INTERNATIONAL REPORT—Presented by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and EY, “The Path to Recovery” webinar featured panelists from tourism organizations from countries around the world discussing the past, present and future of how tourism was affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and how their locations have started on the road to recovery.
Moderated by Brian Tress, EY’s global destinations & tourism solution leader, and Maribel Rodríguez, SVP, membership & commercial for the WTTC, panelists included Darío Flota Ocampo, CEO, Mexican Caribbean Tourism Board; Fred Dixon, president/CEO, NYC & Company; Luís Araújo, president, Turismo de Portugal; Maria Anthonette Velasco-Allones, COO, Tourism Promotion Board Philippines; and Savvas Perdios, deputy minister of tourism, Visit Cyprus.
The webinar was broken down into three sections: Now, an update on the current state of the panelists’ destinations; Next, the path to recovery; and Beyond, the future state.
Here and Now
For the Now portion, the panelists were asked how prepared their countries/cities were for the COVID-19 pandemic, with most responding with “somewhat prepared.”
While his region’s crisis management teams are prepared during hurricane season in the summer and fall because they know a storm is coming, Flota Ocampo noted that “now is the opposite. We were not prepared for it. We want to have the hotels ready, but the demand is staying at home and afraid to take a plane.”
For Dixon, who pointed out that New York is no stranger to crisis (from 9/11 to the financial crisis in the late 2000s), “This crisis is deeper and more profound than anything we’ve experienced before. While much of our infrastructure from a crisis perspective was in place, we had no way to know the depth of this situation.”
Being the home of companies more than 100 years old, Portugal has survived many crises; however, Araújo said, “What we were not prepared for was the length of this crisis and the consequences of it, which is not exclusive to us. It’s a world crisis.”
As for Cyprus, Perdios said, “I don’t think anybody was prepared to shut down all of these nations, and that’s what happened in Cyprus. I know in other places in the world, maybe flying was going on, but we had to shut down our airport for six weeks. We’re an island and the only way to get here is by air.”
For the Next section, Tress asked what were the lessons learned, as well as the tactics used to mitigate the impact of the crisis.
Flota Campo said that his main strategy was to stay in close communication with the tour operators and the airlines in the countries that bring the most tourists to the area, adding, “We prepared the campaigns for the recovery and relaunching for different regions of the world, where we were considering that. at different times, they were going back to fly and to travel. We prepared a campaign for Europe, one for North America, one for domestic tourism in Mexico and one for South America. We are already running our campaigns in the United States and also in Mexico where we have flights operating again.”
Velasco-Allones mentioned the three strategies her country has used throughout the crisis, what she called “the three C’s.” “The first is really collaboration. Our government cannot do this alone; neither can the private sector or the other stakeholders. I think in the age of social distancing, we have heightened the communication lines across and within government and with our stakeholders and partners,” she said. “The second C is our efforts to build capacity, not only within government but also within the private sector, because I think across countries, we see displacement in terms of employment. So, we have spent time during the lockdown to stage training programs and webinars just to give people more knowledge and enhance the competencies.”
She continued, “The final C is the value of communication. It’s imperative that we have real and correct data in the age of fake news. We want to make sure that the decisions that we arrive at and the options that we explore are things that are responsive to the real needs of the country and the global community. This is a crisis that cannot be solved by one country alone.”
Rodríguez asked the panelists where their locations stand right now. Flota Campo said that hotels in his region opened on June 8 and are at about 25% occupancy (compared with 80% at this time last year), but public beaches remain closed.
Dixon said that New York City is now in phase three of four total. “So, our hotels were deemed essential from the beginning and were never required to close,” he said. “Some of them have closed temporarily of their own accord because demand is suppressed, but hotels have remained open and restaurants have been able to do takeout and delivery almost from the very beginning. We’re hopeful in the next week to 10 days, potentially, to move into phase 4, which will hopefully bring some museums and attractions back online as they’re deemed safe to do so. We are still very cautious about the situation as we see waves of this first round of the virus continue to move across the United States and other parts of the region, but we remain very hopeful.”
For the Beyond section, panelists were asked how traveler preferences and priorities will change in the long term as a result of this crisis, and how the long-term strategies of their destinations will address those changes.
“It was in our plans anyway, but now we’ve pushed forward a lot—building experiences that are related to cultivation of land, home cooking, authentic experiences that people are really going to be looking for away from the beaten path,” said Perdios. “In terms of the future impact and our long-term strategic plan, we are going to be taking a much closer look on destination capacity. There’s some areas of the island that have suffered from too much congestion in the past. We will be actively trying to monitor that and push people to visit the whole destination to disperse travelers.”
During the crisis, Velasco-Allones said, “We have seen in the Philippines how the destinations have had greener sceneries. how the flowers have become more beautiful in the mountains and the beaches have become cleaner. So, the push to pursue sustainable tourism and responsible tourism is something that has become real.”
Araújo pointed to the travel bans that are still in place hampering the tourism industry from moving forward.
“Some countries forbid us to enter their countries, and some countries don’t allow any tourists from their countries to enter our country,” he said. “One of the things we regret more is the lack of coordinated approach in these issues. Decisions taken without transparency and taking into consideration one single point or one single fact about the country has just three consequences: misunderstanding the lack of trust from the consumers and the lack of trust in destinations. If we don’t put an end to this, then we can’t think about the new demands of tourists.”
As a major market and the financial capital of the world, business travel is immensely important to the tourism industry in New York. Dixon sees a change in business travel ahead.
“I think the days of flying six hours for a meeting and turning around and coming right back are over. Zoom and digital technology will replace much of that business-transient traffic that we have enjoyed in the past,” he said. “We are going to have to learn to embrace technologies. I’m happy to say our convention center is in the process of building a state-of-the-art digital broadcasting studio, where you will be able to host hybrid meetings.”
Flota Campo concluded the session on a somewhat positive note. “I think in the short term, we will be seeing big changes in the motivation of tourists. Now, tourists may be fearful about taking a cruise or traveling to another continent. But in the long term, I imagine the motivations will be the same [as they were before]—people traveling for relaxation, for vacation, for fun, to learn a different culture and to try the fantastic food of different countries.”