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Tough times for tourism, but UNWTO predicts holiday traffic will return

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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 Organization (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. 

Millions of jobs potentially lost 

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.” 

Sector well-placed to lead recovery 

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.” 

30 per cent drop-off 

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. 

No room at the inn 

What’s more, 96 per cent 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. 

Avoiding the airport 

Over at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Montreal-based UN agency said this week that, according to preliminary estimates, the new coronavirus outbreak will see airline passenger numbers drop by 503 million to 607 million in the first half of 2020, compared to initial forecasts for the year. 

The biggest impact is expected to be felt in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, followed by North America and the Middle East, ICAO said. 

On Wednesday, ICAO encouraged national governments to ensure efficient authorizations for the entry, departure, and transit access of flights intended for the repatriation of their foreign nationals and other eligible persons. 

Eighty percent of the global tourism sector is made up of small- and medium-sized enterprises, according to the UNWTO, which has long promoted the industry’s key role in fulfilling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Big Apple no more?

Typical of these is a New York City travel agency run by Zhan Di that caters to tourists from China.  It had expected 22 tour groups during the Spring Festival (Lunar New Year) holiday season that started on 25 January.  Only two arrived. 

To make ends meet, Mr. Zhan has redeployed his small fleet of minibuses to deliver Amazon parcels, hopeful that if the pandemic runs no longer than three to five months, Sino-US tourism will blossom anew. 

“The epidemic situation is not only a big test for our industry, but also for the whole world,” he recently told UN News.  “However, I believe that the economy will recover quickly … because this is not a regular economic recession, but an epidemic situation.” 

“Therefore, I think the recovery should be very fast – and I am still optimistic.” 

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Tourism

UNWTO Launches Comprehensive Tourism Recovery Tracker

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As growing numbers of countries around the world ease restrictions on travel, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has launched a new Tourism Recovery Tracker to support global tourism. This represents the latest concrete action undertaken by the United Nations specialized agency as it leads the response of global tourism and guides recovery.

The most comprehensive tourism dashboard to date, the Tracker is the result of a partnership between international organizations and the private sector. Available for free, it covers key tourism performance indicators by month, regions and subregions allowing for a real time comparison of the sector recovery across the world and industries. 

All key tourism data in one place

The UNWTO Tourism Recovery Tracker compiles all the relevant data in one place, giving governments and the private businesses the ability to track the recovery of  tourism at global and regional level, alongside information on the top destinations for international tourism The tracker includes data on:

  • international tourist arrivals
  • seat capacity in international and domestic air routes,
  • air travel bookings,
  • hotel searches and bookings,
  • occupancy rates and
  • demand for short term rentals

The UNWTO Tourism Recovery Tracker is available for free and is a collaborative effort by a group of partners including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), ForwardKeys, STR, Sojern and AIRDNA.

According to UNWTO latest World Tourism Barometer, the massive drop in international travel demand over the period January-June 2020 translates into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about US$ 460 billion in export revenues from international tourism. This is around five times the loss in international tourism receipts recorded in 2009 amid the global economic and financial crisis.

The Tracker was announced on the back of the 112th Session of the UNWTO Executive Council, which met in person and virtually in Tbilisi, Georgia, to work together to guide the sustainable and responsible recovery of tourism from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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International Tourist Numbers Down 65% in First Half of 2020

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International tourist arrivals plunged 93% in June when compared to 2019, with the latest data from the World Tourism Organization showing the severe impact COVID-19 has had on the sector. According to the new issue of the World Tourism Barometer from the United Nations specialized agency, international tourist arrivals dropped by 65% during the first half of the year. This represents an unprecedented decrease, as countries around the world closed their borders and introduced travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.

Over recent weeks, a growing number of destinations have started to open up again to international tourists. UNWTO reports that, as of early September, 53% of destinations had eased travel restrictions. Nevertheless, many governments remain cautious, and this latest report shows that the lockdowns introduced during the first half of the year have had a massive impact on international tourism. The sharp and sudden fall in arrivals has placed millions of jobs and businesses at risk.

