategic tourism objectives including attracting diverse kinds of niche tourists and generating business opportunities within the local tourism industry” (Gotham, 2007a, p. 834). Pre-Katrina New Orleans was advertised as a major entertainment center with the title, “The Big Easy.” Following the clean up the city’s rebranding efforts included glossy advertisements and slogans that proclaim New Orleans as being “Open for Business,” “The rebirth of New Orleans: [is] Ahead of Schedule,” and “You’ll Love the New New Orleans” (Gotham, 2007a, pp. 824 and 843; Miller, 2008), all of which have been key to the resilience of tourism and hospitality in New Orleans.

This counter-branding and ultimately re-branding of the city became a component of the resilience of the tourism and hospitality industries. Rebranding for resiliency remains a key strategy for New Orleans even in 2021 in the wake of COVID-19. The Official New Orleans website clearly illustrates how disaster resilience lessons learned continue to help promote the city. During Mardi Gras season, the city’s website offered a virtual experience as a “reimagined Mardi Gras.” This reimagining, according to the website, involves the “phased reopening” of many popular tourist sites while the city encourages patronage at local restaurants and businesses. Although the city does not discourage travel, it recognizes the reality that tourism is unlikely to look the same in previous years and they call for tourists to “explore all the ways you can bring New Orleans into your own homes, from streaming concerts to one-of-a-kind recipes that will transport you to all the places you’ve missed the most.”

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations and uprisings in the Middle East and North African region, began in Tunisia in December 2010. A series of anti-government protests and protests of police violence culminated in the mobilization of national social movements, which succeeded in ending President Ben Ali’s 32-year tenure in Tunisia. The success of the Tunisian revolt inspired similar uprisings in other countries in the region, such as Libya, Egypt, Syria and others. The uprisings resulted in prolonged civil unrest for most of the region. In Egypt and Yemen, for instance, governments were overthrown over the course of multiple uprising, in Libya and Syria, the protests and uprisings became part of, or culminated in, internal conflicts (Groizard et al., 2016).

Unlike a natural disaster or a pandemic disaster, the high level of social and economic instability coupled with extremism and politically motivated violence poses a significant challenge to the tourism and hospitality industries. As noted by Tomazos (2017, p. 214):

[…] tourism is a very vulnerable and sensitive industry - political stability, peace and above all safety, are prerequisites to tourism. In addition, tourists and tourism markets are prone to panic and events, such as civil unrest and terrorism can cause tourists to second-guess their decisions to visit certain destinations.

Before the 2011 uprisings, a large percent of the total Egyptian economy included tourism. The tourism sector was interrupted when events in Tunisia inspired the Egyptian Revolution on the 25 January 2011 resulting in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak some weeks later (Doucet, 2013; Nassar, 2012; Tomazos, 2017). Moreover, many countries issued travel warnings and evacuated their citizens, after a series of strikes, marches and violent clashes between demonstrators, security forces and supporters of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in 2011 (CNN, 2011; Nassar, 2012; Tomazos, 2017).

The Arab Spring uprisings had a significant impact on economic activity in the area and one of the most immediate effects was a sharp decline in tourism to most of the countries in the Middle East (Masetti et al., 2013). The Arab tourism sector recorded billions of US dollars in losses as a result of the Arab Spring and the loss of some 10 million tourists, according to the Arab Tourism Organization [eTN (ETurboNews), 2013, May 31]. Tomazos (2017) notes “[…] many flights and accommodation reservations were cancelled (Nassar, 2012) and popular attractions were left almost deserted. This paints a very clear picture about the immediate effect of the crisis on the livelihoods of people depending on tourism income.” In 2010 approximately 1.65 million people or 7% of the total workforce were directly employed in tourism (WTTC, 2014). The total contribution of travel and tourism in wider forms of investment and suppliers were approximately 3.36 million jobs, or 12.9% of total employment (Cairo, 2014; WTTC, 2014). When this is put in tourism revenue terms, 2010 was the year Egypt recorded the highest ever tourism revenue of between US$12.5–13.8bn (Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of Finance, 2015; also see Tomazos, 2017; Ragab, 2014). In contrast, it is estimated that tourism revenue in 2014 was around US$7–7.5bn (Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of Finance, 2015; Smith, 2014). When comparing the per-Arab Spring tourism economic figures with the immediate and post-Arab Spring revenue figures, Kingsley (2014) notes that the overall tourism revenues were down by 54%. With a continued weak economic performance, as measured by ancient Egyptian monuments and cultural attractions, through the first half of 2014 (Daragahi, 2014; Kingsley, 2014; see Tomazos, 2017). By 2013 the region’s tourist numbers slowly increased in the Gulf and in the southern Mediterranean (UNWTO, 2014; Tomazos, 2017) – but full recovery is still a challenge (Avraham, 2015).

