Only through historical transformation can global tourism defeat COVID-19

In recent years, a growing number of countries have been busy scaling up tourism’s place in their economic agendas. Yet tourism is probably the single biggest economic casualty of COVID-19, writes Zurab Pololikashvili.

Zurab Pololikashvili has been the secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) since January 2018.

Globally, the sector is amongst the world’s top employers. International tourism represents 7% of total exports and is the world’s third-largest export category by earnings, after chemicals and fuels. In Europe alone, tourism generated almost $410 billion in revenues in 2019 and provided more than 27 million jobs. In short, tourism is central to the global economic machinery.

Across the world, millions of jobs will be lost, with the most vulnerable members of our societies suffering the most. Although in past crises tourism proved its resilience and ability to lead recovery, the new normal after the pandemic ends means we will be in unchartered territory.

During this time, without a strong and vital tourism sector, the advances made in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals are at serious risk of being rolled back significantly.

The UN recently raised the alarm regarding the threat to development that the pandemic represents. And the World Bank has warned of a “substantially higher risk” of increased poverty for countries dependent on industries most vulnerable to the impact of the virus.

Now that some countries are looking ahead to the recovery phase, the role tourism must play is being increasingly recognised. At the national level, UNWTO welcomes the steps being taken to support tourism at this pivotal time, recognising that to do so will pay dividends in the long-term.

In Italy, one of the worst-hit countries and a leading tourist destination, official measures to ensure tourists are offered refunds or vouchers for rescheduled trips will help keep consumer confidence strong and businesses afloat.

Similarly, by giving tourism businesses an injection of liquidity, the government of the Dominican Republic is helping support one of its most valuable assets, one that will be invaluable in the challenging months and years ahead.

And in China, the tourism sector is ready to get back to work thanks to government intervention, providing more than US$900 million to ensure travel agents can refund their customers.

Meanwhile, on a larger scale, high-level calls from within the European Commission for EU leaders to pledge 25% of all recovery funding to the tourism sector is also a step in the right direction – though, again, ours is a sector wanting action, not just calls to action.

But tourism needs more than just stimulus packages. We need ways to rehabilitate tourism so that it can keep up with a post-COVID-19 world.

In that regard, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. The uncertainty surrounding this pandemic and the unprecedented circumstances it has put the world in means no industry does.

But, as part of a wider United Nations response and in collaboration with national governments and private enterprises, we have outlined the contours of what a transformed tourism sector might look like.

However, only a truly global collaborative effort can fill in the gaps.

That is why public and private stakeholders in the tourism sector, both locally and internationally, will have to develop creative solutions to these global challenges. Government engagement with private sector entrepreneurs and innovators is central to that vision.

To make this vision a reality, UNWTO has convened a Global Tourism Crisis Committee, made up of our members, fellow UN agencies and private sector leaders. Through this, we are coordinating the sector’s response and plotting a path to sustainable recovery.

We are also connecting private sector entrepreneurs and innovators with public sector institutions and organizations to find health, economic and destination recovery solutions.

And with the UNWTO guaranteeing a combination of financial and governmental support to change-making entrepreneurs operating in the most economically devastated tourism sectors around the world, we can begin sowing the seeds for a new post-COVID19 tourism infrastructure.

In more specific terms, our focus will be on two key areas. First, we expect a shift toward promoting local and regional tourism. This will require out-of-the-box measures to ensure the utmost safety in a post-pandemic context to rebuild tourist confidence based on protecting health and well-being.

This, in turn, will accompany a shift toward regeneration and sustainability. We have seen in past crisis how a domestic focus plays a key role in the wider economic recovery. This is an opportunity for distributing the many benefits tourism can bring to rural communities, communities that have often been left behind.

That said, we must be realistic and expect that international tourism will take longer to come back. Again, governments have a part to play here, and our recommendations explicitly call for steps to be taken to safeguard jobs and, where this is not possible, to provide tourism workers with new skills to match a changing labour market.

Only be pursuing these avenues in a new era of innovation will we see the foundations of a new post-COVID19 tourism sector begin to materialise. The key, as ever, will be cross-sector global cooperation. After all, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, global challenges can only be addressed with global responses.

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