The annual global summit of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) had been planned for 21-23 April in Cancun, Mexico, but that too has now been postponed amid worldwide travel bans, border closures, and mass flight cancellations due to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The council’s 20th anniversary event will now be rescheduled for some time in the autumn, announced WTTC president and CEO Gloria Guevara. “We stand in solidarity with governments, countries and organisations which are being affected by COVID-19 and look forward to hosting our Global Summit in the autumn,” she said in a statement. “This will provide a global platform to discuss the sector’s recovery and future plans.”
The event’s host city of Cancun, in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state along the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, had yet to report a single case of the novel virus at the time of the event cancellation, although the state’s first four cases were announced a day later. However, summit attendance would have likely become increasingly difficult – and dangerous – as governments around the world shut down travel and consumer-facing commerce to try to halt the global spread of the virus.
With airline, hotel, food and beverage, and retail companies suspending operations across some of the world’s largest markets, those who stand to lose the most are the individual employees who may not only get paid during the closure periods, but who may also be out of a job in the post-coronavirus era.
According to WTTC estimates, the tourism sector could be looking at workforce cuts of 12-14%, which could translate into as many as 50 million jobs lost worldwide. And developing countries whose economies are overly dependant on tourism could be especially hard hit, which could potentially translate social upheaval and political turmoil before it’s all over.
Egypt, for example, had become a model for recovery and optimism as it finally began seeing significant boosts in annual tourism arrivals following years of slow growth in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Egypt welcomed 8.2 million tourists in 2018, 11.3 million in 2018, and upwards of 13 million by the end of 2019. All of that progress is now threatened by the fallout from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
To put Egypt’s hopes for recovery into perspective, its 2018 visitor numbers represented a growth rate of 16.5%, while the global average was only 3.9%. With the unveiling of the country’s new USD 1-billion Grand Egyptian Museum planned for later this year and and a widespread expectation of a significant surge tourism following that opening, the difference between expectations and the new reality may be an even steeper fall in Egypt than elsewhere.
The impact of COVID-19 may be even more severe in nearby Lebanon. Already facing steep declines in tourism demand and hotel occupancy rates due to mass economic and political protests that began in October 2019, the coronavirus pandemic has now all but gutted Lebanon’s already-teetering economy. Just last week, the central government in Beirut announced that the country had no choice but to default on its foreign debt payments for the first time ever.
With three of Europe’s major tourism-dependent countries – Italy, France, and Spain – now on total lockdown, it remains to be seen how this unprecedented cessation of commerce will impact the household economics of the millions of workers whose jobs depend on the steady inflow of tourists that these nations normally see. While governments have been quick to announce aid packages to the largest and hardest hit industries, it is unlikely that the trickle-down effects will be felt any time soon.
Even with the world’s largest economy and unlimited borrowing potential, the United States is also struggling to deal with the inevitable mass travel sector layoffs and small business bankruptcies that appear on the horizon. Talk of issuing USD 1,000 payments to individuals has given hope to many who are struggling to make ends meet amid the unexpected income interruption, but neither that nor the nearly USD 1-trillion stimulus package may be enough to avoid a restructuring and trimming down of travel industry companies due to the new reality of lower demand over a protracted recovery period.
A potential light at the end of the tunnel can already be seen in China, where the outbreak is thought to have originated. New daily infections there are down to double digits, and total active infections have dropped from a high of more than 80,000 to below 10,000. However, as the world continues grappling with the impact of the virus in other parts of the world where it has yet to peak and decline, a new reality for the travel industry in 2020 has already become apparent, and unfortunately that may involve far fewer companies, employees, and options moving forward.