There is a reason why one category of tourists is attracted to a given category of cities and tourist destinations rather than another. Dozens of reasons, to be more exact. Some of these reasons are extremely important and easy to understand, some are equally important, but much less easy to comprehend, others still, may seem a little less important in the short run but play a huge role in the long term perspective. Interestingly, however, for many of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, the coronavirus pandemic may have worked like a powerful catalyst, accelerating some long-postponed decisions and structural changes, a powerful enforcer of systemic transformations. But why does it matter, really?

Much as many of us would like to believe that a city’s reputation is shaped and strengthened predominantly through implementation of successive strategy documents issued by a city hall (inevitably, after months of consultations), the reality is usually much more complex than that. Last year alone, Kraków was visited by roughly 18 times the number of the city’s inhabitants (over 14 million visitors). What is more, over the past decade, the city’s popularity as an international IT and businesses-services hub (No. 1 in Europe) has grown beyond anyone’s expectations, reaching over 100,000 employees in the sector in early 2020, according to ASPIRE Poland’s projections. Just look at the city’s growth curve compiled by Kraków’s biggest industry association.

Only in February this year, Poland’s historic former capital was chosen as one of the top 10 “trending destinations” globally in TripAdvisor’s annual Travellers’ Choice Awards (based on reviews and user ratings). And that is merely one of dozens of international travel-industry accolades over the years. Then came the pandemic and hit the city really hard, despite very low numbers of actual covid19 cases reported in Kraków itself to date.

The Invisible Enemy

You will probably not see it just by taking a cursory glance at the city’s historical city centre, but it’s a different city today, compared even to as recently as 20 years ago. And this process of accelerated evolution has only just begun. These days, relaxed atmosphere and lots of smiling people walking all over the old town area till late at night, speaking in multiple languages, is what you are most likely to experience almost every day of the week. Beneath this refreshingly optimistic reality lies a more complex story, one where much of the city’s creative industry remains ground to a standstill for almost half a year now, with Kraków’s most important event centers largely inactive and very few congresses, conferences and fairs organised or scheduled any time soon.

The city’s most important international festivals are still facing an uncertain future, while Kraków’s hotels are still far from their last year’s figures. Finally, “home office” remains the dominant form of work for most of the city’s international corporations. All of these facts have significant budgetary consequences that will most certainly impact many of the city’s 2021 plans, however unclear they may be at this stage.

Back to the brand

The reasons why Kraków has become so incredibly popular internationally include the following (to mention only a few):

  • diverse, well-preserved historical architecture (great many unique attractions)
  • cosmopolitan feel (starting a conversation in English couldn’t be any easier, just about anywhere you go)
  • relaxed atmosphere and buzzing nightlife (literally thousands of cafes, pubs and restaurants with fantastic gardens and patios to choose from)
  • ease of access (even though everything is within walking distance, the city will keep you busy for days, if not weeks)
  • slow-life philosophy feels like part of the city’s DNA
  • increasingly user-friendly network of bike lanes and public-transport amenities.
  • a great variety of hotels and hostels
  • connectivity & diversity (Kraków is situated close to fabulous mountains, beautiful lakes/rivers and hundreds of natural monuments)

And yet, over the years, largely because of its relaxed atmosphere and a reputation for buzzing night-life, Kraków has become a popular destination for (stag) parties, with organized groups of visitors and specialized businesses catering to this market niche thriving like never before. As a result, hundreds of hostel websites and dedicated social-media channels (available in English) would turn up out of nowhere in the last decade alone, along countless services attached, only to strengthen the city’s image as one of Europe’s most popular partying destinations. And yes, you might think it’s just a few people’s biased perception. This single American Airlines commercial, however, may open your eyes to how powerful such stereotypes really are. Of all the emotive associations the creators could have reached for when trying to attract clients, “have some vodka with a friend” was the final go to slogan for Kraków.

Tourism After the Pandemic

Imagine a scenario where a post-pandemic city like Kraków is unable to rebuild and strengthen its key cultural pillars (incl. dozens of international festivals and conferences) and instead “is forced by circumstances” to rely on the city’s reputation increasingly revolving around night-life, partying and having fun superficially “conquering” rather than exploring or enjoying an in-depth perspective on Kraków’s wealth of cultural heritage. It’s a bleak vision, isn’t it. And yet, if you fail to acknowledge the full complexity of the variables that, put together, define your city’s core identity, you automatically expose yourself to the risks of becoming something else, something very different from what your aspirational bulletins, reports and strategy documents would rather see you as.

Back in March 2020, Kraków was barely in the middle of one of its favourite new conference formats (Historical Cities 3.0) when the news came that the 2-day event must be cut in half and Day 2 is officially cancelled due to newly-imposed government restrictions. At the time, conference delegates were asking themselves how to attract (more of) the so-called premium tourists to world heritage destinations. Less than half a year later, the original question of the March 2020 conference couldn’t be more important than it is now.

According to Bartłomiej Walas, Coordinator for Strategic Tourist Projects at Kraków’s City Hall, the tourism industry in the post-COVID19 world has already seen multiple declarations pointing to the need for structural changes in the way it is being managed, especially in historical cities. The current trend is towards sustainable tourism. However, very little is being said about how these cities are going to go about implementing it or whether it’s even possible in the first place. How are we to understand sustainable tourism, then? Well, it should be, first and foremost, about minimizing conflicts arising from multiple stakeholder interactions, rather than continuously trying to maximize the numbers of tourists coming to your city. Following up on that, it’s necessary to agree on specific actions and measures for all individual stakeholder groups, so that just the right balance is maintained between the interests of different groups, all of whom taken together define the very notion of community in a given city (incl. visitors, residents, entrepreneurs, investors). Individual stakeholder viewpoints may not only differ but can be mutually exclusive. Hence, finding common ground between the needs of residents and various service providers (in the area of tourism development) should be achieved through negotiated acceptance and readiness to give up a portion of interests (all stakeholder groups), in favour of the city’s common goals and values, which includes those linked to the development of tourism. The responsibility for the quality of life and our cultural heritage is our collective task. After all, tourism is not only about workplaces. It’s an important part of the economy, but also one of the key pillars of city reputation.

Both tourism and reputation management have always been about skillfully navigating and reconciling the many (often contradictory) interests and expectations of countless groups and stakeholders. In the post-pandemic world, however, these strategic management skills will prove absolutely critical for many cities to continue on their path towards sustainable development.