With innovative thinking, tourism can help get the world’s economies back on track – and help us to recover together, recover stronger
‘Recover together, recover stronger’ – the theme of Indonesia’s G20 presidency, could not be timelier or more relevant. The Covid-19 pandemic hit our societies and our economies hard. Still coping with a historic health crisis, we now face multiple challenges, including heightened insecurity and war, as well as the mounting cost of living crisis, fuelled by rising interest rates and prices of energy and consumer goods. It is vital we not only kickstart recovery, but we do that so in responsible ways, ensuring nobody is left behind and that the steps we do take make a lasting difference.
Tourism can – and indeed must – play a key role in turning ‘recover together, recover stronger’ into action. To be sure, ours was among the worst affected of all major economic sectors over the past two years. In 2020, the number of international tourists slumped down to levels last seen 30 years ago. G20 economies saw their tourism gross domestic product cut by half. And in two years, the world lost almost $4 trillion in direct tourism GDP and around 50 million tourism jobs.
However, the worst looks to be over. Tourism is restarting in many parts of the world. The United Nations World Tourism Organization’s data show that international arrival numbers for the first seven months of 2022 were three times higher than they were for 2021. That means our sector has now recovered almost 60% of pre-pandemic levels. In many G20 economies, it is well above that, even if new uncertainties threaten to affect consumer behaviour and hinder tourism’s recovery.
But while we have reason to be optimistic, we do not have cause to be complacent. As a global community, we are falling behind in our efforts to reach the climate action goals of the Paris Agreement. We are also behind in progress towards almost every single Sustainable Development Goal, most notably the vital goal of achieving gender equality and reducing poverty. Again, tourism can help get us back on track – only if we acknowledge that we cannot simply revert to pre-pandemic models. If our sector is to realise its unique potential to deliver positive change, we must speed up and we must scale up.
A few weeks before the G20 leaders meet in Bali, I was also in Indonesia, meeting with the G20 tourism ministers and celebrating World Tourism Day. On this occasion, UNWTO released a set of guidelines to the G20 Tourism Working Group, designed to support the world’s biggest economies make the most out of a revitalised tourism sector. The guidelines are built on recognising that people – that is, communities, entrepreneurs and small enterprises – are the foundation of tourism and need to be empowered to make a difference.
Small businesses make up around 80% of our sector. In some places, including small island developing states and tourism-dependent destinations such as Bali, this percentage can be even higher. They are best placed to deliver positive change, for example increasing sustainability or providing opportunities to youth, women or rural communities. But to do so, they must be able to rely on an adequate policy framework. Rethinking financing for small tourism businesses, supporting small enterprises in embracing the digital transformation of tourism, boosting connectivity outside big cities, and providing incentives to boost growth and competitiveness will all help strengthen the broad base of the huge tourism pyramid and build greater resilience for the future.
‘Recovering together’ works towards greater empowerment of women and the inclusion of local communities. And we need to empower through jobs, education and training. In recent months, we have seen tourism’s restart affected by shortages of key workers – in the European Union, for example, the number of people employed in the air transport sector has been at its lowest level for 14 years. We need to make tourism jobs more attractive, with better conditions, more opportunities for development and greater security. Better tourism education provides skills for life, beyond the sector itself.
In this regard, and in many other areas, to really transform our sector, we need to promote a whole-of-government approach based on national and national-local coordination, as well as on public-private partnerships and community empowerment.
The G20 economies can and should lead this change. In the post-pandemic world, G20 members account for almost 80% of global tourism GDP and are home to a massive proportion of the global tourism workforce. Where the G20 leads, the rest of the world follows. Back tourism to get us back on track.