Global tourism, reeling from the Chinese virus, needs a shot in the arm

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By John J. Metzler

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as the old song goes. And vacations both domestic and international should be surging despite dark pandemic clouds still shrouding parts of the world.

But last year’s collapse in international tourism, seeing a decline by 74 percent in 2020, has still not rebounded.  According to a new UN report, so far 2021 has actually “been worse for most destinations with an average global decline of 88 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.”

Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic still runs rife over large parts of the world; more than four million people have since died. And it’s not over.

UN Sec. Gen. Antonio Guterres stated somberly, “Vaccines offer a ray of hope, but most of the world is still in the shadows. The virus is outpacing vaccine distribution. This pandemic is clearly far from over; more than half its victims died this year.”

The WTO reports that tourism experts don’t see “a return to pre-COVID arrival levels until 2023 or later.”

A new report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on “COVID 19 and Tourism” warns, “Vaccines are a critical part of the solution, albeit with considerable uncertainty, even once access and distribution problems are overcome.”

Clearly vaccinations have slowed the spread especially in the United States, Israel, and Western Europe. Yet shortages, haphazard distribution, and vaccine reluctance has plagued countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa.

Moreover, travel restrictions, constantly changing and confusing even in Europe, have dampened interests in many destinations.

For example, the World Tourism Organization (WTO) reports that key international destinations such as Thailand have seen a 83 percent visitor drop, Indonesia 74 percent, Turkey 73 percent and Jamaica 67 percent. China, the source of the Coronavirus has experienced an 88 percent drop. Needless to say, tourism forms a vital economic engine which is now largely sputtering.

The WTO reports that tourism experts don’t see “a return to pre-COVID arrival levels until 2023 or later.”

In fact, nearly half of those consulted only see a return to 2019 levels in 2024! The group adds, that while “Domestic travel has increased, but this does little to help developing countries that are dependent on international travel.”

Indeed, the group lists a number of scenarios for tourism growth; the more “optimistic” scenario reflects a 63 percent reduction in travel!

Based on this model, overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline for example in Turkey would be 6.3 percent, Ireland 4 percent, France 2.3 percent, South Korea 2.7 percent and the USA 1.5 percent.

Generally, a drop of $1 trillion in tourist receipts worldwide, prompts a negative multiplier  across other sectors such as agriculture and construction, creating a loss of $2.5 trillion in GDP.  These numbers are sobering.

So, what to do?

The UN Trade and Development and WTO report asserts, “So far, the vaccine rollout has varied greatly between countries, from almost complete to hardly started.  Rolling out the vaccine globally as soon as possible is an economic priority.”   The report adds, “Vaccinating 40 percent of the global population by year’s end and 60 percent by mid-2022 is an aspirational goal, but difficult to achieve and could cost $50 billion, according to International Monetary Fund.”

Yet it appears that even well vaccinated countries such as the USA and United Kingdom may be adversely affected by new COVID strains such as the Delta variant. This reality raises the specter of renewed restrictions to movement and international travel.

Even the USA/Canada border remains closed.

Given the warmer weather and lifting of most local COVID restrictions, New York City is returning to its groove as a vibrant pace setting center. Yet surprisingly despite open restaurants and the return of insufferable traffic, large parts of the Big Apple seem strangely free of foreign tourists. Many large hotels are still closed, and the return of rampant street crime has dampened any true return to normality.

Across the world, as the already postponed Tokyo Olympics approach, Japan faces further COVID restrictions adding a spectator ban on Olympic sporting venues. Despite being a developed and health conscious country with a good medical infrastructure Japan’s  vaccination rate remains poor with only 17 percent of the population fully vaccinated.

While the U.S. government is again pushing for vaccine mandates and Americans have easy   access to the jabs, Dr. Matt McCarthy, staff physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, stresses that vaccine acceptance among the population would increase with overdue FDA approval of the shots which would underscore their safety. “There’s no explanation for the holdup.”

In the meantime, Vaccine Passports are planned as the world returns to “normal.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]