Counting the economic cost

According to UNWTO, the massive drop in international travel demand over the period January-June 2020 translates into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about US$ 460 billion in export revenues from international tourism. This is around five times the loss in international tourism receipts recorded in 2009 amid the global economic and financial crisis.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The latest World Tourism Barometer shows the deep impact this pandemic is having on tourism, a sector upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods. However, safe and responsible international travel is now possible in many parts of the world, and it is imperative that governments work closely with the private sector to get global tourism moving again. Coordinated action is key.”

All global regions hit hard

Despite the gradual reopening of many destinations since the second half of May, the anticipated improvement in international tourism numbers during the peak summer season in the Northern Hemisphere did not materialize. Europe was the second-hardest hit of all global regions, with a 66% decline in tourist arrivals in the first half of 2020. The Americas (-55%), Africa and the Middle East (both -57%) also suffered. However, Asia and the Pacific, the first region to feel the impact of COVID-19 on tourism, was the hardest hit, with a 72% fall in tourists for the six-month period.

At the sub-regional level, North-East Asia (-83%) and Southern Mediterranean Europe (-72%) suffered the largest declines. All world regions and sub-regions recorded declines of more than 50% in arrivals in January-June 2020. The contraction of international demand is also reflected in double-digit declines in international tourism expenditure among large markets. Major outbound markets such as the United States and China continue to be at a standstill, though some markets such as France and Germany have shown some improvement in June. 

Looking ahead, it seems likely that reduced travel demand and consumer confidence will continue to impact results for the rest of the year. In May, UNWTO outlined three possible scenarios, pointing to declines of 58% to 78% in international tourist arrivals in 2020. Current trends through August point to a drop in demand closer to 70% (Scenario 2), especially now as some destinations re-introduce restrictions on travel.

The extension of the scenarios to 2021 point to a change in trend next year, based on the assumptions of a gradual and linear lifting of travel restrictions, the availability of a vaccine or treatment and a return of traveller confidence. Nonetheless, despite this, the return to 2019 levels in terms of tourist arrivals would take between 2 to 4 years.

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Global Community Unites to Celebrate “Tourism and Rural Development”

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The 2020 edition of World Tourism Day will celebrate the unique role that tourism plays in providing opportunities outside of big cities and preserving cultural and natural heritage all around the world.

Celebrated on 27 September with the theme of Tourism and Rural Development, this year’s international day of observation comes at a critical moment, as countries around the world look to tourism to drive recovery, including in rural communities where the sector is a leading employer and economic pillar.

The 2020 edition also comes as governments look to the sector to drive recovery from the effects of the pandemic and with the enhanced recognition of tourism at the highest United Nations level. This was most notably illustrated with the recent release of a landmark Policy Brief on tourism from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in which he explained that “for rural communities, indigenous peoples and many other historically marginalized populations, tourism has been a vehicle for integration, empowerment and generating income.”

Historic International Cooperation

For the first time in the 40-year history of World Tourism Day, the official celebration will not be hosted by a single Member State of the United Nations specialized agency. Instead, nations from the Mercosur bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Chile joining with observer status) will serve as joint hosts. This co-hosting agreement exemplifies the spirit of international solidarity that runs through tourism and which UNWTO has recognized as essential for recovery.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “All around the world, tourism empowers rural communities, providing jobs and opportunity, most notably for women and youth. Tourism also enables rural communities to hold onto their unique cultural heritage and traditions, and the sector is vital for safeguarding habitat and endangered species. This World Tourism Day is a chance to recognize the role tourism plays outside of major cities and its ability to build a better future for all.”

Rural areas hit hard by COVID-10

For countless rural communities around the world, tourism is a leading provider of employment and opportunities. In many places, it is one of the few viable economic sectors. Moreover, development through tourism can also keep rural communities alive. It is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas, while 80% of those currently living in ‘extreme poverty’ live outside of towns and cities.

The situation is particularly hard for youth: young people in rural communities are three times more likely to be unemployed than older adults. Tourism is a lifeline, offering young people a chance to earn a living without having to migrate either within their home countries or abroad.

World Tourism Day 2020 will once again be celebrated by UNWTO’s Member States in all global regions as well as by cities and other destinations and by private sector organizations and individual tourists. It comes as communities in rural areas also struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These communities are usually much less-prepared to deal with the short and longer-term impacts of the crisis. This is due to a number of factors, including their aging populations, lower income levels and the continuing ‘digital divide’. Tourism offers a solution to all of these challenges.  

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