The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic has left rural regions in Europe at a loss in how to move forward. A decline in traditional tourism, which has been a major source of income in recent years, has ended abruptly.

Rural regions are now actively asking people not to visit, fearing a second spike of infections amid an already overburdened medical sector. Some countries are also tentatively looking at how they can best revive their regional economies amid a possible infection spread.

The question of where should rural regions in Europe move forward to and how they can recreate their offering amid the near-collapse of tourism is one question which may take several years to fully understand.

Already several regions are now preparing individual action plans. Italy, for example, has shown clear leadership in keeping its farms fully functioning, while also meeting the needs of local communities in those regions by tentatively reopening cafes—something integral to their economies.

Further east, countries like Belarus, have seen no damage to their rural economies, at least according to the latest study by the Eurasian Economic Union, which stated that due to no lockdown in the country it will continue, regardless.

Black Swans and lambs

Meanwhile, Ireland and the United Kingdom are moving ahead with plans to focus on helping rural businesses with grants in the short term but other policy changes further down the line. Serious questions on both sides of the Irish Sea are being asked, with the UK funding a centre of research-based in the country’s northeast.

The black swan event of February 2020 and the subsequent change in consumer attitudes have forced the rural community in Europe to rethink their prospects. The coronavirus has also caught business, regional governments, and national authorities off guard.

Animal husbandry already stressed from years of tough competition now has the added dilemma of decreased sales to the commercial sector to contend with. An oversupply in production now could spell disaster for farmers and business down the line.

Several reports on social media suggest that commercial butchery suppliers are hamstrung by the situation of variable opening and potentially declining sales for at least another 12 months. Restaurants and cafes in these regions, also fearful of the future, might be the first victims as patron numbers collapse up reopening.

Regional rethink

This period of calm should also give local regions time to rethink their future. Rural regions also now have the opportunity to rebuild their offering, moving away from traditional forms of economic activity like tourism.

Complacent authorities who expect a 2021 rebound of their economies could be in for a shock as the virus has the potential to either hang around causing continued lockdowns or worse hit again in fresh waves.

The potential loss of income from tourism and its subsidiary industries could then place significant stress on those remaining tax and rate-paying businesses remaining in specific areas.

If long-term prospects of social distancing remain in place, then traditional tourism-led rural businesses will unlikely in some circumstances not continue to operate. Several issues including space, visitor numbers and social distancing are just a few of the issues which await companies when they reopen.

Moreover, hotels, Airbnb, and bed-and-breakfast­—a mainstay of the rural visitor economy—potentially have a huge hurdle to deal with as having multiple people in a compact space poses several potential dilemmas for owner-operators of such establishment.

Twelve months down the line from now we might see a real-time collapse of rural business and services, we could also see a potential sea change of use by local communities no longer subsidised by income from tourism and its related activities.

The potential to underestimate the severity of future COVID-19 or similar pandemic waves could spell the end for many rural regions if additional safeguards are not put in place now.



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