Tourism in the aftermath of the pandemic
As the secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, I must visit our member states and support them in person as they guide tourism forward. This activity has always been implicit in the role.
But no UNWTO head ever confronted the triple crisis of a pandemic, climate change and war. I witnessed the pandemic’s devastating impact on our sector firsthand: Near-empty airports, grounded planes, and skyrocketing uncertainty among travelers, and I saw what it meant to those who rely on the sector for their livelihoods.
And now, we observe the Russia-Ukraine war surpassing the 100-day mark and casting its economic ripple effects across the world.
At the same time, however, tourism is again showing its resilience, bearing testimony to its rightly earned seat at the global recovery decision-making table. Recently, I noticed how over two years’ worth of pent-up demand was catching up with supply and planes, airports and destinations have been filling up.
Travel rules are becoming easier to manage, and trust is growing back among tourists — the beating heart of our sector.
Rethink and realign
However, while tourism’s restart is underway, we must not be misguided by the illusion of returning to pre-pandemic times. Instead, to restart means to rethink and realign tourism to ensure it works for people, the planet, prosperity and peace.
It is a big ambition — but tourism has the means to think bigger and better. UNWTO has identified several priority areas to guide the sector along this path; our guiding principles. War in Ukraine may have called into question our international governance system. Still, we have stood firm, and our members suspended Russian membership in UNWTO and focused instead on the task ahead.
We need to build better and more resilient institutions. The pandemic proved that unilateral decisions don’t get us very far. A robust and integrated policy framework and effective, accountable and democratic systems of governance are at the basis of broad collaboration on tourism planning, development and management.
The link between the public and private sectors must grow even stronger so that decisions made at the top can be put into action on the ground.
People and processes matter
Secondly, we need to invest better in tourism’s No.1 asset: people. Our sector is a leading provider of opportunity, especially for women, youth, and those living in rural areas. We need to provide them and more with the skills that employers want. The UNWTO Academy is doing just this; our regional office for the Middle East is set to be the hub of tourism education and training.
Thirdly, as tourism grows back, we need to ensure growth is inclusive. But effective policies need the correct data. We must adequately measure and monitor tourism’s impact. And we must encourage tourism investments to closely look at small and medium enterprises, which make up 80 percent of all tourism businesses and entrepreneurs.
This links directly to our fourth priority — making tourism a solution to the equality gap that stunts growth and causes misery. Tourism provides opportunity and empowerment. Activities promoting poverty alleviation are at the heart of UNWTO, including providing jobs to women and youth and linking tourism with the Sustainable Development Goals and UNWTO’s Ethics Convention.
But none of this will matter if we are not mindful of our impact on natural and cultural heritage. Tourism’s unique relationship and interdependency with the natural and cultural environment is essential for safeguarding these valuable assets. Effective and sustainable management of heritage, habitats, biodiversity and natural resources can no longer be secondary concerns.
Taking the road less traveled
So yes, our ambition is enormous. But the good news is that we are not starting from zero. Even before the pandemic, we had achieved significant progress. With a new public, political and media awareness around tourism’s unparalleled socio-economic footprint and transformative potential, the momentum is growing.
At the end of last year, UNWTO’s members backed my vision for the sector, electing me to serve for a second term. And I am proud to serve at a time when tourism has never been more relevant. In the Middle East, it is being embraced as a vector for economic diversification. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia deserves credit for investing heavily in the sector and being a key ally of UNWTO.
Moreover, for the first time, tourism has been the topic of debate at the UN General Assembly this year. As the first UNWTO secretary-general to address this historic institution, our sector has come of age, exactly 18 years after our organization became the UN’s tourism agency.
The time is right for everyone — from government leaders and businesses down to individual tourists — to ensure that policies, investments and our travels make a real difference in the lives of others and our collective well-being.
• Zurab Pololikashvili is the secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization.