The tourism sector in Europe has been significantly impacted as a result of the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the world. The closure of borders, postponement of major sporting
events and festivals, the temporary closures of tourist attractions and the strict restrictions on public gatherings both indoor and outdoor has meant the impact of COVID-19 on our sector has been devastating.
The tourism sector is at a standstill in almost all European countries and is likely to remain this way until at least the middle of this year, starting with outbound travel from China falling sharply in January/February, and spreading to the rest of the world in February/March.
Given that most companies involved in the tourism sector across Europe are small to medium enterprises, they will be particularly hard hit during this crisis. Added to this, with international aviation at a virtual standstill, the sector will require immediate and long-term responses if it is to recover properly
Oxford Economics has predicted that there will be 287 million fewer arrivals into European destinations in 2020 compared to 2019. While no country will escape the impact of the expected 39% fall in arrivals, Italy will be most significantly impacted with a drop of nearly half (49%) of its tourist arrivals which were originally forecast. While less in percentage terms, France is forecast to experience 38 million few inbound visitors than in 2019 due to the coronavirus, making it the most impacted country in volume terms.
Looking ahead, it is difficult to see the tourism economy returning to normal until June or July at the absolute earliest, given that containment measures in many countries will remain in place until then at least. Reflecting further, even when containment measures are progressively lifted and people go back to work, the close nature of the health and economic impacts mean that demand for travel will likely take longer to recover as people will be understandably cautious to travel if they deem it unnecessary.
The industry right now is working on measures to mitigate the crisis and recovery plans. ETC strongly believes that this crisis cannot be addressed by any one party alone and cooperation is vital to mitigate the impact. Together with our public and private partners, we have established an informal network gathering major European tourism stakeholders (policymakers, airlines, cruise lines, the hospitality sector, tour operators and others) to exchange information on the virus impact and discuss measures to mitigate the consequences.
In February, on behalf of a wider industry initiative – the European Tourism Manifesto alliance – we released a statement calling for solidarity and support to China. Later in March once the crisis had reached Europe the alliance published a statement calling for the implementation of urgent measures to limit COVID-19's impact on the sector. To prepare for a swift recovery from this unprecedented crisis, the statement called for actions for the aftermath of the crisis which included simplification of visa rules for long-haul markets and supporting destinations by increasing budgets for promotion, marketing and product development purposes as soon as they are ready to welcome visitors again.
The challenges our industry face will be similar all over the world. The recovery of domestic travel will come first, followed by the return of travel to nearby countries, before outbound tourism will be back to normal.
However, the European tourism industry is more fragmented, with a majority of small enterprises and family business, which may suffer a lot more from this crisis. In comparison to the Chinese market which is more dominated by larger players than in Europe.
China was hit first and should therefore be one of the first countries to recover, which would prove to be positive for European-Chinese tourism cooperation. By the time Europe can go back to normal, China might be ready for long haul travel again.
For both Europe and ETC, travel from long haul markets such as China is very important but will also take the longest time to recover. For China, domestic travel was already the most important.
ETC, alongside our individual members, delivered supporting messages to China from the very beginning when the outbreak first hit. Some NTOs offices in China, apart from those "show of support" letters, also worked with local hospitality companies to develop good cancellation policies for Chinese partners.
There has been great solidarity and transparent communication from all member NTOs on the measures in their respective countries, urging people to stay at home and take care of each other to help stop the spread of the virus. ETC continues offering inspiring content on its social media channels in China for those under lockdown. It's important to stick together at this time, and we intend to continue doing so.
Moreover, there has also been a push to advise people to continue dreaming or as Switzerland Tourism put it: 'dream now, travel later'. VisitPortugal also shared an inspiring video about how it's time to stop for the good of the world and, in the meantime, to dream for the great days to come. Meanwhile, many European countries such as Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Germany and others also offer webinars or virtual travel throughout their countries on their social handles such as Weibo and WeChat.
I would be reluctant to refer to it as a weakness, but would say that this crisis has really illustrated the economic and social value of travel and tourism to the European economy given the sheer numbers impacted during this time
Bearing this in mind, I believe that it illuminates how the sector needs to be taken more seriously during periods of growth and prosperity, not just in times of difficulty.
Aside from this, one positive that we are hoping will emanate from this crisis is more coordinated engagement between tourism stakeholders across Europe and reliable data sources, so that we can truly analyse the impact COVID-19 has had on the sector. The only thing that could make this crisis worse is if we do not learn from it.
Nobody can argue with the value of technology during these times. Technology has enabled many of us to keep working, to keep in touch with family and friends, to remain informed and to engage with the world. I think it's fair to say that even after this crisis has passed, people will have more of a respect for technology and we will see more people using it for work and their social life.
With so many people being confined at home during this time, it has become more important for the tourism industry to bring Europe to living rooms through virtual travel experiences. We have already seen many NTOs and other tourism providers offering virtual tours these days, which can provide a fascinating experience at such an unprecedented time.
Digital activities will help us remain in touch with not only our consumers, but also with the industry so we can share information, learnings and updates of importance. To assist our members with this transition and new way of life, we at ETC have partnered up with our associate members and partners to produce a series of upcoming webinars for the month of April and May. The webinars aim to provide new data on the current tourism landscape, tips for crisis management, and upskilling opportunities. It's important we remain engaged and on top of our brief so that we can continue to provide our customers with suitable services now, but also so we can bounce back and recover from this crisis in the near future.
I think this crisis represents an opportunity for change, the trigger for a new beginning in tourism across Europe. We have been talking for so long about sustainable growth, climate change and overtourism, but this is an opportunity to press the reset button, challenge pre-established models and finally take all these matters seriously. We must adapt.
This is a difficult question to answer, however, common sense would suggest that Asia-Pacific will probably recover quicker given how they were the first ones to tackle the situation and introduce restrictions.
Overall, domestic and intra-regional travel will recover first, while long-haul travel is likely to be the last one to pick up. It all depends on the evolution of the pandemic, the alleviation of travel restrictions and consumer sentiment. While it is forecasted that tourism from long-haul markets into European destinations will be damaged significantly by current travel restrictions, there is an opportunity for domestic travel and intra-regional travel to play its part in the European recovery as restrictions are eased over the coming months.
However, it's also fair to say that Asian markets are traditionally more sensitive to safety and security concerns than Western markets, so there may be a hesitation on Asian travelers to return to normality so soon.
As we've touched on previously, the tourism sector must prioritise digital activities. In the absence of face to face engagements for now, this will go a long way to inspiring people and regaining trust in the sector.
Scenario planning is ingrained in the DNA of ETC. We are currently working on the development of a number of different scenarios charting how the recovery may be experienced across Europe once travel restrictions are alleviated and consumer sentiment returns.
For the time being, we are closely following the situation, gathering as much data and analysis as we can, so that we are properly educated and armed for the recovery phase. Once that recovery phase becomes clear, it will be important that we are ready to act so that we can play our part in restoring confidence in travel across the world.
As you know, we have developed a special relationship with our Chinese partners over recent years, which has been a tremendous success for the European tourism sector and Chinese travelers. Our previous initiatives such as the 2018 EU-China Tourism Year have been a big success, and we are keen to continue working with our European and Chinese colleagues to build on these results.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has put many of plans on hold at the minute, we envisage to launch a number of promotional campaigns in cooperation with member NTOs and other industry partners to encourage Chinese travelers to visit Europe
Specifically, we are focusing on engaging directly with the Chinese Free Independent Travellers cohort, those who are interested in niche travel, contemporary culture, nature and the outdoors on their travels.
It's difficult to provide a clear answer when the outlook is so hazy. So much of this will depend on matters which are out of our control, such as travel restrictions being eased and/or lifted, and government decisions on when to permit unnecessary travel. For example, on April 4, the UK Foreign Office extended its advice against all but essential travel "for an indefinite period", which leaves those in the tourism sector with an unclear outlook for the remainder of 2020.
In addition, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in an interview this week recommended Europeans not to plan summer holidays as "no one can make reliable predictions for July and August at this time."
Until such a time as a coronavirus vaccine is found, our future remains somewhat blurred. What we do know is that travel restrictions are likely to be lifted in stages, and while travel between countries may not be lifted for some time yet, intra-country travel is likely to be permitted sooner, meaning domestic tourism can go a long way to supporting the travel businesses that are struggling at this time.
If we look at the numbers, 64% of the spend across Europe in 2019 was from the domestic travel market. Returning to the Oxford forecasts referenced above, they estimate that there will be just 135 million less domestic visits this year when compared to 2019. While this is still a significant number, it is substantially less than the forecasts around international travel, and could go some way to bringing the sector back to life in 2020. Meanwhile, significant investment will be needed in marketing efforts to attract long-haul travellers back to Europe in the aftermath of the crisis.
While it is true to say that we expect recovery in 2021, it will take at least two further years for the world tourism economy to return to 2019 levels, given the aforementioned interwoven nature of the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus.
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