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17 June 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:52pm

How the pandemic has devastated global tourism

Worldwide, over 330 million people are employed in the tourism and travel sector, with 3.1 million of them in the UK. Now those jobs are at risk. 

By Cathy Mullan

At no time since the advent of widespread international travel has the world seen such strict restrictions on movement. According to research from the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), all tourism destinations now have some form of mandated travel curfew, including borders being closed to tourists, flights being grounded and quarantine measures for returning travellers. 

In the UK, tourism has been the fastest growing employment sector since 2010, according to Visit Britain, but it has also been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, it was worth £127bn and employed over 3.1 million people in the UK. Rural and coastal areas will bear the brunt: research from the Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturing showed Yorkshire, the Lake District and Cornwall were among the areas with the highest risk of job losses. In Wales, where 10 per cent of the workforce is employed in tourism, industry leaders have warned the sector may collapse without a clear post-lockdown road map.

Worldwide, over 330 million people are employed in the tourism sector. In 2019 it contributed more than £7.2trn (or $9.2trn) to the global economy. The pandemic had had a devastating impact. According to UNWTO, international tourist arrivals were down 22 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, and the organisation’s latest data shows the crisis could lead to an annual decline of 60-80 per cent compared with 2019 figures.

The public and private sector together face an uphill battle to revive a crippled, yet essential, industry. 

“International tourism is the world’s third-biggest export sector, an important driver of many economies and a lifeline for many millions, including the most vulnerable,” said UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili. “Opening the world back up to tourism, in a timely and responsible manner, should be seen as a key priority and an essential first step towards recovery.”

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Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said the whole cycle of tourism is being destroyed by the pandemic. 

“In just the last month alone, our research shows an increase of 25 million in the number of job losses in the travel and tourism sector, from 75 million to a staggering 100 million for 2020 so far,” she said. 

Guevara is working to raise awareness of how important the tourism sector is to an all-round global recovery. 

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“We have advised on how governments need to step in swiftly to support and protect our sector, which is the backbone of the global economy,” she said. “Without it, economies will struggle to recover in any meaningful way and hundreds of millions of people will suffer enormous financial and mental damage for years to come.” 

Social distancing measures could remain in place until a vaccination is developed, which could take many months or even years, changing tourist consumer habits for the foreseeable future. A major challenge for tourist destinations is to convince people to travel to them, and therefore demonstrating that it is safe to do so. A robust system of testing and contact tracing, along with open and accessible data, may go some way to help assuage concerns. Pololikashvili urged destinations to do all they can to make tourists feel safe. 

“Destinations need to act transparently and responsibly, and work closely with the private sector, to restore consumer confidence in travel,” he said. “Trust is the new currency in tourism.”

Cathy Mullan is head of product, FDI and Lara Williams is a senior reporter at NS Media Group.