Rebuilding tourism after COVID-19

by Tourism Update (Southern & Eastern Africa) • 10 November 2021

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This article first appeared in Tourism Update (Southern & Eastern Africa) 2 Nov 2021 as How to rebuild tourism - WHO.

The WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council) has produced a report outlining certain pain points in the rebuilding of tourism and travel and giving recommendations on how to drive tourism recovery and promote resilience in the sector. This comes as it has become clearer in the past 18 months that COVID-19 will turn from pandemic to endemic, which will require continued and sustained action.

“Effectively, COVID-19 has been the most devastating crisis for the travel and tourism sector, with over 62 million jobs lost in 2020 and global GDP losses amounting to nearly US$4.5 trillion."

The developing world, which tends to have a higher reliance on travel and tourism, has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

In 2019, travel and tourism was one of the largest sectors globally, accounting for 10,4% of global GDP at US$9.2 trillion, and was responsible for creating one in four of all new jobs across the world, according to the report. In 2011 and 2019, travel and tourism had grown faster than the global economy and was projected to create 100 million new jobs over the next decade – which are now at risk.

COVID-19’s devastation highlighted the important social impact of travel and tourism, with the sector being an enabler of socioeconomic development, job creation, poverty reduction and a driver of prosperity.

Now, according to WTTC’s latest economic projections from October 2021, the sector’s recovery is set to be slower than expected this year, largely linked to continued border closures and other challenges linked to international mobility. This means the sector’s contribution to GDP is expected to rise by a modest 30.7% year-on-year in 2021, and if the current rate of recovery prevails into next year, the sector’s contribution to GDP year on year will rise by 31.7% in 2022.

Meanwhile, the sector’s jobs are set to rise by a mere 0.7% this year, representing only two million jobs, followed by an 18% increase next year.

The following pain points address the urgent challenges in restoring international mobility.

- Border closures:  Since early 2020, travel restrictions have hindered international travel, with international spending on the sector dropping by an unprecedented 69.4% in 2020 alone. The closure of international borders and different entry/exit rules by country have hindered the recovery of the sector. Such approaches continue to hamper collaboration and co-ordination both within and between countries as well as with the private sector.

- Uncertainty due to changing rules: While pent-up demand for travel is significant, constantly changing restrictions and rules have continued to significantly affect consumer confidence to book travel. A critical challenge for travellers has been the ever-changing and patchwork approach to travel policies and, specifically, testing requirements, quarantines, and vaccination standards. This, alongside the traffic-light systems, which differ by country, has led to significant confusion for travellers who feel lost in a sea of information and misinformation.

 - Prohibitive cost of testing: Many of the mandatory tests that are entry requirements for certain countries, such as PCR tests, are cost-prohibitive and time-consuming. According to Iata’s most recent traveller survey, 86% of respondents are willing to get tested, however 70% also believe that the cost of testing is a significant barrier to travel. This is effectively reversing the progress made in the last decades to enable freer and more affordable travel for all and creating an elitist system.

- Lack of reciprocity and uneven vaccination roll-out: As of September 21, 2021,  32% of the world population of 7.9 billion are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Nevertheless, large differences across countries and regions remain. Some low-income countries, particularly in Africa and Asia-Pacific, lag. In fact, only 1.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, which is not only creating health, economic and social challenges but is preventing people from being able to travel internationally. Global mobility is further hindered by the fact that, while there are 19 vaccines in use, only seven of these vaccines are approved by WHO, and not of all these seven are recognised by all countries. To bring this pandemic to an end and facilitate the swift recovery of travel and tourism, a large share of the world needs to be immune to the virus and vaccine recognition is essential.

The report makes the following recommendations:

1. International co-ordination to reopen borders
Given the complexity and interconnectedness of our global ecosystem, reopening the sector to save millions of jobs and recover billions lost in GDP requires continued and enhanced international collaboration, including with the private sector. Leveraging international relationships at the multilateral and bilateral levels is not only key to sharing effective practices and insights but in the development of common solutions. In this new context, it will be critical to include the voice of both developed and developing nations in dialogue and decision-making to ensure no one is left behind. As global leaders continue to navigate this crisis, meaningful collaboration remains essential in the creation of clear and aligned roadmaps as well as the development of harmonised rules, standards, and mobility protocols.

2. Restoring trust, confidence-rebuilding
Consumer confidence and trust will be essential. Health, hygiene and flexibility will become as important a criterion in travellers’ decision-making process as price and location. There is a need for a co-ordinated, consistent, and transparent approach to enable safe travel. In this context, WTTC, together with governments, health experts and other industry associations, worked together to develop harmonised and effective ‘Safe Travels’ protocols for 11 industries across the travel and tourism sector. It is important for governments to continue advocating for the continued implementation of strong health and safety standards and protocols across the sector.

3. Accessibility and affordability of testing
Testing has emerged as a key pathway to reopen borders. There is a pressing need to address the high cost of COVID-19 tests in many jurisdictions. Alternatives to more expensive PCR tests should be considered, such as permitting the use of more cost-effective antigen tests. A risk-based approach should also be considered in relation to testing in line with the threat level. These new solutions present new risks, in turn requiring governments to proactively address any fraud related to testing and travel certificates.

4. Recognition, reciprocity and digital adoption for travel facilitation
Given the significant and growing body of evidence that vaccination results in very high levels of reduction in infection and transmission of COVID-19 by vaccinated individuals, the importation risk of associated vaccinated travellers is very significantly reduced. As such, protocols should be appropriately reduced for vaccinated travellers, including the removal of self-isolation or quarantine and waived or modified testing requirements, in line with WHO’s guidance. Such an approach should also include a global recognition for international travel of all vaccines that have been authorised for use and deemed safe and effective by the WHO or by the WHO-recognised ‘Stringent Regulatory Authorities’.

Simultaneously, global leaders should continue prioritising and supporting the global vaccination roll-out to enable vaccine equity across the world. Digital health passes and portals have the ability to enhance safety and security whilst creating a more seamless traveller experience.

The interoperability and recognition of these passes and portals across countries will be important to the recovery of the sector and the global economy. More broadly, large-scale digital adoption, including digital identity and biometrics, needs to continue being prioritised to enable the sector to create a safer and more seamless traveller journey, strengthen security, improve connectivity, and support sustainable growth.

5. Social impact and sustainability front and centre
The pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work. Tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty, 3.3 billion are at risk of losing their livelihoods, while many have simultaneously struggled with their mental wellbeing. Tourism is a labour-intensive and people-focused sector, and while 62 million job losses were felt across the entire tourism ecosystem, women, youth, and minorities were particularly affected. SMEs, which make up 80% all global businesses in the sector, were also disproportionately affected.

The lack of travel and tourism during COVID-19 has also led to less obvious social impacts, including the rise of illegal poaching and fishing, as funds for conservation have decreased dramatically.

Looking ahead, it is essential that the recovery of the sector should also be sustainable, with a focus on environmental conservation and climate-friendly policies to enable the planet to thrive. In effect, sustainability should be at the core of all future travel and tourism planning. Moreover, as travel and tourism continues to learn from the previous and current crises, including COVID-19, the sector has an opportunity to enhance its preparedness and boost its resilience to weather future shocks.

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