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Latin America’s Tourism Industry Must Address Long-Standing Shortfalls to Bounce Back after COVID-19

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New analysis from the World Economic Forum shows that some of Latin America’s and the Caribbean’s tourism strengths are less important than before to a competitive tourism economy during COVID-19. The onset and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the factors that make a country’s travel and tourism sector competitive. Certain factors, such as healthcare capacity and digital travel offerings, are increasing in importance during the pandemic. Other factors, like international openness – a primary strength of Latin America – are now less important.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Latin America and Caribbean region was improving in terms of travel and tourism competitiveness, but most of its economies still performed below the global average.Tourism slowdowns give policy-makers and business leaders in the region a chance to reassess their tourism practice and policies, especially in infrastructure and unsustainable tourism development, which are particular risks to the region’s long-term tourism resilience.

“COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the travel and tourism sector, with some parts of the sector effectively shut down completely,” said Christoph Wolff, Head of Mobility at the World Economic Forum. “Considering that tourism accounts for nearly 10% of the world’s jobs, it’s important that countries take serious measures to ensure their tourism is competitive and ready to bounce back as COVID-19 measures are rolled back and countries begin to reopen.”

In Latin America, these changes in travel competitiveness are particularly troublesome. Europe and other countries with more ample health resources have a better chance of containing and managing COVID-19 cases than other countries with less-developed health resources, potentially speeding up a safe reopening of their travel sector. For example, Latin America’s and the Caribbean’s healthcare capacity constraints are exemplified by the particularly low levels of hospital beds there, with 42% fewer beds per 10,000 people than the global mean.

Similarly, higher ICT readiness will allow tourism companies and their supply-chain partners to provide more services digitally – a growing advantage when person-to-person interactions are constrained. Competitiveness components such as a favourable business environment and labour markets can also act as supply-side stimuli, generating relief and accelerating the recovery.

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the travel and tourism industry accounts for 10.2% of GDP in the Latin America and Caribbean region. In some countries, such as Jamaica, tourism accounts for a much higher percentage of GDP. The current downturn is having a major effect on economies heavily dependent on tourism.

Despite the downturn, the region’s long-term prospects for remain encouraging, as travel and tourism growth has continually outpaced global GDP growth for the past decade. While the region benefits from rich natural resources and improving international openness, numerous obstacles remain. These include unfavourable business, safety and security conditions, gaps in health and hygiene, underdeveloped infrastructure and environmental issues.

Latin America and Caribbean countries can use this time to re-evaluate their tourism development projects and build for a better sector in the future. For example, opportunities exist within their infrastructure gap. Good air transport is critical to Latin America’s travel competitiveness, especially considering the region’s hard-to-traverse terrain. Pandemic shutdowns have further slowed infrastructure projects but also offer an opportunity for countries in the region to reassess their ongoing projects and direct attention to the most critical areas. Building infrastructure for a better balance between tourism and local demand will be particularly important.

Improving travel and tourism competitiveness requires collaboration between the public and private sectors. Moreover, stakeholders must recognize the need to consider environmental and socio-economic sustainability in their decision-making. Approaches that focus only on driving short-term tourism demand have the potential to weaken the long-term resilience of the travel and tourism industry.

By improving their travel and tourism competitiveness, countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region can help the travel and tourism industry survive, recover and “build back stronger” from the impact of COVID-19.

The Latin America and Caribbean Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Landscape Report uses competitiveness rankings and data from the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Ranking (TTCR), and puts them in the context of COVID-19 and the changes the pandemic has brought to the travel and tourism economies in the Latin America and Caribbean region. The TTCR is a biennial report that ranks countries on the competitiveness of their travel and tourism sectors; the most recent edition was released in September 2019.

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UN urges investment in clean, sustainable tourism

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International tourism is showing strong signs of recovery, with tourist numbers rising to 57 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. On World Tourism Day, marked on Tuesday, the UN is calling for a major global rethink of the sector, to ensure that tourism is sustainable, and benefits local communities.

The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) released encouraging news on Monday, with its latest World Tourism Barometer, which shows that international tourism arrivals almost tripled in the first seven months of 2022 (compared to the same period in 2021).

Cautious optimism

The agency’s Panel of Tourism Experts expressed cautious confidence for the rest of year, and into 2023, despite the uncertain economic environment: increasing interest rates, rising energy and food prices, and the growing prospects of a global recession, continue to pose major threats to the sector.

In a message released to mark the Day, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, hailed tourism’s ability to drive sustainable development, and called for more investment in clean and sustainable tourism, the creation of decent jobs, and for measures to ensure that profits benefit host countries and local communities.

Go green to survive

“Governments, businesses and consumers must align their tourism practices with the Sustainable Development Goals and a 1.5 degree future”, said Mr. Guterres, referring to international agreements aimed at keeping global warming in check. “The very survival of this industry, and many tourist destinations, such as Small Island Developing States, depends on it.”

“The restart of tourism everywhere brings hope,” declared Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO Secretary-General, in his address at the opening of the official celebrations organized for the Day, in the Indonesian resort city of Bali.