The COVID-19 pandemic

The opening months of 2020 saw a rapid and profound shift in the social, cultural and economic landscapes as the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread across the world. First reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, the highly transmissible virus quickly spread to areas around the world primarily via human movement patterns. By the end of January 2020, the first infections were reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the USA, which prompted the WHO to declare the virus a “public health emergency of international concern” (Wee et al., 2020; Taylor, 2020). By the end of February 2020, the first COVID-related deaths were reported outside of mainland China in the Philippines, Italy, France and the USA. Italy, Iran, Egypt and others were soon overwhelmed by mounting case numbers as local and national medical infrastructures struggled to keep pace with the rate of infection. As the virus earned the “pandemic” designation from the WHO in mid-March 2020 (WHO, 2020) economic recession loomed (Dooley, 2020; Casselman and Cohen, 2020), restrictions on travel were implemented (Stevis-Gridneff and Perez-Pena, 2020) and societies locked down (Gettleman and Schultz, 2020; Kirshner, 2020; Landler and Castle, 2020; Landler and Castle, 2021).

Because the tourism and hospitality industries require the movement of people, they were especially impacted by the nature and circumstances of the pandemic as it unfolded. In the early days of the pandemic, several cases in tourism and hospitality became central to the public discourse in the spread of the disease. Cruise ships in particular were noted hotspots for virus transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that “cruise ship travel presents a unique combination of health concerns,” citing close-quarters environments, frequent port visits and limited medical capacities while at sea as significant factors that facilitate the spread of disease on board cruise ships (Tardivel et al., 2019). One cruise ship, in particular, the Diamond Princess, accounted for half of the COVID-19 cases outside of China in early February 2020 (Belam et al., 2020). Researchers later used this case to model the virus’s aerosolized transmission and confirmed that the virus’s primary means of spreading was through close-range transmission (Azimi et al., 2021). Other such cases, especially in the USA, saw tourism and hospitality as central in emerging outbreaks, viral spread and mounting case numbers. In Florida, for instance, rising case numbers in the wake of March and April spring break festivities were attributed to Governor Ron DeSantis’s delayed public health response (Mazzei and Haberman, 2020). One college student who visited the state for spring break was quoted in the New York Times, “[…] the government didn’t cancel [spring break], so it should be fine” (Mazzei and Robles, 2020). Early miscommunication, misunderstanding and general uncertainty about the disease did not prompt alarm in many areas. However, in the early spring of 2020, tourism and hospitality sites in the USA and elsewhere – hotels, beaches, restaurants, bars and nightclubs – were quickly identified as “super spreader” sites, and large gatherings became known as “super spreader” events. Places, events, festivities, gatherings, conferences and modes of transportation soon became the focus for government-issued public health mandates, which limited hours of operation, food handling and preparation, employee workplace protocols, the designation of essential versus nonessential operations, local quarantines, operation capacities for certain businesses and forbade indoor congregations in others.

Across the world, the pace of the pandemic began to differentiate by region – where some regions saw low caseloads, others faced the serious threat of hospitals reaching capacity. Some initial studies have shown that it may be difficult to regain tourist trust (Kock et al., 2020). However, given that the tourist sector is especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis, some scholars advocate for a “reset” – as an opportunity to conceptualize the popular paradigms that drive the field (Higgins-Desbiolles et al., 2020; Higgins-Desbiolles, 2021; Sigala, 2020).

Tourism resiliency in the context of crisis and crises

We are living in an age of disasters that produce a series of social disruptions, risks and dangers. We live in an age of multiple threats from climate change, global economic instability, swine-flu and terrorism. Yet, we have opportunities to build more resilient travel, tourism and hospitality systems. Each of the examples, Hurricane Katrina, Arab Spring and COVID-19, underscores the social, economic and industry-wide disruptions that happen when a crisis befalls a local area, a region, or in the case of COVID-19, the global community. The aforementioned disasters in and of themselves are major crises, in each case, one crisis serving as a catalyst for another crisis within a coupled network of interrelated systems. Because “crises threaten the existence of any system, whether it is a nation-state, social community, government, organization, natural environment, eco-system or some other established system (including tourism)” (Ritchie, 2009, p. 8; Reddy et al., 2020). The World Travel and Tourism Council has recently warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a cut of 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industries (Lane, 2020). As noted by Morakabati et al. (2017, p. 301) “within the continuum of emergency incidents that may impact tourism destinations and businesses, it is recognized (Reiser, 2003) that major incidents, although of high impact (e.g. an earthquake, terrorist incident or other disasters such as aircraft accident/ferry sinking), tend to be of low frequency with major consequences.” The major consequences serve as coupled industry disruptors – or crises within a crisis. As indicated earlier, the distinction between disaster and crisis is clear and their disruption of society is well documented.

