May 25, 2020

Blog | May 2020

Mobility after Covid-19: From ‘globubble’ to ‘slowbubble’

by MPI MMG Senior Research Partner Robin Cohen (Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford)

A large majority of the globally-mobile population is made of three groups – businesspeople, international students and temporary visitors (including tourists, those on family visits, pilgrims, conference delegates and backpackers). Because of the ease and relative cheapness of international travel up to now, all these groups have been able to treat the world, to echo Marshall McLuhan, as a ‘global village’. The long-established social bubbles defined by family, kin, ethnicity, gender, class and status had expanded, for the purposes of mobility, into a global bubble, or ‘globubble’. Covid-19 has put paid to that for the next few years, probably longer, if not for ever. Instead, our social bubbles will be determined by households, trusted intimates, and regional and national safe zones established by those authorities who have been successful in containing the virus. These protected zones will slowly grow, and gradually and imperfectly connect with one another – we can call each a ‘slowbubble’.


In globubble times, about 12 per cent of all airline flights (national and international) were undertaken by businesspeople. Perhaps this is not as much as you might have surmised. However, it is worth emphasizing that the airlines made much of their money through business travellers, who often upgraded, usually travelled business or 1st class, used frequent flyer inducements and spent more onboard and in add-ons.[1] These add-ons included flights combining business and leisure (‘bleisure’ holidays) where the airlines often tied into car rentals, hotel reservations, credit cards and travel insurance, providing additional revenue streams. It is evident that business travel was essential to the viability of the aviation industry. One trade association source estimated that by the end of May 2020 most airlines in the world would be bankrupt.[2]

It is highly unlikely that the globubble of business travel will come back for many years. Businesses have adjusted to other, much cheaper, means of communication, using platforms like Zoom, which saw the peaks of its daily meeting participants move from under 10 million in December 2019 to over 300 million in April 2020. There are legitimate grounds for suspecting that these communications are insecure, but Skype, Google, Zoom itself and other platforms can easily upgrade their encryption protocols for a fraction of the price of business travel characteristic of the globubble period (roughly 1950 to 2019). It should be added, a point which is relevant also to visitors, that airline tickets will be much more expensive as the period of slowbubble commences. Sanitation and security procedures, respacing seats and producing safe food will add to the cost of operating airlines, which will also be looking to recoup some of their massive losses by lifting prices in tandem with lifting lockdowns.


International students are the life blood of many universities in the UK, mainland Europe, the US and, to a lesser extent, Canada and Australia. In 2019, international students contributed US$41 billion to the US economy and sustained almost half a million jobs. Stay-on visas for students transitioning to research jobs, shortage occupations and start-up businesses added more to the economy.[3] The soft power (loosely the reputational influence) gained by the US and other countries taking large numbers of international students generated further gains in diplomacy and trade.

Now even the most prestigious institutions offer little to international students. In the US, Harvard, and MIT have already announced that the 2020 ̶1 academic year will take place online only. No more strolling along the Charles River in Boston and taking part in all the other wonderful joys of being a student, fancy free and a long way from home. Not only will the student experience be impoverished, it might also well be dangerous, with the erratic policies to contain Covid-19 coming from the White House. It is clear that President Trump is so desperate to kick-start the economy before the presidential election that he is prepared to take big risks with public health. In these circumstances, it is doubtful that anxious parents (say) in China or India, perhaps also feeling a financial pinch, will bankroll an expensive education in the US, even where the institutions have opened their gates. I have taken the example of the US, but it is clear that the numbers of international students coming to many institutions in North America and Europe will plummet. For this group, their globubble will shrink dramatically.

Instead, a slowbubble for international students will emerge in zones where infections have been low, or Covid-19 has been handled effectively. We can easily imagine prestigious institutions in New Zealand (like Auckland or Otago), Singapore (like NUS and Nanyang), Australia (like Melbourne, ANU and Sydney) and Hong Kong gaining internationally mobile students with good credentials at the expense of the established student destinations, at least in the short and medium term.


Many short-term visitors will be negatively affected by the end of the globubble period – including back-packers, conference-goers, family visitors, exchange students, au pairs, and those on temporary work permits – but I want to focus here on tourists and pilgrims. According to the World Tourism Organization, tourist arrivals, measured at 1.4 billion in 2018, are due to fall between 58 and 80 per cent in 2020.[4] This will have calamitous effects not only on the carriers, but the many people employed in the tourism and leisure industries, not to forget the frustrations of the intending tourists themselves.

In the globubble period, tourists were used to selecting from an unlimited menu of delights – whether it was snowboarding in Chile, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or flopping out in the Canary islands. In the period of slowbubble, safe travel zones will slowly be established by diplomatic cooperation. A planned trans-Tasman travel bubble was negotiated in early May between Australia and New Zealand, with the Pacific island countries to be added later.[5] In Europe, free travel in the Schengen area has been replaced by a complex pattern of selected cross border openings and airbridges, some determined more the need to keep the tourist economy afloat than strictly on public health grounds.

Pilgrims are also a substantial group of visitors. The famous site at the Grand Mosque in Mecca was all but deserted at Ramadan, and the cancellation of the hajj pilgrimage, due in July and August 2020, has been announced. (Last year, Saudi Arabia welcomed 1.8 million hajjis.) Even though the hajj is the best-known example of pilgrimage, it is by no means the biggest. The Arba’een Pilgrimage in Karbala, Iraq is normally visited by 20 million people, while the Kumbh Mela festival in India, a Hindu pilgrimage, last attracted 120 million. Both are due in 2021 and both are likely to be cancelled. St Peter’s square in Rome is deserted.


To be clear, I am not arguing, as many commentators have, that globalization in general will unravel. The long-term rise in the economic power of Asia, measured in purchasing power parity, is well-established and will continue to be been based on regional integration and global trade liberalisation.[6] Globalization has also continued successfully in terms of many commodity and food chains, while there are dramatic enhancements of globalization in terms of scientific research and global communication (several countries recording rises of 40-50 per cent in internet usage).[7] Again, with respect to mobility, I am not discussing refugees, or migration for settlement, work or retirement – for which different arguments pertain. Here I am focusing on those temporary forms of mobility that will be severely affected by the end of the globubble. The slowbubble period will last for perhaps a decade, as public health fears abate, and economies recover. By that time, the characteristic routes and destinations of the globally mobile will have altered, reflecting new patterns of soft power. ‘Carnival in Rio, anybody’? ‘Er, I’ve always fancied a trip to Fiji’.







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