Mr. Pololikashvili described tourism, which employs around 10 per cent of the global workforce, as the “ultimate cross-cutting and people-to-people sector, which touches on almost everything we do.”

Report card

To mark the day, UNWTO launched its first World Tourism Day Report, the first in an annual series of updates and analysis of the Organization’s work guiding the sector forward.

The report contains updates on the agency’s activities in key areas including gender equality, sustainability and climate action, tourism governance and investments and innovation.

Representatives of the G20 group of the world’s leading economies, including tourism ministers, will meet in Bali in November. Ahead of the event, UNWTO has produced a set of guidelines for ministers, to enable them to support resilient and sustainable tourist businesses, which take into account human capital, innovation, youth and women empowerment, and climate action.

Ensure zero-tolerance for sexual exploitation: UN rights expert

An independent UN rights expert released a statement ahead of the Day, to call for Governments to ensure that the tourism industry is free from child forced labour, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. 

Mama Fatima Singhateh, UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, warned that the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and socioeconomic setbacks have caused enormous strains on child protection systems.

This, she said, has made children more vulnerable to sale, trafficking and sexual exploitation in the context of travel and tourism, especially in countries that have traditionally relied on the income generated from travel and tourism.

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Samoa welcomes international travellers with airport celebrations as borders reopen

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After years of the COVID-19 pandemic throwing international travel into turmoil, Samoa’s beautiful shorelines have once again welcomed international travellers on the first direct flights from American Samoa, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.

Straight off the flights, passengers were greeted by the Minister of Tourism, Hon. Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster and the Samoa Tourism Authority Board of Directors and CEO, as well as the High Commissioner of Australia HE Emily Luck who was at Faleolo International Airport to welcome the first direct flight from Sydney/Brisbane.

Excitement ensued with a fresh ula offering and welcome by Miss Samoa and the Samoa Tourism team in traditional wear, the Return to Paradise Resort string guitar ensemble, and multiple cultural performances in the arrival hall and concourse by Samoa Airport Authority and Tasi and Alii’s.

Tourism Minister, Hon. Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster commented on the reopening saying “The past two years have been a trying time for the world over, but as Samoa reopens its borders, it is our acknowledgement that our internal protection measures are safe for our people and for the yearning travellers who are wanting to visit family and friends, and who are eager to explore our heritage and natural environment,”

“We look forward to hosting all visitors, and showcasing our culture and environment, and pray that we continue to be mindful of the necessary travel health advisories for all of our protection.”

Pre-COVID, Samoa welcomed 181,000 international visitors in 2019. Visitor spend in the same year totalled WST 528 million. 

Newly appointed Samoa Tourism Authority CEO, Pativaine Petaia-Tevita, shared her excitement and optimism for the return of international visitors to Samoan shores.  

“We are very excited to welcome back travellers on the first direct flights since our reopening. Samoa has been waiting for this moment for a long time and it was wonderful and uplifting to see passengers fill the terminal once again.”

“Our reopening is a special milestone which we celebrated in a special way along with the return of international visitors including family and friends.”

In preparation for the reopening, a series of developments and new processes were put in place to ensure Samoa would be travel ready, and that the health and safety of locals and international travellers remained of utmost priority. Samoa’s robust preparations include the achievement of high vaccination rates, training and upskilling for local employees, upgraded travel instructions and bolstered testing capabilities. 

Vaccination rates were pivotal in the decision to reopen, with the most recent data showing almost 93% of Samoa’s eligible population, aged 5 years and over, has been fully vaccinated. 

Big ticket attractions and much-loved natural treasures are primed and ready to receive the influx of travellers over the coming months, including the famous To Sua Ocean Trench, Piula Cave Pool, Afu Aau Waterfalls, Lalomanu Beach, and Samoan Cultural Village. 

For more information on Samoa’s travel guidelines, as well as inspiration on things to do while visiting Samoa, please visit the Samoa Tourism website.

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Sun, sea, sustainability – could your next European holiday be a greener one?

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With the tourism industry on a high bounce following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, many holiday-goers are looking for ways to travel more responsibly and sustainably. But the annual surge of visitors at resorts and destinations can create environmental headaches for people living in the locality.

Following two years of restrictions and with pent-up demand, millions of Europeans are packing suitcases and flocking to airports to jet off for relaxing getaways. And for many people planning a holiday, responsible travel has become a significant consideration.

Europe’s popular outer islands, from the Aegean, via the Balearics to the Canaries, are some of those places most ready to welcome visitors back. The pandemic decimated their visitor numbers by up to 70%, causing a huge knock-on effect for local economies.

But while tourism may be the mainstay for the islands, like most things, it comes at a cost. An influx of expectant visitors puts pressure on the local environment, transport systems and infrastructure, and creates challenges for the local community also.

Sun-kissed

On sun-kissed Madeira, some 1000km off the coast of Portugal, the holiday season is back in full swing as tourists return to enjoy the island’s stunning beaches and spectacular views. But as visitors weave in out of the island’s hotspots in rental cars, clogging up the local roads, tempers begin to fray.    

