International tourism demand has deteriorated further due to the impact of the global economic recession. International tourist arrivals declined at a rate of 8 percent between January and February this year, leaving the overall volume at the same level as recorded in 2007. At the same time, influenza A (H1N1) is starting to affect the sector. It’s impact is being closely monitored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in close collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). UNWTO follows the WHO’s advice as it is the leading UN agency in matters relating to health. WHO does not recommend travel restrictions at this point.
Preliminary UNWTO figures for the first months of 2009 indicate a continuation of the negative growth already experienced in the second half of 2008. Destinations all around the world have suffered from a decrease in demand in major source markets. With the exception of Africa and both Central and South America, who all posted positive results in the range of 3-5 percent. So far, northern, southern and Mediterranean Europe, north-east Asia, south Asia, and the Middle East are amongst the most affected sub-regions.
In this context, UNWTO expects international tourism to decline between 2 percent and 3 percent in 2009.
Many countries are already developing stimulus measures within their fiscal and monetary packages to mitigate the effects of the crisis on tourism, realizing that the sector can be a key driver of economic recovery. Some destinations are reducing taxes and improving travel facilitation, recognizing that it is now crucial to remove all obstacles to tourism, especially taxation and over regulation. Others have developed financial systems to support tourism enterprises, maintain/increase employment in the sector, and develop infrastructure. UNWTO encourages others to follow suit.
Secretary-general ad interim Taleb Rifai stressed that, “One of the major challenges amidst the current crisis is the imperative of not losing sight of the longer-term challenges of poverty alleviation, employment, and climate change.”
Historically, tourism has demonstrated remarkable resilience and has emerged from past crises stronger and healthier. The current economic juncture, however, might be different. This crisis is truly global, and its parameters are still in many ways unclear.
Against this background, UNWTO has increased its efforts to provide its members with the necessary support on a consistent basis in order to endure these challenging times:
– Resilience: the Tourism Resilience Committee (TRC) provides a framework for better market analysis, collaboration on responses, and medium-term policymaking.
– Stimulus: UNWTO urges governments to put tourism at the core of their stimulus packages – jobs and trade are engendered through a strong tourism sector, as well as business and consumer confidence in travel, which can play a big part in economic recovery.
– Green Economy: tourism must be placed at the forefront of the transformation towards the green economy; contributing with carbon-clean operations, jobs in environmental management, and energy-efficient constructions.
UNWTO’s “Roadmap for Recovery” will lead to a unique positioning of the sector with respect to the economic crisis, its role in the stimulus program, and in the recovery, future sustainability, and competitiveness of tourism.
Adding to the consumer and business uncertainty and the loss of confidence, the potential Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic has created an increasing degree of confusion around the issue of whether it is safe to travel. UNWTO has been very active in pressing for a clear WHO position and is working closely with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to ensure a balanced decision-making process.
Within the UN system, UNWTO has a direct line to express the interests of tourism and travel. At this stage, the extent of the spread, sustainability, and the complete health implications of the virus remain uncertain. Given the increased public awareness, engagement, and the resulting elevated concern, calls for the urgent need for response must be viewed in context – awareness is key, not abrupt and uninformed reactions.
Until now, WHO has seen no reason to close borders or restrict travel. This stance is supported by similar past experiences, which provides no evidence that doing so would stop the spread of the virus. Furthermore, the economic cost would be enormous. WHO goes further and urges states to resist unilateral action and to consult with them before undertaking any such initiative.
UNWTO strongly supports this position and is prepared to face this kind of situation. The organization has formed a dedicated Risk and Crisis Management Section (RCM), established influenza contacts in every member state, launched regional simulation exercises, created the Tourism Emergency Response Network (TERN) with some 20 peak industry organizations, and launched sos.travel as a portal for emergency information for the industry and travelers. In addition, UNWTO is continuing to issue guidance material.