MADRID: UNWTO and other international organizations failed us and tourism will not bounce back, said Dr. Taleb Rifai, former UNWTO Secretary-General.
What we need is a new multilateral system, a more harmonized, fair, and equitable system, because it’s not important how successful every country is on its own.
Dr. Rifai wears many hats, including as a board and co-founder of the World Tourism Network (WTN).
Rifai said: “Four years ago, I had an interview with a Victor Jorge Portuguese Work media network and was asked how I would define the current moment at that time, which included terrorism, Brexit, and the election of US President Donald Trump. At that time, no one expected the Covid crisis and the impact it would have on the travel and tourism industry.” As predicted by Rifai, a year later tourism bounced back.
Dr. Rifai explained today in another interview with the same Portuguese news channel: “I believe this is now a defining moment in the history of mankind altogether. Everything will change. Tourism will not bounce back.
“Today, we will not bounce back, but we will leap forward into a new world, a new norm. It may become a better and more sustainable world.
“I am, therefore, very optimistic we will not go back in time but move forward into a more sustainable growth – everywhere.
“The travel sector is, without a doubt, one of the most affected sectors as a result of COVID-19. Unfortunately, each government is working on its own doing what they think is best to protect its population. This is expected and understandable. Life is the most important thing to worry about. Governments are doing their best to protect their people.
“Every country must coordinate its actions and procedures with its neighbors first. The trick is not to do a perfect job on your own. It is indeed to agree on minimum procedures starting with surrounding destinations which will reach an international level.
“What we need is a new multilateral system, a more harmonized, fair, and equitable system, because it’s not important how successful every country is on its own. If one cannot travel from one place to another, what countries do independently is of no consequence. This is the nature of travel. It connects people and places.
“We have to function as one. We cannot have one country insisting on quarantine, while its neighbors are demanding a vaccination passport, and a third country is requiring simply 72-hour testing proof before arrival.
“The European Union is a good example of this failure of the multilateral system. Even the United States is not ‘united’ anymore. Each state is acting on its own, and so is the UN system altogether. They have all failed us.
“We need to rebuild a new multilateral system from the bottom up, brick by brick. We need to build a system that does not depend on the principles of the haves and the have nots.
“Vaccination is a good example. At the current rate we are going at, it will take us no less than 5 years to vaccinate 70% of the world population.
“The travel industry will only bounce forward to a new norm when the whole world is ready to travel under a unified system.
“The nature of travel is that you have to send people and receive people. It is, therefore, not wise maybe to depend solely on vaccinations.
“It is not fair nor is it equitable in today’s world for countries and people that do not have the ability to vaccinate the majority of their populations. We do not want to turn this into a political game, and most importantly, we will all lose if we pit those who have been vaccinated against those who have been unable to get vaccinated. In that scenario, nobody will travel to a non-vaccinated destination, and no vaccinated destination would accept receiving anyone from a non-vaccinated destination.
“Travel is about connecting everybody everywhere, so it will not work until everyone is vaccinated, and that is going to take a long time.
“Affordable testing in a harmonized way may just be more logical for a faster and more immediate recovery, or a combination of both vaccination and testing systems because if we want a quick recovery, we can start rather immediately by harmonizing a testing system and making it become more available and more affordable for all.
“Testing is easier and faster, but most important is to have one international agreement for that to work for all countries.
“There will be no coming back until people have peace of mind and have the confidence to trust a system – one universal system – that will be on an international level. People will not travel simply because their government says, ‘you can now travel.’
“There is an opportunity that comes out of every crisis. The prime winner of this crisis is domestic and regional tourism. While it is true that domestic travel does not bring in hard currency or contribute to the balance of trade, it does help keep businesses and jobs alive, which is a good thing especially for developing countries where a tourist is only a foreigner – a blonde, blue-eyed person.
“Any country that is not visited and enjoyed by its own people first, cannot be nor should it be enjoyed by an outside visitor. To me, this a matter of principle, not just a current or temporary need due to a crisis that will set the record clear once and for all.
“Many lessons can be learned from our current situation, such as the value and importance of travel all together and in particular, domestic and regional travel. Also to be learned is the importance and prominence of digital technology, health and sanitation safety rules of the new norm, and finally the need to retrain our workforce to adjust to all of the above and use this as an ideal time for positive change.”
“As for who may survive this crisis, only those that understand that we are moving towards a new norm, a new reality, will survive. A new world is in the making – one that is more fair and equitable and, therefore, more sustainable. Everyone has to adjust, and unfortunately, the travel industry does not have a history of being the best in adjusting and thinking on an innovative level.
“Let us remember that we were able to put a man on the moon before we were able to put two wheels on a suitcase. That shows how conservative and slow to move our sector has been.
“Airlines have to communicate more confidence and trust in cleanliness and hygiene, and they must have a more flexible booking and cancellation policy. Hotels have to recognize that domestic and regional clients are going to be the first to visit, so national holidays will see better traffic. After that, maybe digital nomads, which would require special long-term deals will fall in line, so special and different deals will have to be offered. Restaurants will also have to cater more to delivery and adjust seating for social distancing and outdoor seating. All this in addition to other changes will have to convey the feeling of cleanliness and proper hygiene.
“The world is also becoming more digital, and we simply have to adapt and make the best use of technology. We have to think outside the box. Tourism must recognize that everything can become digital and virtual, not just meetings and conferences, but also public events like concerts or big gatherings, even gym activities and personal events.
“I had my daughter married via zoom from Dubai for example. I was in Amman, Jordan, with the father of the groom, and she and her husband were in Dubai while the priest was on the other line. We just had to be imaginative and use available technology to think outside the box.
“We must first recognize the changes and admit them, and then we should think imaginatively of the needed changes through technology, sustainability, and honest and transparent promotion as explained in previous examples. This will suit the new digital, young, and well-informed consumer.
“In tourism, there can be no competition between neighbors. Usually, what is good for my neighbor is good for me. It is like the principle in a “souk” where all those that sell spices or sell gold are in the same street as one customer brings another.
“In summary, for domestic and regional travel to revive first, there are 3 stages for recovery:
Keep businesses alive, which requires direct support from governments or soft loans just to ensure businesses have enough time to adjust to the new reality and survive.
Require the private sector to adjust quickly to the new realities of domestic and regional travelers. Offer them new deals. Then and only then can governments stop having to provide direct support.
Start international travel with the young digital nomads and offer special travel insurance policies for foreigners, which require special arrangements and packages from the accommodation sector as well as governments in order to support and connect with local insurance providers not only in promotions but through visas and tax issues but for longer stays as well.
“My message at the end is – come together. We can only do this together. No government can do it alone no matter how good the plan may be. We must remember that there are opportunities that come out of every crisis – let us not miss this one. Let us remember that, in Chinese, the word ‘crisis and the word ‘opportunity are one and the same.”