‘Typically, there are issues of over-crowding, insufficient resources and a lack of integration between tourism and transport,’ explains Funchal-based Claudio Mantero. Mantero is the coordinator of the Civitas DESTINATIONS project, which is attempting to improve links between tourism and transport for island destinations like Madeira.

Through the project, Mantero and team studied the impact of tourism on transport systems in Madeira, Gran Canaria, Malta, Elba, Crete and Limassol. Using smart sensors to monitor how and when visitors move about, their work has helped pinpoint what it might take to move people towards greener transport choices.  

‘The key issue is reducing the numbers of private cars,’ said Mantero. ‘Currently everything is orientated towards hiring cars and driving around islands. We see multiple opportunities to introduce more sustainable forms of transport which can attract tourists and actually make their experience a better one.’

Bike rental

They piloted some new tech-based trials. In Limassol, for instance, they developed an app providing tourists with easy-to-access information on bike rental and walking tours. Meanwhile, on Elba, they set up an online hub gathering all sustainable transport and public travel options in one place.

Lower-tech solutions are also in play. There are new training programmes for hotel staff on guiding tourists to where they can hire and ride bikes. This includes taking advantage of cross-selling opportunities between different transport options, for example, by offering discounts to tourists taking public transport.

Other measures required deeper changes to transport infrastructures, such as new bus routes to rural destinations with clearer information for tourists about where to jump on and off. In Limassol, bike racks were also fitted on buses to allow tourists to combine visits to these rural locations with some active adventure.  

Aboard the e-bus

Hundreds of new electric bikes and a suite of new electric buses for the islands have been purchased and tested as part of the project. This includes the first ever e-bus to arrive in Crete. By demonstrating how efficient and practical they are, the project has helped to unlock new funding for more buses which, in turn, helps to improve air quality.

The main takeaway for Mantero, though, is the importance of improved integration between tourism and transport. He sees an opportunity to embed tourism within sustainable urban mobility plans and to create a blueprint that can be shared beyond the islands.

‘With this project we’ve shown there is a very clear opportunity for greater cooperation between traditional tourism and local transport,’ said Mantero. ‘There’s an appetite among tourists for a greener tourist experience and, through integration, we know we can bring significant benefits for visitors and for residents too,’ he said.

Emblematic issues

A different EU project seeking to shift how we holiday and to improve the sustainability of tourism is SmartCulTour. Working in Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, it encourages tourists to leave the hordes behind and visit lesser-known areas that are not typical tourism hotspots.  

‘The issue in many places is not actually too much tourism, but rather there’s too much concentration in certain areas,’ says project coordinator Dr Bart Neuts, economist and cultural tourism expert from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at KU Leuven in Belgium.

Scenes of cruise ships that until recently were allowed to sail into the heart of old Venice, tourist buses lining the streets of Barcelona or umbrella-led walking groups touring Paris, all trying to tick off the same cultural sights, are emblematic of the issues that certain areas face.

A narrow view of what constitutes cultural heritage dominates people’s travel choices, at the expense of lesser-known attractions.

‘Our main goal is to open up tourism to rural peripheral regions – areas which we know could benefit from greater visitor numbers,’ said Neuts. ‘To do this, we are trying to broaden how people understand cultural heritage as being not just the famous monuments and artefacts located in Europe’s big cities.’

By working with local communities across six ‘living labs’, the SmartCulTour team seeks to support regional tourism by highlighting hidden gems in an area. Such gems might be tangible, such as buildings or intangible, like people.

The team is working with local groups in Rotterdam to co-design cultural tourism products. Enjoying relatively few visitors historically, Rotterdam has experienced rapid growth in recent years, due to the city’s modern urban image. This vibe is something which the living lab hopes to capitalise on.

Fuller flavour

In the area of Huesca, in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, tourism is geared towards skiing with visitors mostly by-passing the castles, abbeys, and wineries on offer. The Huesca living lab is trying to create a more integrated rural tourism product to give visitors a fuller flavour of the region.

And in far-flung Utsjoki in Lapland – the northern-most municipality in Finland – the SmartCulTour project’s local living lab has spotted an opportunity to expand the season beyond summer when visitors arrive to fish for wild salmon. Introducing people to the indigenous Sámi culture in a culturally sustainable way could be a new way forward for tourism in the region.

Neuts is clear that there are sensitivities and trade-offs with all these ideas and emphasises that these projects are community-driven and inspired.

‘We want to help local stakeholders define new and viable tourist products to help put their areas on the map,’ he said. ‘It’s about working together to identify what’s possible and acceptable.’

Whilst it’s now up to local stakeholders to run with the ideas generated and to market new holidays, Neuts thinks there is a clear potential with today’s tourists looking for more experiential travel.

‘We know tourists will continue to visit the big destinations, but there is a growing number also looking for that different type of experience,’ he said.  

If sustainable tourism is supported to grow in locations off the beaten tourist track, it can help these destinations become more economically resilient longer-term. For now though, that process will need both community investment and local political support to develop.  

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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