Right now, nobody wants to imagine another global crisis happening. We have not even reached the “eye of the storm” with the current, unprecedented, COVID-19 pandemic, which has essentially paralyzed the world. However, without being pessimistic, other crises will come and will continue to test society and institutions as they have never been tested before. What we learn from this and previous crises can lead us into recovering and rebounding more efficiently in the future.
This couldn’t be truer than in the tourism sector, which, while being one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy in recent decades, it is also likely to be one of the hardest hit sectors during a crisis.
Before the pandemic, it was estimated that tourism would generate 11,5% of the global GDP by 2029, and the number of travelers worldwide would grow to US$ 1.8 billion. Now the scenario has changed, and the UN specialized agency for tourism (UNWTO) has just announced that it expects international tourist arrivals to go down by 20-30% in 2020, when compared with 2019 figures. This decrease could translate into a decline in international tourism receipts (exports) of between US$300-450 billion, almost one third of the US$1.5 trillion generated in 2019. This, according to UNWTO, represent between five and seven years` worth of growth lost to COVID-19. Given that the sector used to employ 1 out of 10 jobs in the world, the crisis generated by the current pandemic will most likely require equally unprecedented measures to mitigate these impacts and support a more resilient sector in the future.
While we are able to recall some recent crises, like the 2009 global economic crisis, the 2008-09 “swine flu” (H1N1 virus), the 2016 Zika outbreaks in Brazil and Miami or the series of hurricanes and cyclones that devasted the Caribbean in 2017, 2018 and 2019, among others, we can also offer insights into what worked in the r aftermath. Here are five success factors that we can identify for the tourism sector to maximize the speed of recovery.
1. Strong government commitment to the tourism industry, as well as leadership in terms of strategy, policy, and understanding of the market trends. In general, it is only the public sector which has the necessary resources and the long-term view to provide the strong leadership which is essential for the success and sustainability of the sector. Countries that have developed tourism specific contingency or emergency plans, or that have included tourism as a key part of Disaster Risk Management (DRM), for example, have more effectively addressed unexpected challenges affecting the sector, whereas countries with more informal structures seem to generate much less commitment to the sector (in any circumstance, crisis or not). Governments that adopt a holistic approach to tourism development and management will be more likely to develop coordinated policies in support of the sector. The UNWTO strongly recommends that tourism crisis management systems be fully integrated within national and local DRM strategies at national and local levels. Another public initiative that assists in times of crisis is the establishment of tourism crisis recovery task forces or crisis units. Hawaii, for example, has very well-organized structures for disaster preparedness and response. In the event of a crisis, the State activates its emergency operation center, and facilitates joint and rapidly actionable decisions.
2. Close collaboration between the public and private sectors and general public support. It is imperative that governments work and engage all tourism-related businesses and trade associations in the preparation, implementation and monitoring of emergency policies and other procedures in times of crisis. Countries that call on the private sector to participate in its formal strategic planning and policy making are also the countries that are faring better in the aftermath of crisis. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) even recommends that these coalitions between public and private sector are established before the crises, so that when they occur, the plan is already in place and responses can more easily be coordinated. In addition, establishing good relations with media and travel trade representatives will ensure a good level of support and buy-in from all interested parties.
3. Removal of bureaucratic barriers to business and communication efforts to attract tourists. In addition to removing bureaucratic barriers to business development in the tourism sector after a crisis, effective communication and marketing can also let travelers and companies know when a destination is ready for “business.” Technologically enabled communications can speed up the opening-up of the sector (through picture, videos, etc.). Brussels, for example, created the campaign #CallBrussels, after the November 2015 Paris attacks.
4. Training programs to build human resource capacity and social awareness across the sector. Training programs should be developed not only to enhance preparedness of those working in the sector, but also to increase awareness and improve understanding of risks, promote capacity building and ultimately change attitudes and behaviors concerning security. Implementing comprehensive training programs, engaging stakeholders and communicating regularly help to maintain momentum throughout organizations. The example of the US “If you see something, say something” campaign raised awareness of issues of terrorism and educated the public about reporting suspicious activities.
5. Diversification of tourism products. Diversifying the tourism portfolio can also be a key policy change to help mitigate the effects of a crisis and attract other segments of visitors. For example, shifting from sun-and-beach models to cultural models where beaches have been affected by natural disasters can enhance cultural and natural heritage-based tourism.
While we are aware that many other factors can play a role in supporting recovery and resilience of the tourism sector, measures addressing: infrastructure development, new investments, human resource development, marketing repositioning and product diversification will provide a basic template for countries to start their recovery efforts. The way Latin American and Caribbean governments respond to this crisis in the tourism sector will influence the rate of its recovery. It will be interesting to monitor how countries in the region line up their strategies, programs, and plans to incorporate more holistic approaches to tourism governance and sector cooperation. At the IDB, we are working with countries in the region to support them with these measures and to ensure they keep growing sustainably and resiliently.
Photo: Mark Jordan – Unsplash