We’ve got to relearn how to walk before we can rebuild travel – lifting of travel restrictions and bridges, bubbles and corridors provide the aid for international travel to take its first steps

As travel slowly restarts in an increasing number of countries, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has released new data measuring the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. After several months of unprecedented disruption, the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer reports that the travel and tourism sector is beginning to reopen in some areas, most notably in Northern Hemisphere destinations.

At the same time, restrictions on travel remain in place in a majority of global destinations, and travel and tourism remains one of the worst affected of all sectors. While we want to see recovery UNWTO emphasises the need for responsibility, safety and security as restrictions on travel are lifted.

The organisation also reiterates the need for credible commitment to support tourism as a pillar for recovery reiterating its call for governments and international organisations to support travel and tourism, a lifeline for many millions and a backbone of economies.

The gradual lifting of restrictions in some countries, together with the creation of travel corridors, the resumption of some international flights and enhanced safety and hygiene protocols, are among the measures being introduced by governments as they look to restart travel and tourism.

UNWTO data shows that while Apr-2020 was expected to be one of the busiest times of the year due to the Easter holidays, the near-universal introduction of travel restrictions led to a fall of 97% in international tourist arrivals. This follows a 55% decline in Mar-2020. Between Jan-2020 and Apr-2020, international tourist arrivals declined by 44%, translating into a loss of about USD195 billion in international tourism receipts.

At the regional level, Asia and the Pacific was the first to be hit by the pandemic and the worst hit between Jan-2020 and Apr-2020, with arrivals down 51% in that period. Europe recorded the second-largest fall, with a 44% drop for the same period, followed by the Middle East (-40%), the Americas (-36%) and Africa (-35%).

Over the last couple of months there has been a lot of focus on Asia which has been leading the recovery in terms of capacity. But, preliminary May-2020 traffic figures released this week by the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) shows that the Covid-19 pandemic continues to weigh heavily on international air passenger and cargo markets, with the travel and tourism sectors crippled by widespread lockdowns and travel restrictions.

In aggregate, the region’s airlines carried only 785,000 passengers in May, a -97.5% decline compared to the same month last year. The slump in demand, combined with a -92.5% fall in available seat capacity, led to a 50.4 percentage point decline in the average international passenger load factor to just 28.4% for the month.

Meanwhile, air cargo demand, as measured in freight tonne kilometres (FTK), fell by -19.0% year-on-year. With offered freight capacity decreasing by -20.1% for the month, the average international freight load factor rose just marginally, by 0.9 percentage points to 60.9%, reflecting the capacity crunch experienced in preceding months as a result of the sharp declines in belly-hold space on passenger aircraft.

Mr Subhas Menon, AAPA director general says: “The plunge in passenger demand in the month of May, and declines in air cargo volumes, underscore the immense challenges that airlines are facing. Overall, the region’s carriers transported more passengers and cargo compared to the previous month. But the prognosis for the industry as well as tourism and trade, remains grim.”

Recent consumer surveys indicate an increasingly cautious stance on air travel and the return to normalcy, or ‘new normal’ to be more accurate, will likely proceed slowly, reflecting the uncertainty in the outlook, especially when, as Mr Menon notes, nations “remain wary about lifting restrictions and continue to impose onerous conditions on travel”.

The latest research by UNWTO shows that as at 15-Jun-2020, 22% of all destinations worldwide (48 destinations) have started to ease restrictions, up from just 3% (7 destinations) on 18-May-2020. Europe leads the way with 37 destinations, including 24 of the 26 Schengen member states. The others comprise six destinations in the Americas, including five small island developing states; three destinations in Asia and the Pacific, including two small island developing states; and two destinations in Africa.

At the same time, however, 65% of all destinations worldwide (141 destinations) continue to have their borders completely closed to international tourism. Also, as of 15-Jun-2020, 24% of all destinations worldwide (51 destinations) have had travel restrictions now in place for 19 weeks and 37% (80 destinations) for 15 weeks.

In Africa, the proportion of destinations where borders remain closed to tourists stands now at 85%. In the Americas, 76% of destinations maintain full border closures, as do 67% of destinations in Asia and the Pacific and 92% of destinations in the Middle East. In Europe, these full border closures are reduced now to 26% of all destinations.

In early May, UNWTO had set out three possible scenarios for the tourism sector in 2020. These point to potential declines in overall international tourist numbers of 58% to 78%, depending on when travel restrictions are lifted.

Positively, since mid-May, there has been an increase in the number of destinations announcing measures to restart tourism. These include the introduction of enhanced safety and hygiene measures and policies designed to promote domestic tourism. However, worryingly the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge has warned “last week, Europe saw an increase in weekly cases for the first time in months”.

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