Dr. Tomasz Cebulski is a Jewish heritage tour guide in Poland and a scholar, whose PhD was on post-Holocaust Auschwitz as a center of both commemoration and tourism.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has halted much travel and curtailed international tourism, has had a devastating impact on guides and other tourism professionals. It has driven Cebulski to sharply turn his activities from guiding into genealogy, on-line guiding, and film production.
In this personal essay, he reflects – month by month – on the impact of the pandemic on his work and on that of the tourism industry in general.
Tourism in the age of Coronavirus, or the Seven Stages of Grief
By Tomasz Cebulski
March was about shock and denial.
For tourism professionals spring has always been a time of intense contracting, setting itineraries, and coordinating calendars. Not in 2020. This time March was about shock and denial. Instead of contracting new bookings, it was hard to service all the cancellations. Chaos and uncertainty was in the air. We used words like “postponement” or “rescheduling,” rather than “cancellation.” These brought some hope but didn’t offer any consoling time frame.
April was about pain “ without” guilt.
Our world stopped. Museums were closed, streets were empty. Suddenly there was too much time but ironically no time at all, as adaptation into the new reality devoured it. For most people in the tourism sector, April was about asking many questions but hearing no answers. It took time to realize that from now on we were going to have to guide ourselves through terra incognita and come up with answers on our own. Social media offered a good forum for travel people to cooperate and unite but also to check out how others were adapting. It was painful to participate in one after another online conference on how to save tourism when no timeframe of limitations was known and no-one guilty for the shutdown could be found. It was even more painful to walk the empty streets wondering if this was even legal at this point in the pandemic.
May was anger and bargaining.
The initial shock and denial gave way to anger. Mostly anger at and bargaining with politicians and their various financial tools that were supposed to support the travel sector. Social media were flooded with demands and questions. Anger and lack of prospects made some of the most gifted guides take up alternative careers. Others stared to look for various ways to stay in tourism but change their modus operandi. Social campaigns such as “become a tourist in your own city,” or marketing campaigns promoting how to maintain physical distance while in travel were nothing more than bargaining with the unknown.
Meanwhile, there was hard bargaining for refunds and vouchers. It took me two months, for example, to negotiate with a hotel on behalf of one of my American clients in order to get him a voucher for a stay that could be used within 24 months.
June brought depression or the “syndrome of attention withdrawal”
Working as guide or tour leader becomes part of your mental DNA over time. Normally in June you are at the top of your game. June 2020 was lonely, reflective, and marked by a certain tiredness of social media or on-line presence. Working as a guide is about communication skills, knowledge, and understanding your audience; all these are constantly putting you in the spotlight and in a leadership position for those following your narrative. Being an actor and attracting attention gets addictive. I think it’s even better than in theatre, as you constantly communicate directly with your audience. You can change and improve your performance. But in June 2020 the spotlights were turned off and there was no place to put on the show any more. Many guides went through something I have diagnosed as a “syndrome of attention withdrawal.”
For some it was depressing, for others it represented an additional stimulus. Many started to realize their need for talking and communication on-line, resulting in a large number of videos, lessons, and messages from around the world. But along with the first attempts of on-line guiding came the eternal problem of how to capitalize on them. Meanwhile, museums and historical sites started to work out the new sanitary security protocols for opening on-site. In my case, the Auschwitz State Memorial Museum tested its new protocols in late May, trained all their staff though June, and opened to the first visitors on July 1st 2020.
July was the upward turn.
In July, anger and pain gave way to cautious optimism, as internal tourism within the EU, though limited, returned. It seems to me that a kind of internal rebellious paradigm made some people want to get out of their homes and travel — as long as it was possible. Surprisingly, many people, even in their home countries, got a guide to show them a city, introduce them to history, or just offer the kids something more than a lazy beach holiday. Here the audio guide and voice transmission systems came as a great help to maintain physical distancing. Curiosity and the need for education were stronger then fear, and tour providers learned that under certain protocols exploration is possible. More and more museums started to provide outdoor events or exhibits. These offered people a great chance to escape and take a break from the avalanche of COVID news, statistics, and political chaos.
August was reconstruction and working through.
Let’s face it, there is a pandemic. Tourism will never again operate in the same way as it did before March 2020. The fear factor will remain — among both guides and tourists alike, and alleviating it will become a new virtue in the guides’ profession. Respecting safety protocols seriously and sometimes teaching them to visitors will became a new norm for guides. Our daily performance theater will be behind a mask and will demand a little extra input to regain credibility. Meanwhile, we know that another shutdown could be lethal for tourism.
I have no problem anymore starting my Auschwitz, Kazimierz, or Polin Museum tours by teaching people how to wear a mask properly. By introducing and keeping security procedures and adapting the exhibit, the Auschwitz museum sometimes gets 2000 visitors a day now. At the same time last year it was close to 8000. Demonstrating and maintaining responsible behavior brings credibility and a real sense of safety. Working through this is very much about how to adapt and diversify the channels in which tourism operates. I like to be in contact with my clients online before their visit, as a way to get to know me as their guide, as well as the places they’ll be visiting; and then ideally, after the physical on-site tour (keeping the security protocols), follow up with an online evaluation and Q&A session. It works miracles — and in my case has proved to be more educationally effective then simply guiding on-site as I did before the pandemic.
Will September bring acceptance and hope, or will we succumb to shock and denial again?
Time will tell…but as for now the pandemic is proving to be very Darwinian. Only those who adapt will survive.
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September 7, 2020
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Dr Tomasz Cebulski established Polin Travel in 2000 to merge three of his driving interests: Jewish history, genealogy, and guiding. He meanwhile pursued an academic career, obtaining his PhD on the subject of post-Holocaust Auschwitz as a place of both commemoration and tourism. During the COVID-19 pandemic he has moved his travel activities online, with online guided tours, genealogy, films and lectures. In Spring 2020 he established a documentary and marketing film production company Sky Heritage Pictures.
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Cebulski was a speaker at the conference on Jewish Heritage Tourism in the Digital Age, held in Venice in October 2017. Here’s his presentation: