One-on-One With the Head of the UN World Tourism Organization

The restrictions to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought the world economy to its knees. And the travel and tourism sector—with its reliance on transport links, human interaction and density of visitors—has been hit the hardest.

Data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) show that only in March, the start of a lockdown in many countries, arrivals were down by 57 percent, which translated into a loss of 67 million international arrivals.

Figures for April and May will be even gloomier. In its worst-case scenario, this UN agency estimates that the massive drop in demand in international travel by the end of the year could put up to 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk globally.

TravelPulse interviewed via email Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the UNWTO. From Madrid, where his Organization is based, the Georgian former minister sheds light on how the sector can address what is by far the worst crisis that international tourism has faced since records began in 1950.

TravelPulse (TP): Past crises have shown tourism’s strong capacity to bounce back quickly after external shocks. Given the unprecedented scale of this situation, can the industry start to heal this time as restrictions are lifted?

Zurab Pololikashvili (ZP): As you note, tourism has long proven its resilience. It has bounced back from adversity before—globally, after the economic crisis of 2008 and the SARS outbreak and on a more local level after terror attacks or natural disasters. Tourism will bounce back again. Above all, people want to travel and experience new places. As this crisis has shown, we are social beings and so, once restrictions are lifted and providing people feel safe, we should expect to see tourist numbers start rising again.

Let’s be hopeful and gloomy at once. Which are the UNWTO’s best and worst-case scenarios? This is an unprecedented situation. Our research shows that 100 percent of all global destinations have introduced either full or partial travel restrictions as a result of COVID-19. What impact this will have on tourism and on our economies is yet to be seen and is hard to predict with any great certainty.

UNWTO has outlined three possible scenarios, based on when travel restrictions are lifted. These point to a fall in international tourist numbers for the year 2020 of between 60 percent and 80 percent, again depending on when restrictions are eased and lifted. Several countries have announced to slowly open tourism in the coming days and weeks and we will closely observe developments to have a clearer picture of actual consumer behavior and market response.

TP: Germany’s Foreign Minister has warned that opening up tourism too early could lead to a serious outbreak of the virus. Do you agree?

ZP: These steps will require international cooperation. This is one of the key lessons from this crisis and shows how interdependent we all are. And this will make us stronger. In this context, the lifting of travel restrictions needs to be carried out in a timely and responsible manner involving the tourism sector, public health and international relations.

Tourism as a sector has always placed the wellbeing of people first. UNWTO is confident that governments will continue to follow the latest public health recommendations and find the right balance between keeping people safe and allowing the many social and economic benefits tourism can bring in return. You recently said that “nice words and gestures will not protect jobs.” What measures does the UNWTO encourage countries to adopt to help drive the recovery of the sector?

This has been our message from the start: Tourism can lead recovery, but only if the sector is supported with firm action and not just words. We recently released the UNWTO Recommendations for Recovery to help both governments and the private sector mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and to accelerate future recovery.

In the short-term, governments and international organizations need to commit to protecting tourism jobs and businesses, including SMEs which make up to 80 percent of our sector. Providing liquidity at this challenging time will support millions of livelihoods, and reviewing and revising fiscal policies and regulations relating to tourism will ensure our sector is strong and ready to lead a wider recovery.

TP: This crisis will have a considerable impact on the disposable income of travelers. How can countries and the industry itself come back to their feet amidst weak demand resulting from the imminent global recession?

ZP: As we have discussed, people want to travel and have adapted in the past to changing circumstances, hence always one of the reasons for tourism’s resilience. The other ingredient to accelerate recovery will be trust. Trust is the new currency. Only if people feel safe will they travel again. This means we need coordination between governments and for the public and private sectors to work together to boost consumer confidence.

TP: As China seems to show, will domestic tourism bring an early degree of relief to the sector once the pandemic is contained?

ZP: We expect domestic tourism to return to growth before international tourism. This will indeed provide relief for the many communities and individuals that rely on tourism for their livelihoods. Domestic tourism can be particularly helpful for rural communities, providing jobs and opportunities, including for youth. At the same time, we need to ensure international tourism returns as soon as possible. Tourism is an established and important pillar of the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the longer the world is at a standstill, the greater the risk of us falling behind.

TP: Can the COVID-19 disruption be an opportunity to address some of the sector’s shortcomings, like its environmental impact and the overtourism phenomenon in some cities?

ZP: As a sector, tourism does indeed face several big challenges, including its environmental impact, sustainability and ensuring large tourist numbers are properly managed in the most popular destinations. Much progress was being made in all of these areas. For instance, UNWTO has been leading global efforts to make tourism, including transport for tourism, more sustainable.

Nevertheless, this crisis does represent a unique opportunity to rethink where we want to go as a sector. The pandemic has shown the strength of solidarity and goodwill across borders. This spirit must be embraced as we return to traveling. Sustainable travel must no longer be seen as a niche market but as a driving principle of our sector.

TP: Has the way we travel changed forever?

ZP: The tourism of next year and in 10 years’ time may look a lot different. However, the essence of tourism will remain the same. Tourism is the ultimate person-to-person sector and is all about embracing new experiences and making new connections.

Interview by Javier Delgado Rivera, a freelance journalist writing about travel, the tourism sector and the United Nations.

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