• Tourism rose to the forefront of the global agenda in 2020, due to the devastating impact of COVID-19
  • Recovery will be driven by technology and innovation – specifically seamless travel solutions, but it will be long, uneven and slow
  • Success hinges on international coordination and collaboration across the public and private sectors

Tourism was one of the sectors hit hardest by the global pandemic. 2020 was the worst year on record for international travel due to the global pandemic, with countries taking decisive action to protect their citizens, closing borders and halting international travel.

The result was a 74% decline in international visitor arrivals, equivalent to over $1 trillion revenue losses, and an estimated 62 million fewer jobs. The impact on international air travel has been even more severe with a 90% drop on 2019, resulting in a potential $1.8 trillion loss. And while the economic impact is dire in itself, nearly 2.9 million lives have been lost in the pandemic.

The path to recovery will be long and slow

Countries now face the challenge of reopening borders to resume travel and commerce, while protecting their populations’ health. At its peak, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported in April 2020 that every country on earth had implemented some travel restriction, signalling the magnitude of the operation to restart travel.

Consequently, the path to recovery will be long and slow. The resurgence of cases following the discovery of new variants towards the end of last year delivered another disappointing blow to the travel industry. Any pickup over the summer months was quashed following a second wave of lockdowns and border closures. Coupled with mixed progress in the roll-out of vaccination programs, I predict that we will not see a significant rebound in international travel until the middle of this year at best.

Others echo my fears. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts a 50.4% improvement on 2020 air travel demand, which would bring the industry to 50.6% of 2019 levels. However, a more pessimistic outlook based on the persistence of travel restrictions suggests that demand may only pick up by 13% this year, leaving the industry at 38% of 2019 levels. McKinsey & Company similarly predict that tourism expenditure may not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024.

How to enhance sustainability, inclusivity and resilience

Given its economic might – employing 330 million people, contributing 10% to global GDP before the pandemic, and predicted to create 100 million new jobs – restoring the travel and tourism sector to a position of strength is the utmost priority.

The Great Reset provides an opportunity to rethink how tourism is delivered and to enhance sustainability, inclusivity and resilience. We must also address the challenges – from climate change and “overtourism” to capacity constraints – that we faced before the pandemic, while embracing traveller preferences, as we rebuild.

A 2018 study found that global tourism accounted for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions from 2009 to 2013; four times higher than previous estimates. Even more worryingly, this puts progress towards the Paris Agreement at risk – recovery efforts must centre around environmental sustainability.

Furthermore, according to a study on managing overcrowding, the top 20 most popular global destinations were predicted to add more international arrivals than the rest of the world combined by 2020. While COVID-19 will have disrupted this trend, it is well known that consumers want to travel again, and we must address the issues associated with overcrowding, especially in nascent destinations, like Saudi Arabia.

The Great Reset is a chance to make sure that as we rebuild, we do it better.

There is no consensus about when the tourist industry will recover from the pandemic
There is no consensus about when the tourist industry will recover from the pandemic
Image: UNWTO

Seamless solutions lie at the heart of travel recovery

Tourism has the potential to be an engine of economic recovery provided we work collaboratively to adopt a common approach to a safe and secure reopening process – and conversations on this are already underway.

At the global level, across the public and private sectors, the World Economic Forum is working with the Commons Project on the CommonPass framework, which will allow individuals to access lab results and vaccination records, and consent to having that information used to validate their COVID status. IATA is trialling the Travel Pass with airlines and governments, which seeks to be a global and standardized solution to validate and authenticate all country regulations regarding COVID-19 travel requirements.

The provision of solutions that minimize person-to-person contact responds to consumer wants, with IATA finding that 85% of travellers would feel safer with touchless processing. Furthermore, 44% said they would share personal data to enable this, up from 30% months prior, showing a growing trend for contactless travel processes.

Such solutions will be critical in coordinating the opening of international borders in a way that is safe, seamless and secure, while giving tourists the confidence to travel again.

Collaboration at the international level is critical

The availability of vaccines will make this easier, and we have commenced our vaccination programme in Saudi Arabia. But we need to ensure processes and protocols are aligned globally, and that we support countries with limited access to vaccinations to eliminate the threat of another resurgence. It is only when businesses and travellers have confidence in the systems that the sector will flourish again.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about digital identity?

In an era of unprecedented data and ubiquitous intelligence, it is essential that organizations reimagine how they manage personal data and digital identities. By empowering individuals and offering them ways to control their own data, user-centric digital identities enable trusted physical and digital interactions – from government services or e-payments to health credentials, safe mobility or employment.

The World Economic Forum curates the Platform for Good Digital Identity to advance global digital identity activities that are collaborative and put the user interest at the center.

The Forum convenes public-private digital identity collaborations from travel, health, financial services in a global action and learning network – to understand common challenges and capture solutions useful to support current and future coalitions. Additionally, industry-specific models such as Known Traveller Digital Identity or decentralized identity models show that digital identity solutions respecting the individual are possible.

The approach taken by Saudi Arabia and its partners to establish consensus and build collaborative relationships internationally and between the public and private sectors, should serve as a model to be replicated so that we can maximize the tourism sector’s contribution to the global economic recovery, while ensuring that it becomes a driver of prosperity and social progress again.