Africa Travel Week

Resilience and COVID-19

With the spread of COVID 19, governments around the world have acted to advise against and then restrict travel internationally and domestically. Measures to limit social contact and encourage and then impose social isolation have had major consequences for the travel and tourism sector, writes Harold Goodwin.

COVID-19 has rapidly become a global phenomenon, with many developed countries slow to recognise the scale of the threat and lacking the staff, ICU beds and ventilators to meet the pandemic. In 1918, in the wake of WWI with populations weakened by armed conflict and the privations of war, the respiratory influenza pandemic lasted from January 1918 to December 1920.

To maintain morale, the censors minimised early reports of the illness and mortality in the combatant states; there were no such restrictions in neutral Spain, and the pandemic quickly became known, erroneously, as Spanish flu. Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene promoted bacterial superinfection. It is estimated that Spanish flu infected 500 million people, about a quarter of the world’s population, and killed between 17 and 50 million people.

Awareness of the Spanish flu pandemic receded until the arrival of bird flu and other pandemics in the 1990s and 2000s. This Coronavirus, COVID-19, is more lethal than 2009’s H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, and the current coronavirus does not resemble SARS, MERS or Ebola, all of which can be more easily contained.

The impacts on travel and tourism have been significant. Zurab Pololikashvili, the Secretary General of UNWTO has “said that for now they must be patient and stand ready, by staying home today, they can travel tomorrow. And travelling tomorrow will support jobs, celebrate culture and promote international friendship and understanding.” WTTC has pointed to the damage incurred by the sector and called for governments to improve travel facilitation, remove barriers, ease fiscal policies, introduce incentives and support destinations by increasing budgets and assigning resources for promotion, marketing and product development.

In a world confronting an international health emergency and severe dislocation of entire economies, governments are responding with generic assistance. A century has passed since the Spanish flu pandemic and lessons learned then have been largely forgotten. When this pandemic passes, there will be lessons to learn internationally and locally.

There have been multiple problems with COVID-19 on cruise lines. The CDC has advised against all cruise travel worldwide, on 14th March CLIA ocean-going cruise lines “voluntarily and temporarily suspending cruise ship operations from U.S. ports of call for 30 days.”

The economic crisis arising from the global public health emergency has demonstrated once again how the resilience of the travel and tourism sector is dependent on the resilience of the source markets and destinations the industry connects. Those destinations which are over-reliant on tourism will be hardest hit by declines in arrivals.

Tourism dependency is bad for animals too. In Thailand monkeys are fighting for food – there are no tourists to feed them.

80% of tourism businesses are small and local. In difficult times like these, people, our neighbours will remember how we behave. Cornwall has an elderly population and stretched hospitals. There has been anger at tourism businesses encouraging tourists to holiday there. Jess Earle of Portwrinkle Holidays in south-east Cornwall said he had received death threats after offering holiday flats for people to self-isolate. “The idea is to allow families with elderly relatives to come down here and ride this out at winter rates,” he said. “We are very secluded, and we’ve had a lot of interest. “But I’ve had a lot of stick about bringing disease into the country which is very sad.” 

In the United Kingdom, there is now a long list of destinations from the Highlands to Cumbria, Southwold, national parks, National Trust properties and London parks reporting people moving to the resorts and their second homes increasing the resident population and the strain on local supplies and the health and social care services.

Nicola Sturgeon announced that ferry companies to Scottish islands had been instructed not to carry tourists and other non-essential travellers. The Scottish first minister said hotels and holiday cottages should not take bookings for now. She said: “It may well be an understandable human instinct to think we can outrun a virus, but the fact is we can’t. What we do is we risk taking it to the places we go.”

In Australia, the police had to move in to clear Bondi Beach to enforce social distancing. In Cape Town, the Bo-Kaap Ratepayers Association has been placed the area on lockdown urging tourists to stay out of the area to combat any further spread of Covid-19 “we are putting residents first and wealth last.” In The Gambia, President Barrow has closed Gambian airspace and the border with Senegal, the consequences for tourism and employment will be profound.

The absence of tourism reminds is of its impacts. In Venice, the canals are reported to be running crystal clear as a consequence of the lack of pollution from the vaporetti as well as the drastically-reduced movement of other boats and cruise ships, and there are images online of fish swimming in clear water in the canals.

These are tough times for communities around the world. Our sector should recognise the primacy of the risk to life, think about what we can do to help, avoid making the situation worse and avoid special pleading.

Harold Goodwin

Harold Goodwin is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracts 2000 participants each year and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Ireland. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.