Tourism development opportunities in an Eastern European rural area after COVID-19

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Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi state university, Faculty of social and political sciences
In our presentation we will show, through the example of a rural area in Romania, (a.) the changes that the pandemic has brought to the tourism sector, and (b.) the opportunities that tourism operators can exploit based on the lessons learned from the pandemic. Our analysis will focus on the communication of tourism businesses, the use of digital solutions and the opportunities for cooperation between tourism operators. In the rural area, we have examined, tourism has taken centre stage only in the last 10-15 years. Tourism is present in every development plan, as well as in the view of most experts and decision makers as a high-priority sector, being hailed as a solve-all. However, achievements are influenced, sometimes hindered by numerous factors. A relative under-development (modernization deficit) characterizes the area to this day. Although several experiments into modernization have been undertaken on the region starting from the beginning of the 20th century, these have mostly been abandoned. This modernization deficit can be observed in many areas, from the state of infrastructure to the perception of education, from economic models and practices to branding and to future outlook. Present regional development targets currently still aim to cover decade old deficits in infrastructure. Economic and social processes in the years following the regime change (after 1989), in Romania just as in other former socialist countries, have brought the complete overhaul of the economic system: big state-owned enterprises have vanished, the share of private-owned enterprises has risen in number, as for its structure, small and medium size businesses represent the core of the economy of the region. No outside investments have occurred which could have influenced the structure of the local labor market. All these define the the tourism development potential of the examined area. Based on previous research conducted on businesses in the tourism sector, it can be noted, that their majority function as small or family businesses, with an emphasis on agrotourism. Professional backgrounds in tourism are less widespread and a propensity for following foreign (Hungarian, Austrian) models can be observed, mostly because of the lack of a previous private sector in tourism, only state owned and controlled hospitality. Furthermore, a complete lack of cooperation between tourism businesses is evident, with every one of them trying to individually succeed. Another important aspect to note is the minimal use of digital and online tools. Passive online presences are most characteristic, a lack of development can be observed in digitalization also. One of the main consequences of the pandemic is that it has forced tourism operators to develop digital competences and skills in many areas. Our research results show that the COVID situation can also create new opportunities and reshape the way tourism businesses think and operate. In this presentation, we will analyse the following possibilities: the integration and use of digital opportunities in the operation of businesses, the use of social media in the presentation of services, online relationship management, cooperation with tourism and non- tourism operators, the possibility of creating clusters.
COVID-19, rural areas, digital development, tourism businesses