Six months ago the global tourism industry was celebrating a record year for travel. Now it’s decimated and facing a recovery that could take years.
Tourism Economics, a data and consulting firm, predicts global travel demand won’t resume its normal pace until 2023.
When tourists do finally return, they will face a changed landscape that incorporates social distancing and other measures to calm residual fears over COVID-19, the disease that has so far killed more than 248,000 people worldwide and infected millions more.
“It takes time to shake fear from the hearts of people, not to mention the economy,” said Mahmoud Hadhoud, founder of Egypt Knight Tours, who doesn’t expect foreign tourists to start trickling back into Egypt until September.
Last week Hilton, Marriott and Airbnb all announced enhanced cleaning procedures worldwide to ease travelers’ minds. In Egypt, Hadhoud is removing cruises and hot air balloon rides from his packages and replacing them with tours of Egypt’s vast western deserts, where travelers can keep their distance from one another.
At Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, multiple teams are working on scenarios, including putting more space between riders on roller coasters, said John Sprouls, the resort’s chief administrative officer, at a recent virtual event for tourism officials.
Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox said his company may sanitize dice between users, put fewer seats at blackjack tables and idle slot machines between players at its casinos in Las Vegas, Boston and Macau.
Gary Thulander, managing director of Chatham Bars Inn, a 106-year-old resort on Cape Cod, said the resort is planning many changes when it reopens this summer, including checking in guests via cellphones, letting them opt out of room service and lengthening dining hours so fewer guests will be eating at the same time.
The road to recovery will be long and hard for the tourism industry. The United Nations World Tourism Organization predicts global tourist arrivals – or visits from tourists who come to their destinations and stay at least one night – will fall 30% this year from the record 1.5 billion in 2019. Airlines have grounded nearly two-thirds of their planes as passengers vanish. Cruise ships are docked; some won’t sail again until November.
Millions of people who depend on tourism are laid off or furloughed. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 8 million tourism-related workers are jobless right now – or about one-third of total U.S. unemployment – said Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, the leading airline trade group, said carriers need to fill at least 70% of seats to break even on most flights. If they’re required to block or remove many seats, they will either stop flying or raise prices 50%, he said.
That will delay recovery for places like Israel, which sees almost all of its tourists arrive by air. Diklah Cohen Sheinfeld, chief of staff of the Israeli Tourism Ministry’s director general’s office, said the tourism industry – which employs 250,000 Israelis – was the first to be impacted and will likely be the last to recover.
“There are no tourists and no entry to the country for tourists. The gates are totally closed,” she said.
In some places, governments are stepping in to help the sector. Serge Cachan, president of the Astotel hotel chain in Paris, closed his 17 properties in March and expects to lose 70% of his business this year. But the French government will help the chain get through it, he said. The government is paying around 80% of furloughed hotel workers’ salaries.
Many destinations anticipate travelers’ behavior will change in the virus’s wake. Pornthip Hirunkate, vice president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, thinks more people will come in small groups or seek personalized tours.
Ander Fuentes, who works as a tour guide in Spain’s Granada province, thinks travelers will shift away from crowded beaches to the quieter interior mountains.
“It could be an opportunity to develop a new kind of tourism, which is going to be good for Spain, because in the last 10 years the tourism boom has been in quantity but not in quality,” Fuentes said. He hopes tourism there picks back up by mid-August.
But not everyone is comfortable with reopening. Marco Michielli, who owns the 67-room San Marco Hotel in Bibione, a beach resort east of Venice, Italy, said many hoteliers worry their businesses will be ruined if the virus spreads on their properties. Some would rather reopen next year than serve guests this summer with desk staff and bartenders wearing masks.
“If we have rules approved by the ministry, some hotel owners would be convinced to start to open. But if the hotel must look like a COVID ward, many will refuse to open to guests,” he said.
Others say they need reassurance from science – not just tourist sites – before they travel.
Ema Barnes visited a dozen countries last year, including Serbia, Vietnam and Chile. This year she had planned trips to Jordan and South Korea.
But right now Barnes is working remotely in a tiny town in her native New Zealand. Airports near her are closed, so she’s not sure when she’ll get back to New York, where she works in publishing.
Barnes said she needs some peace of mind – a COVID-19 vaccine or testing to make sure she isn’t a carrier – before she resumes her travels.
“I don’t think my desire to travel and explore other places is worth my risking the health of people in those places,” Barnes said.
Others remain optimistic. Dedy Sulistiyanto, the owner of a tour and adventure provider in Bali, Indonesia, has been promoting his business on social media while it’s closed. He has received so many positive responses that he thinks tourism will resume quickly when restrictions are lifted. Most of his clients are domestic tourists from Indonesia.
“There are so many people out there very eager to do traveling,” Sulistiyanto said.
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