Learning to live with a crisis or crises environment has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic experience. As industry leaders, small businesses and hospitality industry stakeholders learn through a series of ongoing lockdowns, partial openings, travel bans, border closures, quarantine measures and negative media coverage, the economic crisis affecting the tourism and hospitality industries is a disaster. As vaccines and treatments arrive for the pandemic, many industry insiders wonder if travel and safety will ever be the same.

Conclusion: building resilience beyond disruptions

Both Hurricane Katrina and the Arab Spring taught us lessons about recovery in the tourism and hospitality industries that are transferable; however, their “lessons learned” for recovery are more localized than the global scale social disruption presented by COVID-19. The pandemic offer us a unique opportunity to forge a new path based on challenging old paradigms and assumptions. As Sigala (2020, p. 314) contends:

[…] we have converted COVID-19 from a biological virus contagion to a financial crisis contagion and recently, an economic race to re-build our old financial competitiveness [emphasis added] […] Instead, COVID-19 tourism research should also challenge our growth-paradigms and assumptions that have led to the current situation and enable us to reimagine and reset tourism.

Bold approaches to resilience are needed to address the new realities and new models of thinking about the future of tourism and hospitality post-COVID-19. While in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic disaster, and with a recognition that public health policies are shifting, we propose four guiding principles to foster a resilient, reimagined tourism industry and hospitality industry following disasters.

The three broad principles listed below are guiding principles to help advance the discussion of post-COVID-19 pandemic recovery that lessens the social and economic disruptions in the tourism and hospitality industries. Ideally, the discussions of recovery will center on integrated long-term planning, industry-specific planning and innovative approaches to link macro-level factors with micro-level realities.

  • Integrated long-term planning uses a willingness to engage social science research, industry best practices and local community stakeholders in a more inclusive way to move forward, reimagine and reset the industries for decades to come. The integrated long-term planning approach draws “[…] on collective knowledge and expertise to derive intellectual collateral and knowledge. This appears to be the most effective model where a greater team effort can be built to allow greater adaptability and fluidity as emergencies unfold and develop” (Morakabati et al., 2017, p. 313).

  • Industry-specific disaster and continuity of operations planning will allow the hospitality and tourism industries to continue to operate under the most stringent circumstances. As emergency planning and management grows in the public sector, specific tourist well-being must be taken into account as a component of standard and contingency operations. Moreover, operations planning not only institutes time-phased implementation procedures as industry stakeholders return to normal operating conditions as soon as practical, it helps to ensure that mission-essential functions continue with minimal or no disruption.

  • Link macro-level factors with micro-level realities to foster “[…] a strong collaboration with external systems, such as the health or emergency systems. On the micro-level, it urges businesses into new ways of operating under, for instance, social distancing rules […]” (Zenker and Kock, 2020, p. 3) or other safety guidance for hurricanes, nuclear instances or civil unrest.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the nature of a disaster with several coupled crises that, like Hurricane Katrina or Arab Spring, can trigger a series of crises. The question is thus not whether a crisis will happen but when and how the crisis will be handled (Faulkner and Vikulov, 2001; Kash and Darling, 1998; Reddy et al., 2020) in an effort to foster resilience. The scale and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic are unlike any disruption, disaster or crisis in the history of modern tourism. Because of the unique situation posed by the pandemic, there is no precedent for rapid and safe recovery under the conditions of a global pandemic of this nature. Given the state of the industry and the academic field, we echo the calls for the reconceptualization of tourism. COVID-19 offers not only challenges to tourism as we know it but also an opportunity to remake tourism into a more sustainable and equitable endeavor.


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Ali, A., Arifin, Z. and Hasi, M. (2012), “The challenges of tourism in the countries of the Arab spring revolutions”, Advances in Natural and Applied Sciences, Vol. 6 No. 7, pp. 1162-1171.

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Higgins-Desbiolles, F. (2020), “Socialising tourism for social and ecological justice after COVID-19”, Tourism Geographies, Vol. 22 No. 3, pp. 610-623.

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Corresponding author

DeMond Shondell Miller can be contacted at:

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