ISLAMABAD: Tourism may have been brought to a near-standstill by COVID-19, but the industry, which accounts for 10 per cent of global GDP, finds itself in a unique position to help put the global economy back on its feet, once the pandemic has passed.
That’s the view from the World Travel Organisation (UNWTO), which is closely monitoring the new coronavirus crisis from its Madrid headquarters and collaborating with other UN agencies on ways to mitigate its impact.
“COVID-19 has impacted travel and tourism like no other event before in history”, said UNWTO Secretary-General, Zurab Pololikashvili, ahead of a meeting last Thursday of the agency’s Global Tourism Crisis Committee at its Madrid headquarters.
That committee, which brings together participants from around the world via video-teleconference, is tackling such key questions as how borders will reopen, what mobility will look like and what tourists will be seeking when they emerge from so many weeks of self-isolation at home.
“With tourism suspended, the benefits that the sector brings are under threat”, he said. “Millions of jobs could be lost and progress made in the fields of equality and sustainable economic growth could be rolled back.”
But he also emphasized that tourism – which employs one in 10 workers worldwide, and with a proven track record for resilience during the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the 2003 SARS outbreak – is also well-placed to lead future recovery.
“Our sector will provide the jobs people need to bounce back and will drive economic growth that will help whole communities and countries to recover”, he said in a statement in mid-March.
Political and financial commitments are key to ensuring that tourism can lead wider economic and social recovery. The UNWTO is thus calling for financial and political support for the tourism industry, and for the sector to be included in wider recovery plans and actions.
“For now, we must be patient and stand ready”, the UNWTO chief said. “By staying home today, we can travel tomorrow. And travelling tomorrow will support jobs, celebrate culture and promote international friendship and understanding.”
According to UNWTO estimates, global international tourist arrivals in 2020 could fall by 20 to 30 per cent compared to last year. That translates into a loss of $30-$50 billion in spending by international visitors.
To put that in context, in 2009, on the back of the global financial crisis, international tourist arrivals fell by 4 per cent, while the SARS pandemic in 2003 led to a decline of just 0.4 per cent.
The Word Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), an industry group, meanwhile says that up to 75 million tourism-related jobs are at immediate risk, with the Asia-Pacific region expected to be most heavily impacted with up to 49 million jobs at risk.
What’s more, 96pc of all worldwide destinations have put into place travel restrictions in response to the pandemic, the UNWTO said this week. Some 90 destinations have completely or partially closed their borders to tourists, while another 44 are closed to certain tourists depending on their country of origin.
Having said that, given uncertainty over how the crisis will unfold, UNWTO is stressing that estimates must be treated with caution, and that current forecasts might well need to be revised.