26 September 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit global tourism harder than any other major economic sector. In an effort to contain the spread of the virus and keep their citizens safe, countries around the world introduced restrictions on international travel, bringing tourism to a standstill almost overnight. Indeed, at the peak of this lockdown, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) found that 100 per cent of global destinations had either closed their borders to tourists completely or introduced strict measures such as compulsory quarantine for new arrivals.

The sudden and unexpected fall in tourist arrivals also placed on hold the many social and economic benefits that tourism delivers. Globally, tourism supports one in ten jobs, and 80 per cent of the sector is made up of small businesses, including family operations. At the start of the crisis, UNWTO set out three possible scenarios for tourism in 2020, depending on when and how widely travel restrictions would be lifted. While it looks like we will avoid the worst-case scenario, we nevertheless expect global tourist arrivals to be down by as much as 70 per cent this year compared to 2019.

The knock-on effect will be significant. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that tourism’s woes will cause global GDP to decline by as much as 1.5 per cent to 2.8 per cent. Furthermore, the fall in tourist numbers will likely translate into as many as 120 million lost jobs. And, as always, the most vulnerable will suffer the most, including women and youth, for whom tourism is a leading source of opportunity, as well as those working in the informal economy.

Developing countries at greatest risk

No country has been left unscathed by the pandemic, including with regard to tourism. The effects, however, will be most profoundly felt in those destinations that are most reliant on tourism for livelihoods and economic well-being. For the majority of the world’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS), as well as the least developed countries, most notably within Africa, tourism is a lifeline. On average, tourism accounts for 30 per cent of export revenues for SIDS, and in some cases this is much higher. Indeed, in Palau—the newest UNWTO member State, having officially joined in 2019—tourism generates 90 per cent of all exports.

The 112th session of the UNWTO Executive Council, held in Tbilisi, Georgia, 16 September 2020. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the United Nations Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on “COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism” makes clear, the true cost of the pandemic’s impact on tourism cannot be measured in GDP or employment figures alone. Due to its unique cross-cutting nature, touching upon nearly every part of modern society, tourism is an essential contributor to the wider mission of the United Nations, including achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Again, as a leading employer of women, tourism leads the way in the journey towards gender equality. At the same time, tourism is a leading contributor to the promotion and protection of cultural and natural heritage, which is in jeopardy, including the ecosystems and wildlife that draw visitors to developing countries.

Building cooperation and a united response

Before the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, UNWTO recognized both the unique vulnerability of tourism and also the sector’s unique potential to drive wider societal recovery once the health crisis had been tackled. The visit of a UNWTO delegation to WHO headquarters in Geneva laid the foundations for the international, multi-organizational cooperation that has defined tourism’s response to an unprecedented challenge.

This, in turn, came on the back of heightened advocacy for tourism at the very highest political level, most notably at the European Commission at the start of the year, to make sure the sector is at the centre of the planned European New Green Deal, as well as at the most recent meetings of the G20 nations. This has allowed UNWTO to become an increasingly prominent voice within the United Nations. When the crisis hit, we were able to make sure that tourism was part of the conversation at both the governmental and United Nations levels.

The Global Tourism Crisis Committee, convened virtually in March and then meeting five times as the crisis evolved, brought together leading voices from member States and from the private sector. Only UNWTO was in a position to unite such a diverse sector. This Crisis Committee channelled these diverse voices and concerns into a clear plan of action, the UNWTO Recommendations for Recovery. These Recommendations have been embraced across the public and private sectors and now inform recovery plans in every global region.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili on an official visit to Saudi Arabia, 29 August 2020. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sustainability takes centre stage

Central to the Recommendations is the principle that sustainability and inclusivity are at the heart of both the recovery process and the tourism sector that emerges out of this crisis. The pause in global tourism presents the global community with a chance to reassess its priorities. It also allows us to put the principles that are central to the work of UNWTO—namely that tourism works for people and planet, and should be open to all and benefit all—front and centre of everything we do.

The number one priority, however, is to build trust and confidence. Only by making people feel safe and encouraging them to travel again will the benefits that tourism offers start to return. UNWTO, as the specialized United Nations agency for tourism, must lead by example. To this end, as soon as it was safely possible, in-person visits to member States resumed: to the Canary Islands and Ibiza in Spain, to Italy, and to Saudi Arabia. The decision was also made to hold a hybrid Executive Council meeting, the first in-person meeting of the tourism sector and the United Nations to be held since the start of the pandemic. This brought together 170 delegates from 24 countries, sending a clear message that safe international travel is now possible in many parts of the world, thus providing a vital confidence boost for the sector.

As tourism restarts in many parts of the world, with growing numbers of countries easing travel restrictions, the sector’s position within the work of the United Nations has never been more relevant. UNWTO leads the restart guided by the principles of the Tbilisi Declaration, signed by our member States in Georgia at the close of the UNWTO Executive Council (15–17 September 2020). The Declaration recognizes the importance of tourism to livelihoods, to economic prosperity and opportunity, and to preserving our shared and unique culture. Signatories also committed to building back better, prioritizing sustainability and equality, and ensuring that, as tourism builds a brighter future, nobody is left behind.

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